Update 10:45am: The Legislature’s Bridgegate Committee session has started, Kevin O’Dowd presented a brief opening statement, and is now being questioned.
The importance of the N. J. Attorney General’s position is signaled in the NJ constitution as it is mentioned four times. One particular clause prevents the AG (and LG) from being summarily fired by stating the AG begins a term of office that lasts as long as the governor’s term of office. Christie, however, views the AG through his own lens. The governor now wants to appoint his fourth AG, Kevin O’Dowd, in about as many years. They all have worked for him previously in the U. S. Attorney’s office and two of them in his Executive Office. He provides them “full treatment” service which includes plum jobs afterward. It is no surprise they are attentive to his wishes. Christie’s Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd testifies this morning at about 10:30am before the legislature’s Bridgegate Committee. Live coverage here.
There currently is a bill in the Assembly (ACR134) and the Senate (SCR71) which proposes a constitutional amendment to provide for an elected Attorney General – an idea worth considering as only five states grant the governor the power to select the AG. Because of the “full treatment” his AG’s receive it is no surprise that this office continued fighting in court to prevent same-sex marriage, defended Sandy practices, ignored Bridgegate, and used “gun-buybacks” as its main response to a call for new gun legislation. Our powerful governor also appoints prosecutors, judges, top public defenders and the head of the State police, which seems eerily similar to a “Police State” – all under the governor’s direction. All political and none elected.
In addition to being the principal legal advisor to the governor, the AG runs the large Law & Public Safety Department, with thirteen groups and some 9,000 employees. Maki Haberfeld, a professor and expert in police administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice says, “Law enforcement needs stability. Even two or three years is not enough to make a difference to create something sustainable.” Former Gov. Corzine, at least, had Anne Milgram as AG for three years. Now we have AG’s for a one-year layover until Christie grants them their next job – not what our constitution envisions.
Today O’Dowd will testify before the NJ Select Committee on Investigations. During the Bridgegate period Bridget Kelly, who sent the infamous “Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee” was one of his direct reports. O’Dowd appears remiss, as NJ Spotlight explains, in investigating the lane closures despite receiving information that Wildstein told Christie Campaign Manger Bill Stepien and Kelly in advance about the lane closures. Spotlight also points out that O’Dowd questioned Kelly, who denied her involvement, but did not question key subordinates. As WNYC reporter Matt Katz says, “The Bridgegate Committee will want to know what he did to investigate the possible criminal activities in his office, and whether he was trying to brush the controversy under the statehouse rug.” It should be a tough interrogation, although we don’t know whether it will uncover important new information.
If O’Dowd passes muster at today’s Bridgegate hearing he still would need to answer further questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding a nomination as AG. The committee should then give serious thought as to whether the next AG should be Christie’s top advisor and a person who either did not know what was going on in his own office or knowingly ignored and/or covered up the Bridgegate problems.
So we are stuck with a constitution that grants our governor more powers than those in other states and which envisions a full term of office for the AG which Christie ignores. Our AG is within the intersection between maintaining law and order, being the State’s chief prosecutor, deciding what cases should be prosecuted and which not, interpreting the law, and advising the governor – a dangerous intersection where there are many collisions. The bill in the Legislature calls for a constitutional amendment which would allow NJ voters to elect the attorney general for a four-year term during the same general election as the governor. He or she would be limited to two terms. Such provides more independence and enough time for the AG to develop sound programs. Although there is expectation that the next governor may be a Democrat (and maybe Senate President Steve Sweeney), the leaders of the Assembly and Senate should build support for the measure and move it out of committee.