Top NJ Democrat calls for public-sector unions to be investigated for extortion
Senate President Stephen Sweeney asked federal and state prosecutors to investigate the leaders of public-sector unions for possible bribery or extortion, part of the escalating political battle over a constitutional amendment requiring pension contributions.
Sweeney said he got a message from the leader of the Fraternal Order of Police similar to one various Democratic Party county chairs got from the New Jersey Education Association — that unless the pension amendment is approved by the Senate by Monday, the unions would withhold political contributions.
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said that “crosses the line.”
“These threats put members of the New Jersey Senate in a position of tying specific official action to the receipt of a campaign contribution. This demand by the unions for a quid-pro-quo transforms the promise of the campaign contribution to bribery and the threat of withholding that contribution to extortion,” Sweeney said.
“These unions have made it clear that unless they get their way, they will deliver on their threats. Using political and financial threats to coerce public officials is an assault on the integrity of the legislative process and on honest government. And it could be illegal,” Sweeney said.
“I’ve been a union member for close to 40 years. I’ve been an official in my union for over 30 years. And I’ve seen bad things happen. And this is as bad as it gets,” Sweeney said.
NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said the union acted appropriately.
“NJEA has done nothing illegal. We told senators that our members are disappointed that Sen. Sweeney has failed to meet his explicit commitment to place the pension amendment on the November ballot and urged them to call for a vote on the resolution by Aug. 8,” Baker said. “Elected officials know that our members will not allow NJEA to support candidates who do not support their priorities.”
Monday is the deadline for constitutional amendments to be submitted in time to make this year’s general election ballot.
The NJEA’s president and other union leaders spoke at a Monday rally at the Statehouse in support of the pension amendment, and some union members booed Sweeney when Monday’s Senate session ended without a vote on the proposal.
Sweeney is reluctant to post the pension amendment for a vote until he knows the resolution of the ongoing impasse over transportation funding.
The pension amendment will mandate pension contributions that eventually exceed $5 billion a year, up from the current level of $2 billion.
The Transportation Trust Fund is likely to be replenished by a hike in the gas tax. But the package is expected to include significant tax cuts in order to attract the needed political support. Sweeney is willing to approve $900 million in tax cuts, while Christie has been advocating twice as much.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr., R-Union, said Sweeney could help prevent "the cycle of corruption" derived from public-sector unions' donations to elected officials by applying pay-to-pay restrictions already in place for government contractors.
"I don’t think anyone is shocked by the allegations made by the Senate president that public-sector labor unions are attempting to influence the legislative process with campaign donations,” Kean said. “The only surprise is that it is happening so publicly in this instance.”