Patrick Hobbs
Patrick Hobbs (Carmen Natale)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday appointed an ombudsman in his office to create a system of ethics compliance and training and to be a sounding board for executive branch employees with ethical concerns.

The governor named to the post Seton Hall University School of Law Dean Patrick Hobbs, who is also the chairman of the State Commission of Investigation. He will have “complete autonomy,” according to a statement released by the administration.

Hobbs, 54, will be paid $75,000 annually for the part-time job.

The appointment of an ombudsman had been recommended by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm retained by Christie for an internal investigation of his office’s possible involvement in last fall’s closure of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

Gibson Dunn’s report cleared Christie of any wrongdoing but made several recommendations to improve operations in the governor’s office.

Among Hobbs’ tasks will be to evaluate and revise the administration’s policies for electronic communication to ensure that all governor’s office employees receive training in the appropriate use of cell phones and other electronic devices.

Much of the coordination of the Sept. 9-13 lane closures, allegedly orchestrated by Christie’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein, the former director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was done through text messages and e-mails.

He will be responsible for:

• Ensuring that the administration has a “robust” ethics training program for all staff members.

• Aiding in the establishment of the newly created position of chief ethics officer for the governor’s office.

• Creating a system through which employees can report concerns and for the investigation or referral of allegations of misconduct as appropriate.

Training in the ethics of electronic communications device usage and the proposed reporting system were Gibson Dunn recommendations.

In addition, Christie is proposing legislation that would require any public employee at any level of government to report illegal activity on the part of any other public employee to a law enforcement agency, an inspector general or an ethics officer.

A public employee who becomes aware of illegal activity by another public employee but takes no action would be guilty of committing a disorderly persons offense. Employees reporting illegal behavior would be granted civil and criminal immunity, unless that employee is acting maliciously.

Gibson Dunn also recommended disbanding the governor’s Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, calling it too closely tied to political operations. Memos of interviews from the internal review showed OLIA staffers were told to ignore requests for financial assistance from local mayors who were not supportive enough of Christie’s initiatives.

Christie announced Thursday that he plans to replace the OLIA with a newly created Office of Community and Client Relations. It will act as the “customer service department” of the governor’s office and “will address and promptly respond to the needs of members of the public and all constituents in a non-partisan fashion.”

The circumstances surrounding the lane closings currently are the subjects of two separate investigations—one being conducted by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and another by the New Jersey Select Committee on Investigation, a committee comprising both senators and members of the state Assembly.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the co-chairman of the committee, is skeptical of Christie’s actions.

“We all understand that the Port Authority and the governor’s office are in drastic need of reform,” he says. “The problem is that we don’t know all the details about the abuses of power.”

Wisniewski says that in his view, an ombudsman for the governor’s office should not be appointed by the governor. “There has to be a greater degree of independence,” he says, suggesting that the chief justice, the Legislature or the Office of Legislative Services make the appointment.

Hobbs earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Seton Hall in 1982, his J.D. from the University of the North Carolina School of Law in 1985 and an LL.M. in taxation from New York University School of Law in 1988.

He practiced law first in Roseland at Hannoch Weisman (now defunct) from 1985 to 1987 and then in Morristown at Shanley & Fisher (since merged with Drinker Biddle & Reath) from 1987 to 1990.

He joined Seton Hall’s law school in 1990 as a faculty member, being promoted to associate professor in 1993 and to full professor in 1996. He taught courses in law and literature, taxation, corporate tax, and business planning. He was named associate dean for finance in 1995 and became dean in 1999.

Hobbs joined the SCI, the agency charged with investigating organized crime, corruption, taxpayer waste and other abuses, as a commissioner in 2004 and became acting chairman upon the death of W. Cary Edwards in October 2010. The following April, Christie appointed him chairman.

Hobbs was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon.

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com.