No shortage of ideas for campaign, ethics reform

22 05 2008

Trenton’s triumvirate of Democratic leadership — Governor Corzine, Senate President Dick Codey and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts — promised us The Great Campaign Finance and Ethics Reform Crusade for 2008.

But as we close in on the year’s halfway mark, the accomplishments have been modest, at best. Successive waves of scandals and FBI stings produced a bumper crop of proposals, but little action.

If anything, Corzine took a step backward, proposing a $750,000 cut in the Election Law Enforcement Commission’s budget. Howls of criticism led him to restore most of the money, but there seems little interest in taking any leaps forward.

The triumvirs say they want to do something. Roberts supports public financing for all legislative contests someday. Corzine has pounded his fists, vowing to modernize the campaign system. And Codey, who argues that great strides already have been taken, has kept his door open.

They need not look far for ideas. There has been a below-the-radar, bipartisan push for reform. Here are a few ideas that would not cost much, other than some political capital.

The Sammy Rivera Legal Defense Fund Act. Legal defense funds have become an outgrowth of the corruption scandals in recent years. Rivera, the former Passaic mayor who pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges this month, set one up. So did former state Sen. Joseph Coniglio of Paramus, who is also facing federal corruption charges.

Both men can take unlimited sums of money from friends, family and political donors without having to publicly disclose it. And there is nothing to stop them from spending the money for personal needs. Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Teaneck Democrat, and Republican Sen. Diane Allen want ELEC to regulate the funds and require routine disclosure of contributions and expenses.

The Jonathan Soto Ethics Training Act. Soto, the former Passaic City councilman, was swept up in the same federal bribery sting that ensnared Rivera.

“I have other friends in other municipalities and I’m all for getting my feet wet as well, man,” Soto allegedly told federal agents posing as insurance company officials eager for Passaic business.

One bipartisan bill would require ethics training for elected officials. I’m not sure such a bill will prevent new corrupt buccaneers, but a strong presentation — complete with footage of shackled public officials in orange jump suits — might keep a few hands out of the cookie jar.

The Attack Ad Awareness Act. Candidates would be free to participate in so called “issue advocacy” organizations as long as they came clean and disclosed their involvement to ELEC. These groups, which enjoy tax-exempt status, run attack ads to boost the prospects of their favored candidate. Confronted, they insist that their operations are totally independent, but no one believes it. Sen. Leonard Lance, a Republican from Hunterdon County, would require candidates to disclose their involvement, the names of donors and what they gave.

Wind Down the Wheeling Act of 2009. Several bills would severely curb the massive blocks of cash county parties donate or “wheel” into local and legislative races. The practice allows party brokers to amass large sums of money from around the state and pump them into local contests. It allows special interests to evade contribution limits and expands their influence on newly elected (and beholden) lawmakers.

The Paul Sarlo Dual Office Ban: The Sequel. Lawmakers grudgingly agreed to bar future lawmakers from holding another elected office. But it allowed 17 lawmakers to remain double-dippers until they retire or are booted out of office. That could mean decades. Why not abolish it in time for the 2009 campaign? Note to Sen. Paul Sarlo, who is also Wood-Ridge’s mayor: Why not take the lead by resigning the city hall post and sponsoring the complete ban? Not a bad way for an ambitious lawmaker to boost his statewide profile.

The Anthony Impreveduto Lobbying Ban: Part II. The Legislature did ban convicted ex-legislators from becoming lobbyists, like former Secaucus Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto, who resigned from the Legislature in 2005 for improper personal use of campaign funds. Weinberg and state Sen. Bill Baroni, a Republican from Mercer County, also want to bar them from representing clients before local governments and agencies.

E-mail: stile@northjersey.com

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