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The New Jersey state Supreme Court expanded the reach of official misconduct statutes on Oct. 12, ruling that employees of privatized agencies can be prosecuted for official misconduct. The court ruled in State v. Perez, A-86-04, that an employee of the state Motor Vehicle Commission, which was privatized in 1995, was subject to the public corruption law, N.J.S.A. 2C:30-2, because she was performing governmental functions when she committed her crimes. The ruling stems from a multicount indictment for a scheme to obtain fake driver’s licenses. One of the cohorts of main defendant Luis Perez was Maria Elena Vijande, the head clerk of the MVC office in North Bergen. Perez pleaded guilty to a second-degree charge of conspiracy to commit official misconduct but preserved his right to appeal. He argued that he could not be part of a conspiracy to commit official misconduct because Vijande was a private contractor and not a “public servant” under the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2C:30-2. The court disagreed in a unanimous, per curiam opinion. “The statute’s purpose plainly is to prevent the perversion of governmental authority,” the justices said. “In furtherance of that end, the term ‘public servant’ is defined broadly for the purposes of misconduct in office, as well as for other offenses against public administration, to encompass individuals who are authorized to perform a governmental function, irrespective of whether they hold a position of public employment. One does not escape the statute’s reach merely because one is not an employee of government.” Even though Vijande was a private contractor, she was acting as a government agency and thus subject to official misconduct rules. “Vijande met the definition of ‘public servant,’” the court said. “The Legislature clearly was endeavoring to include within the term those individuals who, through a contractual delegation of responsibility, are empowered to exercise public authority. “Vijande’s perversion of the uniquely governmental authority that she wielded is what the official misconduct statute is designed to prevent,” the court concluded. Deputy Attorney General Robert Bonpietro, who argued the case on behalf of the state, says the court reached a logical conclusion. “Official misconduct is not limited to just public employees,” he says of the ruling. “People doing work for the government can be held liable regardless of who is paying them.” Perez’s lawyer, George Taite, of Jersey City’s De Luca & Taite, did not returned telephone calls seeking comment.

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