A surprising lawbreaker in mandated public reporting? New Jersey’s government

Reports on assets seized by cops, sexual assault remain in the works years after lawmakers required them

By: - July 28, 2023 7:12 am

State government departments tasked with creating public reports mandated by the Legislature have missed deadlines in several notable instances, which critics say risks poor policymaking and deepens public distrust. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Three and a half years ago, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law requiring police departments to publicly report on property they seize from the public during criminal investigations.

Disclosing the details of civil asset forfeitures — which are worth millions that police keep — would boost confidence in the justice system, Murphy said in January 2020 when announcing the new law.

“Allowing the public to understand how assets are being seized, where seized funds go, and where forfeited property is going is a huge step forward for transparency and accountability,” Murphy said then.

But the huge step promised instead became a stumble, because that public reporting never happened.

It wasn’t a one-off.

Legislators have ordered all sorts of public reporting in recent years, but the state departments tasked with carrying out those mandates have often failed to do so. When they do, some are months or years late, or their reporting falls far short of what lawmakers commanded.

Yet no accountability exists for state departments that fail to follow lawmakers’ marching orders on such reporting.

“We make the law, and our own government fails to follow it. What kind of example is that? It’s ridiculous,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), a prime sponsor of the law mandating civil asset forfeiture reporting. “Why is it not enforced? It’s a really, really good question. And it’s been years in this instance. What kind of message does that send to the public that the government itself is ignoring transparency laws and disclosure laws? It’s mind-boggling.”

These failures leave both the public and policymakers more uninformed in a state where transparency is increasingly under attack, with bills now in the legislative pipeline that would weaken the state’s public records laws, critics say.

“It’s extremely frustrating because what we want is policy in this state to be guided by data. And so many of these disclosure laws require reports about data which will better inform future legislation, yet you have all these state agencies that just flout those laws as if it doesn’t really matter if they comply with them or not,” said attorney CJ Griffin, a leading public records crusader. Griffin has represented the New Jersey Monitor in legal matters.

Spokespeople for the governor’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon called it “mind-boggling” that the state can ignore deadlines for public reporting mandated by the Legislature. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

What’s missing

When lawmakers order public reporting, they typically direct state departments to post data or reports for public inspection on the department’s website, as well as issue them to the governor’s office and Legislature.

That didn’t happen in the case of a law the governor approved in April 2021 intended to improve the handling of sexual assault cases.

That law requires the Attorney General’s Office to post online by September 2021 aggregated data on sexual assault and criminal sexual contact cases reported to law enforcement agencies, along with their outcomes. Specifically, the law orders public reporting on how many cases were filed by victims; referred to county prosecutors; declined for prosecution; resulted in indictments, plea agreements, or trials; and downgraded to lesser charges.

Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) was a prime sponsor of that legislation.

“One of the impetuses for it, in addition to a whole host of other things, was that the AG’s office no longer had a link or any information for sexual assault survivors on its website — it was a broken link when you actually clicked on that category,” Schepisi said. “You would think that for survivors of sexual violence — and for enabling better policy with our prosecutors, judges, and police — having that information is crucial, and that’s why we put forth the bill.”

That website now has a page with the attorney general office’s policies on sexual assault survivors, a victim’s bill of rights, and news releases about sexual assaults — but none of the data mandated in Schepisi’s law. A state police web page on sexual violence offers advice and county-based resources.

In response to a public records request the New Jersey Monitor filed for the mandated reports, the attorney general’s office said they were “not made or maintained.”

Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), another prime sponsor on that law, acknowledged many lawmakers typically don’t check to ensure the laws they pass are followed “because we’re so busy with the next one, I guess.”

“I see how some of these would be time-consuming,” she said of reporting mandates. “But when these bills are being done, if a department really feels it doesn’t have the means to carry it out, they should make an issue of that during the hearing and make sure we don’t put the bill through with that requirement in there, instead of thinking, ‘Gee, we won’t bother doing it.'”

This is not a new problem, according to Peter Chen, a senior policy analyst at progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. But it might be worsening as the state workforce shrinks, he said.

The think tank has highlighted the state’s dwindling workforce before as the culprit in many of New Jersey’s failures. In 2000, the state employed about 77,100 people, but by 2021, that number had fallen to about 65,600, Chen said, citing Civil Service Commission data.

“It’s hard to know, externally, whether something is a capacity problem, a willpower problem, or a funding problem,” Chen said. “We do know the state budget is bigger, and the mandates that are on state government are larger as the Legislature continues to add reports and good things that we think the government should do.”

But, he added, “we can’t expect government to do more while giving its employees less to accomplish those goals.”

Peter Chen of New Jersey Policy Perspective said the shrinking state workforce is partially to blame for the state’s inaction on mandated public reporting. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The shrinking workforce also means departments that do publicly report data often fall years behind or abandon such reporting altogether. The state Department of Health, for example, is two years behind in its annual reporting on childhood lead exposure.

Such delays can cause real harm, Chen said.

“If you don’t know where children are getting lead poisoning, it’s hard to decide where you’re going to spend money on lead remediation,” he said. “There are real problems to not having transparency, in terms of creating policy that works.”

The complexities of data collection — and an absence in some laws of any funding to support reporting mandates — can hold up other public reports.

In response to a statewide teacher shortage, legislators passed a law, which Murphy signed in January 2022 and took effect last July, that requires public reporting on the state’s educational workforce, including teacher vacancies, demographics of departing teachers, high-demand positions like bilingual and computer science teachers, and workforce projections. The report has yet to be written.

Spokespeople for the state Department of Education didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But a research manager at the Rutgers University-based Executive Leadership Council of the New Jersey Education to Earnings Data System, which was tasked with issuing reports based on data supplied by the state, attributed delays to data collection challenges and funding.

“Some of the requirements of the legislation that were mandated are data elements that weren’t previously reported by or collected by the Department of Education,” said Stephanie Walsh, research property manager at Rutgers’ John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, where the data system is housed. “So they’ve had to implement new data collection practices, which they’re currently doing.”

The law that mandated reporting also didn’t include funding for it, but the most recent state budget earmarks up to $500,000 for the data system. Walsh expects to issue a report by March.

It's really unconscionable that our own state agencies are just kind of turning a blind eye to what is expected of them pursuant to law.

– Sen. Holly Schepisi

The Attorney General’s Office also has blamed its delays in reporting civil asset forfeitures on data collection challenges and the pandemic. The office received $2.6 million in state funding to create a publicly searchable online database of forfeitures but hasn’t released any word on its progress since April 2022, when it opened an online portal for prosecutors statewide to report forfeiture data.

O’Scanlon has other theories for the office’s reporting failures.

“Is it that the information might outrage the public? Maybe there’s a reason they don’t want to abide by this — maybe they’ve seen the data and there’s abuses going on that they don’t want to share with the public. That’s possible. It would not be unreasonable for the public to see this information be withheld and wonder: ‘Is there a reason?’ Or is it just incompetence and arrogance, and they don’t feel like doing it? Either way, there’s a problem,” O’Scanlon said.

Lawmakers also have ordered the Attorney General’s Office to produce aggregated data on law enforcement suicides, including demographics and other details. The findings were to be “made publicly available for use in suicide prevention and intervention studies.”

But the office denied the New Jersey Monitor’s records request for those reports, saying they’re “not made or maintained.”

In a statement, Attorney General’s Office spokesman Michael Symons did not respond to specific questions but instead said New Jersey “serves as a model” on transparency and data reporting for states nationally.

The office has created multiple searchable, regularly updated databases “providing the public with a broad range of information that was previously unavailable,” he added.

The office “continues to expand the types of information available and fulfill the multiple projects that are underway,” Symons said. “Due to the volume of data and technical challenges, delays have been inevitable as we work to provide information that is informative and useful.”

Other public reporting required by statute has been years late or incomplete, including reports on the demographics of defendants in New Jersey and workplace harassment and discrimination complaints filed by state employees.

The Attorney General’s Office launched a new database on defendant demographics last month — a year and a half late and missing some data points lawmakers ordered, including whether guilty outcomes were the result of pleas or judgments and how many defendants are Hispanic. Office staff last month said the database would be updated with the missing details but could not say when.

A law Murphy signed in January 2020 requires the New Jersey Civil Service Commission to produce annual reports posted to its website “in an easily accessible location” on workplace discrimination and harassment reported by state employees.

No such report exists on the commission’s website. In response to a records request for the report, the commission sent the New Jersey Monitor its 2022 annual report, a 44-page document that contains a few paragraphs on how many cases it handled and how long they took to resolve. The report offers nothing on the “nature” of the complaints, as lawmakers mandated.

Sen. Holly Schepisi was a prime sponsor on a 2020 law mandating public reporting on the handling of sexual assault cases. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Trenton’s secretive culture

The failure of some state departments to follow through with legislatively mandated reporting “blows my mind,” Schepisi said.

“So many of these agencies have spent so much time and effort going after small businesses for perceived non-compliance with the most obscure rules and regulations. And yet, they don’t comply themselves with legislation put forth by us,” she said. “An average business, an average entity that is non-compliant would find themselves getting fined and having threats of audits and this and that. It’s really unconscionable that our own state agencies are just kind of turning a blind eye to what is expected of them pursuant to law.”

Griffin said she’s especially irked when the agency shirking reporting mandates is the Attorney General’s Office.

“They are an office that prosecutes thousands of individuals every year for violating various statutes, but they just ignore the law and selectively comply with it on their own timeline, if they comply with it at all,” she added.

To O’Scanlon, it’s part of a broader trend and a secretive culture in Trenton.

He pointed to lawmakers’ hasty approval last month of a $54.3 billion budget whose last-minute changes, to this day, remain a mystery. Legislative rules require “budget resolutions” that explain every line item proposed by a legislator to be on file and publicly available before the budget gets a vote.

Legislators inserted more than 400 expenditures, worth $1.2 billion, into the budget without those required budget resolutions. Republican budget leaders on Thursday called on the Democratic majority to release those resolutions.

“The common-sense requirement to release proposed budget changes and detailed spending requests was initiated by former Senate President Codey after two senators went to jail for steering money as part of extortion schemes,” said O’Scanlon, the Senate Republican budget officer. “When there is complete transparency in members’ spending requests, it is less likely that abuses will occur or go unnoticed.”

O’Scanlon suggested imposing fines or other penalties on legislative leaders and agencies that fail to comply with public reporting statutes and transparency requirements.

“We need to hold department heads, commissioners, whomever, personally liable with penalties,” he said, adding that he’s “strongly considering” legislation along those lines to compel compliance and ensure accountability on public reporting mandates.

“Look, we only enact these laws in the face of really stark, solid reasons that the public should know this information. It’s not just something that we just throw out there, just because. It’s when we’ve encountered an issue that would benefit from sunlight, from the public knowing the truth and the details,” O’Scanlon said. “So ignoring these mandates means someone is continuing to keep the public in the dark. That’s outrageous.”

Some lawmakers have proposed other solutions.

One of Greenstein’s recent bills, still under consideration by the Legislature, would require state environmental officials to explore alternate drinking water sources that communities can use when their water sources exceed allowable levels of carcinogens known as PFAs. Under the bill, officials must report their findings to the governor and Legislature within a year.

During a committee hearing in February, legislators set guardrails to protect that deadline, amending the bill to require the state Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, or his designee, to appear before the committee to explain any delay in public reporting if it’s late.

However policymakers should compel compliance, Chen says they must act soon — or risk the public’s deepening distrust of government.

“It’s not enough to pass laws. Passing laws makes everyone feel good, but implementation is much harder, and it’s a slog, and you have to overcome all kinds of obstacles,” he said. “Without any sort of pressure, then these things just fall by the wayside because something else comes up, something more urgent that needs their attention.”

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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.