News & Updates

Was Murphy’s hire legal? Assembly backs new law just in case

Sep 28, 2018

More than half the Assembly has signed on to a bill barring people convicted of corruption offenses from serving in government following Gov. Phil Murphy’s July hiring of Marcellus Jackson — even as Trenton debates whether the hire was legal in the first place.

Jackson, a former Passaic City councilman, served about two years in federal prison for taking bribes from an undercover agent in 2007. Murphy hired him to a $70,000-a-year position with the State Department of Education and the administration said it conducted a legal review to make sure that Jackson was eligible for the post. The move has set off confusion and consternation as previous case law seems to indicate there’s no circumstance where an employee convicted of corruption tied to their office could be hired again as a public servant.

“We believe that the case law supports a ban on such employment,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen), one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “However, in light of the governor’s comments, we have submitted this legislation to make it abundantly clear that it is precluded.”

Schepisi said she’s waiting on an official response to her question from the Office of Legislative Services. The Murphy administration did not immediately provide comment.

Introduced Thursday by Schepisi and Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex), the bill, A4584, starts off with a bipartisan group of 41 sponsors and co-sponsors in the 80-member Assembly.

New Jersey law already states that workers convicted of offenses related to their offices are “forever disqualified from holding any office or position of honor, trust or profit under this State or any of its administrative or political subdivisions.”

While the phrase “honor, trust and profit” is somewhat vague and arcane, a state appellate panel ruled in 1989 that it applies to all public workers.

The case came about after a greens superintendent of the Essex County golf courses, Gerald Pastore Sr., argued he was wrongly fired from his job after a prior conviction he faced, as an employee of Newark Youth Courts, came to light. Pastore forged employment applications to obtain payroll checks that he cashed. He argued that the “honor, trust or profit” language — which dates back to 1829 — referred only to high-ranking positions. The court disagreed.

“We are nevertheless convinced that the Legislature intended to disqualify convicted offenders from all forms of government employment,” the court wrote. “It is the public policy of this State that ‘persons holding any public office, position or employment’ must avoid committing serious criminal acts or offenses which involve or touch upon their government duties, or sacrifice their right to governmental employment.”

And while Murphy defended hiring Jackson because he believes in “second chances,” the state Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that even expungement of an offense that touched on a public office doesn’t mean that person can resume public employment.

According to Schepisi’s bill, the problem isn’t with state law but with the procedure to enforce it.

The bill states that when a public worker convicted of an offense is ordered to forfeit their job, the court will also enter an order disqualifying him from all future employment — a requirement that’s not already in current law. And if a conviction comes from another state or federally, the attorney general or a county prosecutor would be required to “make an application for a disqualification,” under the measure.

Schepisi’s bill would also require the Administrative Office of the Courts to keep a central registry of all people disqualified from holding public jobs, and would eliminate the phrase “of honor, trust or profit.”