Christie, Cowboys, and Conflicts: An Overview of New Jersey’s Ethics Rules

There’s a controversy brewing over Governor Chris Christie’s attendance at Sunday’s Dallas Cowboys game, which, according to published reports, was paid for by the Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones. Public officials are generally prohibited from accepting “gifts,” though the laws vary by state. And this isn’t a new issue – you may recall that back in 2010 then-Governor David Paterson was fined $62,000 by the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics for accepting tickets from the New York Yankees to Game One of the 2009 World Series. So let’s take a look at New Jersey’s ethics rules.

The New Jersey Conflicts of Interest Law prohibits any State official, including any State officer, employee, special State officer and member of the Legislature, from soliciting or accepting anything of value, including a gift, “which he knows or has reason to believe is offered to him with intent to influence him in the performance of his public duties and responsibilities.” There are exceptions to this rule; for example, it permits State officers to receive compensation for published books and reimbursement of reasonable expenditures for travel or subsistence and allowable entertainment expenses associated with attending an event in New Jersey. The State Ethics Commission, which enforces the gift and conflicts-of-interest laws, enforces a zero-tolerance policy against a government official’s acceptance of gifts related in any way to the officer’s official duties.

But a different law applies to the New Jersey Governor. Under the State’s Code of Conduct for the Governor, adopted by Executive Order 77 (McGreevey), the Governor is prohibited from soliciting or receiving any gift intended to influence him in the conduct of his public duties. The Governor may, however, “accept gifts, favors, services, gratuities, meals, lodging or travel expenses from relatives or personal friends that are paid for with personal funds.” In other words, Governor Christie acted within the bounds of the Code of Conduct for the Governor if Jerry Jones is a personal friend and Jones personally paid for the expenses. The Governor may also attend “any function and accept food and beverages and related privileges if his attendance at the event furthers a public purpose.” Thus, because gift rules may vary (even within the same branch of government), whether a particular government official or employee complied with respective gift rules may not only depend upon applicable law, but may also depend upon all relevant facts and circumstances.