Gov. Phil Murphy said the bill's language could allow for "an incorrect interpretation." (Photo by Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)
Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed a bill that is intended to make clear New Jersey’s bribery laws apply to candidates seeking office, with his proposed changes explicitly stating a person’s position is no defense against bribery charges.
The bill that reached the governor’s desk in March after nearly a decade in legislative limbo would have expanded the definition of “public servant” to include candidates for elected office.
Its movement was spurred by a trial court’s dismissal of bribery charges against former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell. The judge in that case ruled O’Donnell could not be charged with bribery because he was not a public official at the time of the alleged bribe and so he could not deliver on any promises he made in exchange for the bribe. An appellate panel overturned that decision last month.
The governor’s proposed changes do little to alter the gist of the bill. Instead, they’re focused on tightening language to eliminate any potential legal loopholes.
“While I am confident that New Jersey’s highest court will ultimately affirm the Appellate Division’s well-reasoned ruling, that does not mean that we should forgo the present opportunity to strengthen the bribery law, to even more definitively foreclose the possibility of an incorrect interpretation,” the governor said in his veto statement.
State prosecutors have accused O’Donnell of accepting cash in a Baskin Robbins bag in exchange for the promise of tax work during his ultimately unsuccessful run for Bayonne mayor in 2018. O’Donnell argued in court the bribery statute does not apply to private citizens running for public office.
The appellate panel’s ruling reinstated the bribery charge against O’Donnell, saying the bribery statute as written applies to all people, not just public officials. The bill Murphy has now conditionally vetoed — which was in the works when the judges were deciding the case — had “no bearing on our decision” and the bill is not an admission that the current statute exempts private citizens running for office, the judges said.
O’Donnell has petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court to hear his appeal.
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