After decade in limbo, lawmakers may debate bill to criminalize bribery for office seekers

Measure was spurred by dismissal of bribery cases against two ex-assemblymen

By: - March 16, 2022 7:02 am

Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

A bill that would extend the state’s bribery laws to candidates for political office is set to be heard by an Assembly committee Thursday after nearly 10 years in stasis.

The bill’s introduction and its apparent renewal were spurred by bribery charges against two former assemblymen whose cases were dismissed after judges ruled the state’s bribery statute does not apply to political candidates who have yet to win public office.

“I just think that’s wrong,” said Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-Ocean), the bill’s prime sponsor. “You can bribe them before they’re sworn in, and that makes it legal? That just seems ludicrous to me.”

Both bribery cases targeted Hudson County Democrats.

In 2009, Assemblyman Louis Manzo was accused as part of a federal corruption sting of taking bribes in exchange for the promise of official favors during his 2009 campaign for Jersey City mayor. The charges were dismissed after a U.S. District Court judge ruled the state’s bribery statute does not apply to candidates who had not been elected.

McGuckin first introduced the bill expanding the bribery statute after Manzo won his case, with McGuckin saying at the time the measure “closes a loophole that Mr. Manzo was able to drive a truck through.”

Manzo has claimed the charges were politically motivated to advance the career of Chris Christie, who launched the investigation into Manzo when he was the U.S. attorney in New Jersey.

The bill never advanced, and the issue drew little attention until a similar case played out in a nearly identical way last year.

In late 2019, then-state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced corruption charges against former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who like Manzo was accused of accepting bribes in exchange for the promise of future official favors.

Prosecutors say O’Donnell, who had left the Assembly and was running an unsuccessful campaign for Bayonne mayor in 2018, was handed $10,000 in a pink and white Baskin Robbins bag during his campaign in exchange for a promise to make Matt O’Donnell, a cooperating witness with no familial relation to the former assemblyman, the city’s tax attorney.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the charges against the former assemblyman, ruling that because he was not a public official at the time of the alleged bribe, he could not be charged under the state’s bribery statute. The state has appealed the ruling.

It’s not clear whether the bill will make it to the floors of both chambers. McGuckin said he has not discussed the measure with legislative leadership, but Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union), who introduced a Senate companion in the current and the last legislative sessions, said he is optimistic about it getting posted to a committee in his chamber.

“Assembly McGuckin was far ahead on this issue,” Cryan said, adding, “We’re not leading here. We’re following 16 states in terms of making sure there’s public integrity in the process of elections.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.