TRENTON – Ethics complaints filed against Senate President Steve Sweeney over his handling of legislation that would have ended religious exemptions for mandatory immunization rules were dismissed by a legislative panel Tuesday.

The complaints – 41 in all, by 45 individuals – were lodged between December 2019 and March 2020 in response to bill S-2173 in the 2018-19 legislative session, which at the time sparked angry, loud protests outside the Statehouse as the Senate struggled unsuccessfully to muster the votes to pass it.

The ethics complaints claimed Sweeney had abused his power by replacing three Democrats on the Senate health committee in December 2019 in order to ensure the bill would advance, then punishing one lawmaker who opposed the bill, Sen. Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen, by removing him from the Judiciary Committee in the new legislative session and reducing the salary allocation for his staff.

They also claimed Sweeney had discriminated against them by telling reporters in January 2020 that he was “ready to go to war with this” to get the bill passed in the new session.

Stuart Warner said people were “very concerned about keeping their religious freedoms and their constitutional rights” but that Sweeney, D-Gloucester, was more interested in special interests than the will of the people.

“On that day, on the committee vote day, the only day that really mattered, Sen. Sweeney was determined to fix the outcome of the vote,” Warner said.

Legislative counsel Jason Krajewski recommended that the complaints about abuse of power and bullying be dismissed for a lack of probable cause that an ethics violation may have occurred.

“There is insufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that Sen. Sweeney’s remarks violated the public trust,” Krajewski said. “There’s no indication that Sen. Sweeney’s actions were motivated by a personal or pecuniary interest. Likewise, although the complaints represented Sen. Sweeney’s statements as discriminatory in nature, having the benefit of the full statement and considering Sen. Sweeney’s First Amendment rights, the remarks do not appear to be discriminatory.”

The changes to committee membership are within the Senate’s rules, Krajewski said.

“Insofar as the complaints allege retaliation and bullying, those allegations concern his conduct toward his Senate colleagues, not toward the public,” he said. “A breach of the public trust occurs when a governmental agency or officer vested with the public trust causes harm to the public by breaching its trust.”

The Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards voted to dismiss the complaints as was recommended. Committee chairman John Wallace Jr. abstained from considering the matter.

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The committee also voted to dismiss a separate complaint filed by Alex Torpey, a former business administrator in Lambertville, against Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Mercer, over his office’s unwillingness or inability to help him obtain unemployment benefits last year.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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