Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Question for the General Assembly's Standing Committee on Ethical Standards

November 5, 2014

Michael J. Mitzner, Esq.
Mitzner & Mitzner,PA
Suite 101A
786 Mountain Blvd
Watchung, NJ 07069-6268
Via e-mail to mitznerlaw@aol.com and via fax to 908-668-9986

Dear Mr. Mitzner:

I understand from reading the February 21, 2012 New Jersey Legislative Digest that you were appointed, by authority of N.J.S.A. 52:13D-22(a), by the Assembly Republican Leader to serve as one of the eight members of the bipartisan Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards. According to the current list of Committee members you still serve in that capacity.

Through further research I learned from Rules 19a of the Rules of the General Assembly for the State of New Jersey that in addition to the eight members of the Joint Committee, the four members of the Joint Committee appointed from the General Assembly, of which you are one, constitute a standing committee of the General Assembly authorized to receive and consider allegations of possible misconduct by members of the General Assembly which "reflect[] upon the good name, integrity and reputation of the Legislature, a House or any member thereof."

Against this backdrop, I ask that you please accept this e-mail and fax as my request for the General Assembly's Standing Committee on Ethical Standards to conduct an investigation into a) whether Assemblyman Angel Fuentes violated any rule, law or ethical standard by using his district office staff and state resources for the benefit of a private, non-profit organization and, b) if not, whether the rules, laws or ethical standards should be amended to proscribe a legislator's use of taxpayer-funded resources for private purposes.

The factual allegations that form the basis of this request are contained within an October 17, 2014 Courier-Post article entitled "Legislator's actions spur ethics questions" authored by journalist Kevin C. Shelly.  

According to the article, Assemblyman Fuentes admitted to having used members of his staff, on state time, to support the Hispanic Leadership Association, a private, non-profit organization. While the type of staff support is not completely known, the article quotes Fuentes as stating that "[t]he work included compiling a mailing list for the association's annual fall summit."  According to the Association's web site, the summit is "The Premier Event for New Jersey's Hispanic Leaders" for which tickets are available for purchase.

The propriety of using taxpayer resources to benefit a private organization does not turn on the popularity of the organization or how beneficial its works are perceived to be.  The public funds Fuentes committed to the Association's benefit belong equally to both those who support the Association's work and those who don't.  My complaint should not be taken as a criticism of the Association or its works, since I would have the same argument had Fuentes used state resources to benefit any other private organization.  While Fuentes' desire to support charity is admirable, he should use his own funds for his advocacy and not taxpayer funds to which he has been entrusted.

Regardless of whether Fuentes' actions were morally wrong, the question of whether or not he violated the ethics standards is the main question for the Standing Committee's consideration.  The standards, as I understand them, mainly prohibit legislators from taking public action that financially benefits the legislator or his family.  The only proscription that might pertain is that contained in N.J.S.A. 52:13D-25, which states, in relevant part:
No State officer or employee, special State officer or employee, or member of the Legislature shall willfully disclose to any person, whether or not for pecuniary gain, any information not generally available to members of the public which he receives or acquires in the course of and by reason of his official duties. 
Whether Fuentes violated this provision depends on facts that are currently unknown.  Did his staff create the Association's summit invitation list from Fuentes' private lists of supporters, friends and acquaintances or did they otherwise use private information to promote the summit to the invitees?  Or, did the staff use their time to create a list from publicly available sources?  The question of whether Fuentes violated N.J.S.A. 52:13D-25 turns on the source and of information that was used rather than on Fuentes' decision to use taxpayer-funded resources to create the list.  This is a question that the Standing Committee, if it chooses to, can answer by conducting an investigation into this matter.

Regardless of whether Fuentes' conduct violated N.J.S.A. 52:13D-25, the Standing Committee should consider recommending the adoption of a new ethical standard that would ban a legislator's use of public resources to benefit a private charity.  I fully agree with veteran legislator William E. Schluter, who is quoted in the Courier-Post article as stating "I think that the legislative office, paid for with taxpayer money, should be used for legislative work, period."

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I would appreciate receiving a response to this inquiry.

John Paff