Lawmaker calls for review of state office that prosecutes public corruption cases

By: - November 4, 2022 7:02 am

Sen. Joe Cryan is calling for a review of the state attorney general’s 4-year-old office of public integrity and accountability after two judges overturned corruption cases because the office's prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

A state legislator is calling for an independent review of the state attorney general’s office of public integrity and accountability after a Bergen County judge this week dismissed a public corruption indictment and raised questions about the office’s ethical conduct.

Sen. Joe Cryan’s demand comes after several high-profile losses for the office, which former Attorney General Gurbir Grewal launched in 2018 to prosecute public officials and law enforcement for misconduct.

“The office has acted unethically on a consistent basis and needs to be reviewed, if not by a peer agency, then by someone else,” said Cryan (D-Union). “Two judges now have ruled publicly on the behavior of the folks in that office. It’s disappointing to me that I haven’t seen any action taken so far to either remove those employees and/or at least provide some sort of investigation that allows the public to have some confidence in what’s clearly an agency that doesn’t treat the rules as something they need to respect.”

Wednesday, a state judge dismissed the indictment of suspended Saddle Brook Police Chief Robert Kugler, who the office claimed illegally assigned his officers to escort funeral processions for a funeral home he owns. In July, another judge ordered a new trial for Lakewood Rabbi Osher Eisemann, who the office accused of misappropriating funds at a school he founded for special-needs children.

In both cases, the judges found the office’s prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. In Kugler’s case, state Superior Court Judge Marilyn C. Clark also sided with defense attorneys who argued prosecutors misapplied a 1978 township ordinance that ended a longtime police practice of escorting businesses taking money to banks.

“I recognize fully that the proof needed to obtain an indictment is relatively low, but presenting evidence in fair context, and presenting material exculpatory evidence, is certainly required,” Clark wrote in overturning Kugler’s indictment.

Attorney General Matt Platkin told the New Jersey Monitor the public integrity and accountability office handles “some of the most sensitive work done by the Department of Law and Public Safety.” Besides public misconduct, the office also investigates fatal police encounters and internal affairs inquiries into high-ranking law enforcement officials.

“This work is not only sensitive, but it is time-consuming and complicated — and often unpopular among powerful people and interest groups,” he said in an emailed statement. “At a time in our nation’s history when maintaining and restoring faith in our governmental institutions has never been more critical, I am especially grateful for the work of OPIA.”

Platkin did not respond to questions about the Kugler case.

Attorney John Bruno, who represented Kugler, pointed out that prosecutors failed to tell the grand jury in that case that Saddle Brook police had escorted funeral processions for decades — long before Kugler became chief or owned his funeral parlor. In her ruling, Clark also agreed with defense arguments that prosecutors failed to inform jurors that township officials never sought reimbursement for the police funeral escorts and occasionally even requested them for civically involved residents.

“The proper way to present the case to the grand jurors is not to recommend an indictment, which was done here, but rather to present the evidence fairly, and if there’s exculpatory evidence, then there’s a duty to present that — and the judge felt that that was not done in a fair manner,” Bruno said.

Cryan said he is especially troubled by Kugler’s prosecution, which he regards as politically motivated. Kugler, a Republican, was a candidate last year for Bergen County sheriff, but his campaign floundered and he lost his bid for the post after the corruption charges became public in the months before the election.

“These guys went out and indicted him under false pretenses when the guy’s in the middle of an election. They put their thumb on the election scale, and it obviously cost him personally — financially and his reputation. And they just get to walk away and say, ‘Oh, too bad,’ after a judge says, ‘You cheated?’” Cryan said. “We’re in a democracy, and law enforcement’s supposed to be the good guys. They’ve been the bad guys in this office more than once, and it’s time for it to get fixed.”

Cryan introduced a bill in September that would eliminate immunity for prosecutors who fail to disclose exculpatory evidence in criminal cases, as they’re required to do by law — and by the attorney general. Immunity is a judicial doctrine that shields public officials from liability for misconduct.

The bill would require courts to report attorneys found to have withheld exculpatory evidence to the state Office of Attorney Ethics for possible disciplinary action.

“They call themselves the office of public integrity, and there’s no integrity,” Cryan said. “This should be of concern to every citizen in this state.”

Alex Shalom of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey called the bill a “step in the right direction.”

The courts, though, should also create a centralized database of prosecutorial misconduct to uncover and address patterns and repeat offenders, he said.

Shalom and Rutgers law professor George C. Thomas III did a 2012 study on prosecutorial conduct.

“There was a small group of prosecutors who time and time again, flouted the rules, and did so with impunity,” Shalom said. “They get no significant no external discipline, no ethics board action, and there’s no real record made of it.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.