GOP lawmaker wants indicted officials like Sen. Menendez removed from office

By: - December 7, 2023 7:05 am

Sen. Bob Menendez is awaiting trial on new corruption charges, but Republican state Sen. Mike Testa wants him removed from office anyway. (Courtesy of Sen. Menendez's office)

A Republican lawmaker is proposing a state constitutional amendment to temporarily remove and replace any elected official once they are indicted, though his efforts will likely be stymied by the U.S. Constitution.

New Jersey has seen a slew of public officials indicted on criminal charges, but the measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Michael Testa Jr. (R-Cumberland), said it was inspired by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, the twice-indicted Democrat accused by federal prosecutors of, among other things, accepting gold bars in exchange for official favors.

“I’ve been in the Legislature now for four years, and this is now the second time that one of our United States senators — happens to be the same one, Bob Menendez — is indicted on some extremely troubling charges,” Testa said.

Menendez is awaiting trial on the charges. Testa, an attorney, said he “truly believes” in the court system and due process, but added that elected officials should be held to a higher standard.

Testa’s push to punish Menendez faces two uphill battles. It has an uncertain future in the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. And it also may not be legal.

The U.S. Constitution gives each house of Congress the power to expel a member but does not provide an avenue for states to recall senators or House members. The U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed in specifically on recalling federal officials, but in a 1995 ruling that barred term limits, the court’s majority said state efforts to adopt their own qualifications for congressional service “would be inconsistent with the Framers’ vision of a uniform National Legislature representing the people of the United States.”

Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political science professor, said Testa’s proposal could lead to indictments being used solely to punish someone’s political foe.

“If you don’t like somebody, you could just get them indicted and get them out. It’s wholly undemocratic and wholly against the principles of innocent until proven guilty. It’s an absolutely horrible attempt to politicize the courts and law enforcement,” said Hale, who is also a Democratic councilman in Highland Park.

Menendez was first indicted in 2015, facing charges of bribery and fraud for accepting gifts from his friend and major donor, Salomon Melgen. The pair’s trial ended in a hung jury.

In September, federal prosecutors charged Menendez again, accusing him of exchanging favors for gifts, cash, and gold bars. In October, a superseding indictment charged Menendez with conspiracy to act as a foreign agent for the Egyptian government, with prosecutors alleging he provided sensitive information to Egyptian officials and helped speed the release of military aid to the country that had been blocked. 

Menendez has denied any wrongdoing and said he will not resign despite calls to do so from many of his fellow Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy. Menendez’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Tesla’s resolution, which would apply to all elected positions from U.S. senator to school board member. It would require approval by voters.

Sen. Michael Testa Jr., left, said a criminal indictment is enough to remove an elected official from office. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Testa isn’t the only Republican to propose legislation in response to Menendez’s indictment. Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) has reintroduced a bill that would revoke public pensions for elected officials and government employees convicted of a crime touching on their office.

Testa conceded that punishing elected officials who may not be convicted of a crime could be a slippery slope (the resolution says if the indicted official is acquitted or the charges are dropped, their position must be restored “as soon as possible”). He said he doesn’t want to see any agency weaponize the court system but believes more measures are necessary to “root out corruption.”

“There’s a joke about New Jersey politics, that perceived corruption has unfortunately reared its ugly head a number of times … So I think we need to hold elected officials to a very high standard and eradicate that unfortunate stigma,” he said.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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