A former Passaic City councilman who went to prison for accepting bribes has resigned from the job he landed in Gov. Phil Murphy‘s administration — a hiring that has recently drawn scrutiny and has now been declared unlawful.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Friday evening that Marcellus Jackson stepped down from a $70,000-a-year position as a special assistant in the state Department of Education’s Office of Civic and Social Engagement.
Murphy said last week his administration hired Jackson in July after a legal review. But Grewal said Friday his office began reviewing Jackson’s hiring last week and found state law required Jackson be disqualified from any public office in New Jersey.
The news comes a day after state lawmakers announced more than half of the state Assembly — including 15 of Murphy’s fellow Democrats — signed onto legislation inspired by the controversial hiring. The measure would ban public officials in New Jersey convicted of corruption from ever holding another job within state and local governments, elected or otherwise.
Spokespeople for Murphy declined comment Friday, referring to Grewal’s comments.
Murphy defended Jackson’s hiring last Tuesday, a day after it was revealed in a report by Politico New Jersey. The governor said “we feel completely comfortable with the process that Marcellus went through.”
Murphy also said Jackson, a fellow Democrat, is “good example of what I hope we see a lot more of.”
“Somebody made a mistake, they admitted it, they repented, they paid their price,” Murphy said during an unrelated news conference. “We have to get these folks back up on their feet in society in this state.”
But Grewal said state law directs the attorney general or a county prosecutor to make an application to the court seeking “forfeiture of public employment when the underlying conviction involves a federal crime or a crime committed in another state.”
“The statute does not allow for any discretion in such cases,” Grewal said.
He said such an application never happened in Jackson’s case.
“It is not clear why such an application was not made in 2007, shortly after Mr. Jackson’s conviction,” Grewal said.
He said the state also learned there may be others who were convicted but never were subjected to the order
Grewal said the state is reviewing those cases and intends to file additional orders.
Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen — a main sponsor of the legislation introduced Thursday — said she was also looking into whether Jackson’s hiring was legal and was expecting an opinion from the nonpartisan state Office of Legislative Affairs on Monday.
Schepisi said she drafted the new bill to “clear up any ambiguity” and make sure such a hiring could never happen again.
“We are a state that has been the butt of national jokes because of corruption,” Schepisi told NJ Advance Media. “It’s something where we’re sending mixed messages.”
Schepisi said she’s “very happy” Grewal is “taking this seriously.”
The state law already on the books bars anyone in New Jersey convicted of corruption from ever holding elected office again or any “position of honor, trust or profit under this state or any of its administrative or political subdivisions.”
A state appellate panel ruled in 1989 that the phrase applies to all public workers, saying other courts have determined the term “public office” or “public officials” should be “broadly constructed.”
Schepisi said she will push forward with the bill even with Jackson’s resignation.
The measure has 41 sponsors or co-sponsors in the 80-member Assembly. Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak, D-Middlesex, is the other main sponsor.
Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex — one of the 15 Democrats to sign on as a co-sponsor — said he “saw no downside,” particularly amid the politically charged hearings in Washington of Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump‘s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s nice, especially on a day like yesterday, to reach out in a bipartisan way to do something together that was can certainly stand pat on, as it relates to those that violate the trust of office,” McKeon said. “All we can be is a part of the solution. It’s abominable what’s going on in the country. I felt inspired yesterday.”
The leader of each house of the state Legislature — Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex — told NJ Advance Media on Friday they would look at the legislation before deciding whether they would put it up for a vote.
A companion version has not been introduced in the Senate yet.
“We all believe in second chances, but really the question is: Once you violated the public’s trust once, do you get the chance to do it again?” Sweeney said.
“He will be reviewing the specific details of the bill with his caucus as he does with all legislation,” Acevedo added in a statement.
Jackson, now 48, was one of 11 officials arrested in a 2007 corruption sweep known as Operation Broken Boards, which was overseen by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.
Jackson pleaded guilty to taking $26,000 from a fake company set up by the FBI in exchange for a promise to help the company win insurance brokerage contracts in Passaic.
He was sentenced in 2009 to 25 months in prison and fined $15,000.
Jackson was released in July 2011, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.