O’Hern tapped as state’s special counsel for ethics

Former R.B. mayor, Seton Hall prof will look at ethics rules, training


Staff Writer

A Little Silver resident and former Red Bank mayor has been charged with the task of assessing the state’s ethics rules and coming up with a plan to strengthen them.

Justice Daniel J. O’Hern Sr. last week was appointed to the newly created state post of special counsel for ethics reform by acting Gov. Richard J. Codey.

O’Hern and Seton Hall Law Professor Paula Ann Franzese will be responsible for conducting a comprehensive ethics audit that will examine the ethics rules, statutes, regulations and codes of conduct that apply to all employees of the executive branch and the state authorities.

The two appointees must present a comprehensive plan to improve and strengthen the ethics rules within 120 days.

The second step will be to develop an expansive, mandatory ethics-training program for executive branch and authorities employees.

Codey made the appointments on Nov. 17.

According to a press release from the acting governor’s office, Codey created the positions “as part of a broader effort to help regain public trust in government.”

Concerns that public trust in local government has been eroding led to the adoption of “pay-to-play” ordinances that banned the practice of making large campaign contributions in exchange for being awarded no-bid contracts.

Many New Jersey municipalities, including Red Bank, have banned the practice.

Codey is co-sponsor of a bill that would empower municipalities, counties, and school boards to enact stronger pay-to-play bans.

O’Hern said that although government employees receive excellent training for their specific occupation, they may not receive the required ethics training.

“We found in Connecticut they did a similar survey and discovered many public employees had not had any formal ethics training requirements,” he said in an interview last week.

O’Hern, 74, Highfield Court, has lived in Little Silver since 1998. Before that, he lived in Red Bank for 68 years, serving as mayor from 1968 to 1978.

Red Bank Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr. said that he has known O’Hern since he was a child, and that O’Hern has served as a mentor for him over the years in his own practice of law.

“I’m thrilled,” McKenna said. “I can’t imagine a person better suited for the job. Acting Governor Codey made an excellent choice.”

O’Hern said he believes his experience in both the executive and judicial branches of the government put him in the unique position of being chosen for this appointment.

“I was a justice on the [state] Supreme Court,” said O’Hern, “and in that capacity we dealt with many aspects of government contracts, and so forth.”

According to the press release announcing the appointments, New Jersey lags behind the rest of the nation in providing ethics training.

“In 2003, New Jersey offered 15 ethics training sessions to employees,” according to the release. “On average, each state offered about 30 training sessions that year. During the same year that new Jersey offered 15 ethics training sessions, New York State held 121 sessions.”

O’Hern said that he believes the reason for this lag may be that too many people might just expect public employees to not have conflicts of interest; therefore, they don’t go looking for them.

He said in order to find ethical problems in the state government, one needs only to look at the past.

“There is a problem having government employees separate their personal interests from the interests of the government,” said O’Hern. “These are recurring themes.”

O’Hern said that campaign finance reform is one of the biggest challenges in the state government.

“It’s the influence on lawmakers of contributions,” O’Hern said. “It’s the outside influences that hinder public employees in the process of doing their duties.”

O’Hern also said that he expects his biggest challenge to be gaining support if the legislation has to be amended in order to meet the requirements of executive standards.

“This is a thorny issue,” he said, “but I don’t think it will be difficult for the governor to form a plan.”

Codey is also sponsoring a measure to freeze campaign contribution limits at their current levels, and is working to codify into law former Gov. James McGreevey’s executive order banning contributions from vendors that do business with state agencies, according to the press release.

O’Hern served as an associate justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court from 1981 through 2000. He also served as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection from 1978 to 1979, and as chief counsel to Gov. Brendan Byrne from 1979 to 1981.

He served as a member of the advisory committee on government ethics, appointed to the state Supreme Court from 1966 to 1978.

O’Hern presently serves as special counsel at Becker Meisel, a law firm with offices in Red Bank, Livingston and New York City.

He is a member of the Monmouth County and New Jersey State bar associations, the Legal Aid Society of Monmouth County, and the Harvard Law School Association of New Jersey, of which he is a past president.