Fighting The Machine: Reversing Corruption in Jersey City

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

What We've Done:


When I ran in 2017, I promised to remain independent from the notoriously corrupt Hudson County Political Machine. I am proud to have upheld that promise.

Over the last four years, that’s meant:
  • Remaining free of conflicts of interest by rejecting campaign contributions from Jersey City developers.

  • Fighting against the inequitable water tax which the MUA passed in the dead of night with no community input.

  • Leading the fight at the Jersey City council against billionaire Paul Fireman’s corrupt scheme to privatize Liberty State Park for his ultra-exclusive golf course.

  • Holding SUEZ water and the Administration accountable after a delay in alerting the public to e-coli in our drinking water, while offering constructive solutions to ensure the problem never occurs again.

What We're Going to Do:


Fighting the Machine:

An Anti-Corruption Plan for Jersey City


In 2009, FBI Special Agent Ed Kahrer completed a 10 year anti-corruption investigation that resulted in the arrest of 44 New Jersey politicians and officials. When Kahrer, who oversaw the FBI’s NJ anti-corruption division at the time, announced these arrests, he argued that “New Jersey’s corruption problem is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the nation…[Corruption] has become ingrained in New Jersey’s political culture”.


Recent history shows that Jersey City’s political culture also has a corruption problem. In 2018, eleven JCPD officers pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for receiving money for off duty jobs that they did not perform. Then in 2019 the Jersey City’s School Board President was found to be taking illegal campaign bribes in exchange for political favors. That same year, a manager at the Department of Recreation was charged with stealing more than $80,000 by fraudulently adjusting the department’s payroll.


If we are going to change this culture of corruption, then we need to change how it is investigated and punished in city government. As evidenced by our frequent corruption scandals, it's clear the current system isn’t working. Jersey City’s main corruption investigation body, the Ethical Standards Board, has largely failed to investigate and dissuade acts of corruption. Similarly, our city’s Ethics Code doesn’t obligate public employees to speak out when they witness corruption or provide adequate protections to whistle blowers. These failings must be fixed. We need to empower Jersey City’s Ethical Standards Board by transforming it into a truly independent oversight agency, so that it can focus on performing investigations of wrongdoing within the government.


This transformation will be driven by three main reforms:

1) Reform the Ethical Standards Board:


We will change the appointment process to ensure independence, so that the board utilizes their investigatory powers.


2) Revise the City’s existing Ethics Code:


to include an obligation to report wrongdoing, provide better protections for whistleblowers, and, if possible, increase penalty amounts for non-criminal violations.


3) Establish mandatory annual ethics training:


for all public officials to be designed and implemented by professional ethics education and training providers. This education will provide the regulatory context that the Ethical Standards Board will be in charge of monitoring. The training will inform government officials of their obligations under both the municipal ethics code and the law.

 

Reform the Ethical Standards Board


Today, Jersey City’s Ethical Standards Board (ESB) consists of six Jersey City residents, who each serve for five-year terms. These positions are part-time, unpaid, and are appointed by the Mayor. Most corruption scholars argue this type of appointment board does not ensure independence because the board members are appointed by the person they one day might have to hold accountable.


Researchers at Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) have found that one of the most important factors in effective government oversight is that whoever is doing that oversight should have independence from government officials with spending power. What makes the current appointment process problematic is that it allows for potential mayoral influence over the Board members’ opinions, which in turn affects their independence and effectiveness. Currently, truly independent ethics boards are being used as oversight agencies in cities like Tallahassee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Anchorage. This independence has led to greater transparency within those local governments. This in contrast to Jersey City’s ESB’s relatively narrow oversight powers, where the Ethical Standards Board’s most commonly performed duty is ensuring that government officials file accurate Financial Disclosures forms.


Despite the sparse work the Board usually performs, it already possesses strong statutory powers such as the ability to hold hearings, to issue subpoenas and impose penalties for non-criminal violations. The problem is: it almost never uses any of these powers. Even worse, there is scarce public information that informs us of the Board’s actions. As it is currently formulated, the Board meets inconsistently with little record available on the topics that it discusses. Jersey City should rectify this deficit by requiring the Ethical Standards Board to follow the example of Minneapolis and meet weekly for regularly scheduled meetings for which a record and minutes are created.


Making the Board’s work more accessible and transparent is an important first step, but will be inadequate unless it is paired with reforms that boost the boards independence and investigatory mandate.


To achieve this Jersey City should:


1) Reform the current appointment process,

and establish the Board as a full-time body. The current appointment process creates a questionable relationship of deference to the Executive Branch, so the Board should be appointed by an independent commission of residents and experts instead of at the Executive’s discretion.


2) Change the employment status of Board members.

Currently, the members are unpaid, they only receive reimbursements and their predominant concern is the filing of Financial Disclosure Statements, not initiating investigations. Because they are non-salaried workers, there is no incentive for them to proactively initiate investigations or respond to complaints.

 

Revise the City’s Existing Ethics Code


A professional and independent Ethics Board will only be as good as the ethics code it’s charged with upholding. Prominent Public Ethics scholars like Mark Davis, the former Head of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, have outlined nine key components of a strong ethical code. Some key elements include easily understandable language, transparency in operations and universal enforceability, some of which are already present in Jersey City’s ethics code. Other crucial elements however, are missing. Most important among them, is an “obligation to report” wrongdoing. Scholars like Mark Davis and at CAPI argue that an obligation to report is a key feature of any effective anti-corruption system. Jersey City should include a form of obligation to report abuse and fraud language within its ethics code.

Today, within the municipal code, there is no “obligation to report” provision. It should be required of all local officials and employees, including the school board, which is currently exempt. If failure to report is suspected or uncovered during an investigation, the result should be a penalty such as a fine, disciplinary action or removal from government role.

Similarly, another feature of strong ethics codes that scholars like CAPI and Davis point to, and that conspicuously lacking in Jersey City’s, is protections for whistleblowers. Adding protections for whistleblowers in the municipal code makes it easier for public and government employees to know that they are protected should they suspect and ultimately report corruption. While the New Jersey State Ethics Code outlines some protections for whistleblowers, which should apply to all municipalities, it is important to clearly enshrine those within the local code. For example, in 2012, Chicago became the first city in the country to amend its ethics ordinances to include whistleblower protections for city employees so that they could report misconduct without fear of retaliation. Similarly, in December 2020, the New York City Council passed a more comprehensive whistleblower protection bill than was outlined at the state level. Other major cities such as Minneapolis, MN and Rocklin, CA have followed suit as well. If we are going to reform Jersey City’s long standing culture of political corruption, a clear mandate to report corruption must be paired with strong protections for the whistleblowers who speak out.

 

Establish Mandatory Yearly Ethics Trainings


An updated Ethics Code and a newly empowered Investigative Board will form the key institutional pillars of a more effective anti-corruption regime. Critically, these reforms need to be paired with a robust education campaign to ensure all government workers are informed of their obligations and the ethical standards they should be held to. To achieve this goal, we should require mandatory yearly training of government and public officials to be designed and implemented by professional public ethics educators. The Board would be charged with monitoring and enforcing the ethical obligations outlined in this education, and defer more serious criminal violations to law enforcement.


Within New Jersey, several organizations have created exemplary instructional materials on how to train government employees on ethics. Training materials can be modeled after those used by prominent ethics scholars like Christina Fullam, who is the Ethics Training Officer for the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. Similar programs, like those designed by Harry Pozycki, a former advisor to multiple New Jersey governors, are used by schools and municipalities throughout New Jersey.