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It began as a good government measure four years ago, designed to make gifts to public officials verboten. It sent a New Jersey Transit official to jail for accepting free tickets to a Broadway show. It arguably might have been – but wasn’t – unleashed at Attorney General Peter Harvey for his use of free passes to take his wife and a guest to a boxing match. Now the law has been ditched as a last-minute amendment to an ethics reform bill. The repealer, S-1756, enacted Jan. 14, replaced the law’s criminal provisions with civil penalties and took enforcement away from prosecutors, giving it to the Executive Commission on Ethical Standards. The bill takes effect April 13. The repeal has the support of the Office of Legislative Services. Director Albert Porroni says legislators were concerned about the law’s breadth. After review, he concluded that the gift ban “radically changed the criminal law in this area” by removing the element that the benefit be conferred to influence the performance of official duties. Enacted in 2000, the law made it a crime for a public servant to receive a gift from someone in a position “to benefit . . . from a violation of official duty.” It also criminalized acceptance of a benefit not allowed by law, even without showing intent “to influence the performance of his official duties.” No quid pro quo on the part of the official was required. The law’s absolute ban on any benefit, no matter how small, was so sweeping that it could “ensnare an innocent official,” Porroni says. The repeal restores prior law on criminal liability and “puts New Jersey back in line with our sister states,” none of which appear to have gone so far as the repealed law, says Porroni. (It is still a crime for officials to solicit gifts or provide a quid pro quo.) S-1756 also tightened up the civil side by banning some types of gifts outright and capping others at $250. Disparate Treatment Asserted Despite the broad sweep of the gift ban, only one person was convicted and sentenced under it � former New Jersey Transit vice president Maureen Milan. She pleaded guilty last September to accepting four tickets to the Broadway play, “The Producers,” valued at $1,600. She began serving a three-year sentence on Jan. 5. A week later, the law was repealed and Milan moved to withdraw her plea. Essex County Judge Thomas Vena denied the motion on Feb. 6. After about a month behind bars, she is out pending appeal. Milan’s lawyer, Steven Brooks, notes that his client was treated very differently from Harvey, who accepted free ringside passes to bring his wife and a guest to boxing matches in Atlantic City. The Executive Commission on Ethical Standards said his actions violated sec. IV(G) (2)(B) of the Code of Ethics, which bars officials from handing out free seats to regulated events. While admitting no wrongdoing, Harvey agreed on Feb. 10 to a consent order requiring payment of $1,500 in fines. He also paid the promoters for the passes. “We’re not looking to point fingers at any politician. We’re looking for equal treatment,” says Brooks, of Boston’s Deutsch Williams Brooks DeRensis & Holland. He says Milan lost her job and faces a three-year sentence, while Harvey, whose office prosecuted Milan, paid a fine and retained his position. Brooks calls the repealed law’s penalties “extreme” for a non-quid pro quo crime. Vaughan McKoy, director of the Division of Criminal Justice, disputes any similarity between Milan’s and Harvey’s cases. It’s “like apples and oranges,” he says. Unlike Harvey, Milan solicited gifts from contractors who did millions of dollars in business with her agency and “felt like they had to do what she asked in order to keep those contracts with those favorable terms,” says McKoy. When asked about similarities between Milan and Harvey, Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, says “people should be prosecuted and convicted based upon the law at the time of the offense.” The 14-count indictment against Milan charged her with demanding and receiving more than $17,000 in gifts and gratuities from vendors doing business with the state over a six-year period. Those gifts allegedly included the theater tickets, a trip to London, meals, hairdressers, hotel stays, and tickets to the World Series and concerts by singers Madonna and Sade. Milan pleaded guilty to only one count, accepting the “Producers” tickets. Lance and Assemblyman Joseph Roberts Jr., D-Camden, were sponsors of S-1756 in September 2002. It did not include the gift ban repealer. No action took place until Dec. 6, 2003, when the bill was reported out of the Assembly State Government Committee. The repealer was added on Jan. 8 by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, only four days before final passage. Gov. James McGreevey signed it on Jan. 14. The sponsor of the original gift-ban law in 1999 was Assemblyman Joseph Malone, R-Burlington. He was quoted in a Feb. 29 article in the Asbury Park Press as saying he was aware S-1756 contained a provision to change the gift ban but did not know “the scope of it or I would have said something.” Malone also introduced legislation in 2000 that would have repealed the ban by restoring the quid pro quo requirement. That bill, A-1220, passed the Legislature but was conditionally vetoed by Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco in 2002. He expressed concern that repeal might weaken “truth in public contracting laws.” According to the Feb. 29 Asbury Park Press article, Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Morris, said Republicans were not informed of the repeal and that it needed to be re-evaluated on a bipartisan basis. Neither Malone nor Kean returned calls seeking comment. Lance, however, says Roberts informed him of the changes. He would have preferred the original version of S-1756, which had no repealer and a $100 cap on gifts. Because he wanted some sort of threshold in place, he voted for the bill anyway, which passed unopposed.

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