Christie's Ethics Watchdogs Fail to Bark or Bite

Image: Christie's Ethics Watchdogs Fail to Bark or Bite (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Tuesday, 05 Aug 2014 03:32 PM

By Mark Lagerkvist, Watchdog.org

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When it comes to ethics, Chris Christie can talk the talk. But does the New Jersey governor walk the walk when his ethics watchdogs are actually lapdogs?

Christie's hand-picked Ethics Advisory Panel did not take action during its first four years — a period in which Bridge-gate, Doublegate and other controversies came to light.

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In response to a public records request by New Jersey Watchdog, the governor's office reported it cannot find any decision by the panel.

Created by executive order, the panel has the power to penalize and fine the governor or lieutenant governor for ethical infractions. But as governor, Christie picks the panel members, and he retains the power to rescind any executive order anytime he chooses.

The governor also has the ability to reward his ethics appointees.

Christie last month selected John Degnan, one of the panel's two members, to take charge as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The other member, Richard Mroz, is a lobbyist who served as policy adviser during Christie's political campaigns.

The existence of the Ethics Advisory Panel did not prevent the conflict of interest faced by the governor and his administration in Doublegate, a pension controversy implicating Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno that was first reported by New Jersey Watchdog.

As a county sheriff, Guadagno allegedly made false and misleading statements in 2008 that enabled her top aide, Michael Donovan, to collect a $75,000 annual pension in addition to his $78,000 salary.

A state pension board requested a criminal investigation of alleged pension fraud in May 2011. The case was assigned to the state's Attorney General's Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ), even though Guadagno was DCJ's former deputy director.

Faced with a choice, Christie did not use his constitutional power to appoint a special prosecutor or investigator to handle a probe likely to involve his lieutenant governor. The Ethics Advisory Panel had the authority to review the matter at its own discretion and issue a public determination.

That never happened.

DCJ quietly closed the case after a 13-month investigation without filing criminal charges. The agency has refused to release its findings, despite a public-records lawsuit by New Jersey Watchdog.

In the wake of the highly publicized Bridge-gate scandal, and with an eye on the 2016 presidential race, Christie is surrounding himself with ethics staffers who report to him and serve at his pleasure.

Last month, Heather Taylor was named the governor's $115,000-a-year chief ethics officer. Taylor had been a deputy attorney general at DCJ's Corruption Bureau, the same office that handled the Doublegate probe.

In April, Christie named Patrick Hobbs as the governor's $75,600-a-year part-time ombudsperson for ethics. Hobbs also will keep his job as dean of Seton Hall Law School, a post that paid him $424,853 in 2011, according to records cited by the Star-Ledger.

Hobbs and Taylor are joining a governor's payroll already packed with six-figure legal advisers, including a $141,000-a-year chief counsel, a $140,000-a-year deputy chief counsel, and a $141,000-a-year chief of staff who is waiting in the wings as Christie's nominee for attorney general.

On paper, the governor appears to be focused on ethics, but in the dog-eat-dog reality of New Jersey politics, Christie is using his watchdogs mostly as show dogs.

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