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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics



published in print 05/23/05        NJBiz online

A Welcome Attack on Ethics Lapses

by Ingrid Reed

Six months must be some kind of record in government for launching an ambitious reform drive, naming an outside task group to detail what should be done and enacting a substantial number of its recommendations.

Acting Governor Richard Codey completed this whirlwind cycle on May 10 by signing an executive order implementing key provisions of a new ethics code for the executive branch that he had called for in November just days after taking office. Of course, given the apparently unending allegations of misdeeds that embroiled his predecessor's administration, New Jerseyans may think that reforms have been long overdue.

Although Codey had previously served only in the Legislature, he somehow knew that ethical standards in the executive branch were a jumble of laws, rules and regulations with few provisions for compliance or any concern for public accountability. Addressing these and many other shortcomings were two highly respected individuals recruited by Codey to serve as his special counsel for ethics review and compliance: retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Daniel J. O'Hern Sr. and Seton Hall Professor of Law Paula A. Franzese.

I was among those who cheered their appointments and their charge to examine the state's ethics laws and programs and recommend improvements. My own work on citizens' access to government has shown me how hard it is for New Jerseyans to find information about the state's ethics codes and to express concerns about questionable practices by public officials.

In March the special task force released its report as both a summary and a comprehensive document based on in-depth research in New Jersey and a comparative analysis of practices in other states.

Codey's May 10 executive order was the first fruit of this report. The order requires all agencies to enact ethics codes and engage in ethics training. It calls on the state's Ethical Standards Commission to issue an easy-to-understand "Plain Language Ethics Guide" to all employees and have them sign it. The guide will be available to the public as well as to state employees, and citizens will have access to a toll-free confidential hotline for voicing concerns. The financial disclosure forms required of employees and appointees, which are now virtually invisible to the public, will be posted online. So will a Business Ethics Guide" that will enable all vendors to certify their compliance before doing business with the state.

This list is just the beginning since not all of the task force's recommendations can be implemented by executive order. It will be up to the Legislature to enact the rest and to deal with the critical issue of what happens when the ethics codes are violated.

The recommendations call for an independent enforcement agency composed entirely of public members who will wield strong enforcement powers and tough penalties. New laws are also needed to address strict post-government employment practices,strengthen anti-nepotism laws and apply ethics laws to administration-transition teams. Will the Legislature adopt these reforms when its own ethics board is composed mainly of it own members and entrusted with weak powers? Or will lawmakers see the light and act?

In ethically challenged New Jersey, the first six months of the Codey administration have seen the state move the ethics agenda briskly forward. We need to see the same progress on ethics from the Legislature during the next-and final-six months of the current administration.

The O'Hern-Franzese report is based on the simple notion that a public office is a public trust and the public wants and deserves assurances that it can rely on the integrity of its elected and appointed leaders. It will be up to the next administration to figure out how to apply this agenda to the thousands of government officials at the local and county levels.