Guadagno: Ban NJ officials from taking big gifts from friends
Saying the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez that began last week makes it timely, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno has detailed an 11-point platform on ethics and government transparency.
Guadagno could do some of the things quickly, such as an executive order putting stricter limits on gifts to state officials and requiring her Cabinet officers to make their cell-phone numbers public, as she has done as Gov. Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor and secretary of state.
Others are bigger, oft-proposed but never advanced ideas that would require constitutional changes – such as term limits for lawmakers and electing the attorney general.
Guadagno said 42 states elect their attorney generals already. In New Jersey, it’s appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
“People need to know that there’s somebody out there that is testing the executive branch,” Guadagno said. “This independently elected attorney general will be able to examine just about anything that goes on in the executive side or the legislative side of the office and, again, give people confidence that their government is working for them instead of the other way around.”
Critics of the concept, which Guadagno first pitched in February, say it would politicize the state’s chief law enforcement official, but she said the change could be written in a way that limits attorney generals to one term, restrict their fundraising and bar them from ever running for governor.
“You can take all of the politics out of it, even in New Jersey, and make him or her the true watchdog for government,” Guadagno said.
The first plank in the ethics platform calls for closing what it dubs a “friend loophole” allowing some elected officials to accept gifts of unlimited value if they claim the gift is from a friend.
Guadagno said it would respond to the issues raised in the ongoing federal corruption trial of Menendez, who is accused of using his office to help a friend who’s a doctor who had given him lavish gifts – and not, she said, gifts Gov. Chris Christie has accepted over the years from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the king of Jordan.
“Well, I’m not going to speak to Gov. Christie. I think that we should talk about what’s going on right now in federal court.”
“The difference here is that Sen. Menendez has been, a grand jury has found probable cause to believe that the senator accepted gifts improperly. And that’s what this plan is addressing quite clearly – someone who improperly, allegedly improperly accepted lavish gifts over a long period of time puts into question everybody’s independence,” she said. “And that’s what I am talking about in terms of this executive order.”
However, Guadagno’s planned executive order imposing stricter disclosure rules and limits would apply to state executive branch officials, not federal lawmakers.
Daniel Bryan, a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, cited the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal in dismissing the package as a "cynical political ploy."
"Kim Guadagno has stood right by Chris Christie’s side every day throughout this ethically bankrupt administration's eight years. Guadagno was on Christie’s side on Bridgegate, saying she ‘took him at his word’ for his claims he had nothing to do with the scandal — she’s about the only person in New Jersey who buys that," Bryan said.
"Now, she pulls out an ethics plan almost identical in phrasing to what Chris Christie used when he became governor — and we know how that worked out," he said. "Kim Guadagno is not credible on the biggest scandal in her own administration; she certainly isn’t credible with this cynical political ploy."
Guadagno's package of proposals would also:
- Prevent people for running for more than office at a time. The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, former Speaker Sheila Oliver, is also on the ballot in the 34th District seeking re-election to the Assembly.
- Bar administration officials from lobbying for five years after they leave their state job and ban contract lobbyists from serving on statutory boards and commissions.
- Add more detail to income reporting requirements on financial disclosure forms for elected officials and candidates for state office.
- Require all state candidates and officeholders to release their income-tax returns annually. Murphy, a multimillionaire who used to be an executive at Goldman Sachs, allowed reporters to view his returns for a few hours one day but hasn’t made copies publicly available. By tradition, candidates for statewide office provide access to tax returns. Guadagno is calling for that to apply to all state Senate and Assembly candidates, too.
- Withhold paychecks from the governor, legislators and Cabinet officers if there are future government shutdowns, if an annual state budget isn’t enacted by the June 30 deadline. She also wants lawmakers’ pay to be cut in the state’s credit rating is downgraded.
- Ensure the state Election Law Enforcement Commission is better staffed and funded.
The plan also recycles an idea Guadagno emphasized in the primary: Eliminating a panel of people appointed by the governor and legislative leaders that would have to unanimously approve annual transportation spending plans.
Guadagno said many of the planks in the plan are aimed at making sure officials don’t have self-enrichment in the back of their mind.
“People believe that you go into government service just to get a better job when you get out,” Guadagno said. “You should not ever think that you’re going to get rich because you go to work for the government.”