New Jersey’s outrageous delay on finalizing anti-bribery law
Jason O'Donnell, a former assemblyman and Bayonne mayoral candidate, wants the state Supreme Court to toss a bribery charge he faces, arguing the state's law does not prevent non-elected officials from accepting cash bribes. (Courtesy of Hudson County View)
Our state’s inability to close a potential loophole in the law that may allow non-elected officials to accept cash bribes is as baffling as it is outrageous.
The bill stalled for a decade before finally winning passage from the Legislature in March, only to be conditionally vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy and sent back to lawmakers with suggested tweaks. It has languished in the Senate ever since.
It’s back in the news now because the New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that led lawmakers to pass the bill in the first place: former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell’s bribery case.
O’Donnell, a Hudson County Democrat, is accused of taking $10,000 cash from a confidential informant when he was running for mayor of Bayonne in 2018, and prosecutors say he agreed to give the informant legal work if elected mayor in exchange for the street money. O’Donnell lost the election and in 2019, state prosecutors charged him with bribery.
A Superior Court judge in Hudson County threw out the bribery charge, agreeing with O’Donnell that state law bars only currently serving elected officials from taking bribes. An appellate court panel reversed that decision, calling O’Donnell’s argument a “mangled view” and “nonsensical conclusion.” Last week, the Supreme Court took up O’Donnell’s request to hear his appeal.
I have no idea how the high court will rule here. But what if O’Donnell succeeds, and we had a chance to fix this and didn’t? Our state already has a reputation for unsavory political dealings — do we want to allow almost every person running for office to take cash in paper bags in exchange for promising future favors, and let the only punishment be, say, a campaign finance fine?
I talked to Sen. Joe Cryan, the Union County Democrat who was a prime sponsor of the bill. He said the Senate hasn’t taken up Murphy’s conditional veto for a simple reason.
“The changes made in the bill are unacceptable,” Cryan said. “The Legislature passed a bill unanimously, and it shouldn’t have been vetoed.”
The changes Murphy seeks would largely add more specific language to the bill. Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro Post said Murphy’s proposed tweaks “close possible loopholes that the initial legislation did not address.”
“The governor urges the Senate to concur with his recommended changes, as the Assembly did by a vote of 78 to 0, so that New Jersey can have stronger anti-bribery protections in place,” she said.
Hopefully we don’t need to worry about New Jersey’s government opening the door to legalized bribery. Craig Holman, the governmental affairs lobbyist for consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, told me New Jersey’s bribery law is not limited to elected officials, no matter what O’Donnell argues.
“These laws are designed to prohibit the exchange of official favors for direct private gain to anyone in a position to deliver those officials favors – elected officials, appointees, government staff and even candidates for public office,” he told me. “O’Donnell may not yet be elected, but he is charged with accepting a bag of cash in an expected exchange of the performance of official duties – of accepting a bribe.”
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Terrence T. McDonald