NJ Gets Top Grade for Ethics But Gaps Remain: Report

New Jersey got the top grade in a national public accountability survey — but the same report found there are a number of ways vested interests can circumvent campaign finance laws to influence politics in the state.

The Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity used some 330 so-called "corruption risk indicators" in comparing how 50 states handled things like state budgeting, campaign finance, pension management and lobbying disclosure.

Individuals and special interest groups can do an end-run around the New Jersey’s campaign finance disclosure rules and contribution limits because of porous laws and loopholes, according to the survey.  

Those gaps earned New Jersey it's lowest grade, a C +, for its political financing. Also earning a C + was accountability in New Jersey's judicial and legislative branches.

Joe Donahue, deputy director with New Jersey's bi-partisan election Law Enforcement Commission, said the report zeroed in on a practice called "wheeling" where state political parties and leadership PACs can spread unlimited amounts of funds to whatever campaigns they desire.

"We need some kind of rational limits to avoid the lack of disclosure,” Donahue said, “because if you’re moving money between committees it is hard to follow, who actually gave the money? . … You’re basically making a mockery of the contribution limits."

Last year, $1.3 million in independent money from groups exempt from disclosure was spent on legislative races compared with roughly $165,000 in 2007, Donahue said.

The report also cited the state’s lack of disclosure laws for politically active non-profits, which are exempt from public election caps. Donors to these groups are not disclosed.

It also says the implementation of the state's Open Public Records Act was bungled and provides too many exceptions and long wait times for appeals.

In total, New Jersey scored an 87 winning it a B+, the highest grade in the country for lack of risk of corruptibility. New York got a 65, or a D. Connecticut got an 86, earning a B.

The State Integrity Investigation graded each state on more than 300 indicators of accountability, transparency, and corruption risk. The indicators are divided into 14 categories, which appear on the report card. Click on each category to see its individual indicators. Or follow the link on the report card to read an overview of what your state is doing well - and not so well - when it comes to government integrity."