By Melissa Hayes and John Reitmeyer, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)
TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie should not have accepted tickets and airfare to a Dallas Cowboys playoff game from the team’s owner, even if he considers him a personal friend, former members of the State Ethics Commission said Wednesday.
“I think this is too big to be an honest mistake,” said William Schluter, a former Republican state senator who served on the commission.
“At a very minimum there is a significant appearance issue here,” said Paula Franzese, a Seton Hall law professor who served as special ethics counsel to Gov. Richard J. Codey and was also a member of the Ethics Commission.
Christie has faced mounting criticism since he was seen on national television hugging Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in a luxury box at the football game in Dallas on Sunday afternoon.
It was Christie’s acceptance of the trip and tickets — not his support of the Cowboys — that drew an ethics complaint filed with the state by a liberal political group Tuesday. It alleged that Christie violated state laws and the governor’s code of conduct by accepting the tickets and airfare. The complaint cited a business relationship Jones has with the Port Authority, an agency to which Christie appoints members, including the chairman. In a March 2013 news release, Christie endorsed the contract the Port Authority has with Legends Hospitality LLC — in which the Cowboys have a stake — to run the observation deck at One World Trade Center.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said the governor and Jones became friends in mid-2013, and that friendship triggers an exemption in the code of conduct that allows him to accept gifts from “personal friends.” But Schluter and Franzese both said they do not believe the friend exemption applies, given Jones’ business ties to the Port Authority.
“That overrides the personal nature of it,” Schluter said.
“That triggers the larger mandate obligating the governor to refrain from accepting any gift from a person who reasonably may be perceived by the public of attempting to influence the governor in the conduct of his official duties,” Franzese said.
Schluter also took issue with one of Christie’s appointments to the governor’s Advisory Ethics Panel, saying that attorney Thomas Calcagni does not meet the specific criteria for membership as spelled out in an executive order first signed by Gov. James McGreevey in 2003 and renewed by Christie in April 2010.
That order states members of the two-person panel — which is in place to advise the governor “when there are questions concerning the propriety of the governor’s conduct under the code” — have to have been either a state Supreme Court justice, a Superior Court judge, a state attorney general or a governor’s chief counsel.
Member Peter Verniero served as attorney general and Supreme Court justice, but Calcagni’s highest position in state government was first assistant state attorney general. Calcagni could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak defended the appointment, saying Calcagni “served on numerous occasions as acting attorney general.”
The rules for whether a public official can accept a gift varies from state to state.
Lawmakers in New Jersey are generally barred from accepting gifts, but they can receive up to $500 in reimbursements for travel if the trip is connected with their service, according to the legislative code of ethics.
In New York, governors and lawmakers must report gifts in excess of $1,000 on annual financial disclosure forms. And in Pennsylvania, governors and lawmakers are allowed to accept travel and sports tickets, but they must disclose those benefits to the public.
A White House official said President Barack Obama purchases his own tickets for sporting events. However, taxpayers generally cover the cost of Obama’s travel, just as New Jersey taxpayers pay for Christie’s security detail when he travels out of state.
(Washington Correspondent Herb Jackson contributed to this article.)