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NJ lawmakers are abdicating their responsibility on veterans home deaths — Stile

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More than two years after the coronavirus claimed more than 200 lives at New Jersey's nursing facilities for veterans, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has finally adopted a strategy to investigate the matter.

The plan? Sit back and wait.

In an op-ed piece that ran in Gannett New Jersey newspapers last week, Senate President Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, and Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, made the case bluntly: Let the state attorney general and Department of Justice investigators first complete their probes.

 "The DOJ and the AG have far more resources at their disposal and we are confident in their ability to determine exactly who is responsible and what went wrong,'' they wrote.

On the face of it, the legislators' logic sounds reasonable enough. No lawmaker wants to interfere with law enforcement officials wielding subpoenas and search warrants. They have the power to unearth criminality and, in theory, are not concerned about ruffling the feathers of the politically connected.

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But in reality, the legislators' sit-back-and-wait approach is a cop-out.

There is nothing to stop them from conducting their own independent investigation. They are perfectly capable of doing so without stepping on the feet of law enforcement.

Oversight of government — especially when the state failed in its fundamental duty to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens — is a core responsibility of the Legislature. To hide behind the sit-back-and-wait excuse is a dereliction of duty.

For one thing, there is no guarantee that either the federal or state probe — and now, an apparent probe by the quasi-independent State Commission of Investigation — will actually produce anything.

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They could come up empty-handed, or provide some milquetoast finding that will gather dust in the New Jersey State Library, the graveyard of all official reports. 

Then there is the issue of differing objectives. Law enforcement officials hunt for potential criminal liability. Lawmakers might stumble across potential criminal misconduct and refer it to authorities, but their focus is to identify how things broke down, who was responsible and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

Hiding behind the prospect of a pending law enforcement probe is often an excuse to do nothing.

"There were those who wanted to not have a legislature look into the abuse of power that was Bridgegate by arguing that since the U.S. Attorney's Office was clearly investigating ... that we ought to take a back seat and let them finish their investigation,'' said former Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, a co-chair of the legislative panel that investigated the George Washington Bridge lane closing scandal in 2013.

"The problem is that even assuming the convictions would have stood, it would not have addressed the abuse of power and how to stop it,'' he added.

Lawmakers have swerved around law enforcement probes in the past with mixed results.

The legislative hearings into the Bridgegate scandal, the political vendetta that clogged traffic in Fort Lee for four days in September 2013, were hampered when key witnesses refused to testify.

The panel also faced considerable pushback from Republicans, who dismissed it as a political witch hunt designed to derail then Gov. Chris Christie's pursuit of the presidency.

The hearings did not produce the smoking-gun evidence of Christie's involvement in the scheme. And Wisniewski was accused of using the panel as a launch pad for his own 2017 run for governor.

Yet the inquiry produced a rare tour of the inner workings of the governor's office. It revealed how the office and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — the bi-state operator of the bridge — became a taxpayer-financed subsidiary of Christie's political ambitions.

It prompted the legislatures in both states to approve an overhaul of the Port Authority — an effort that was jointly vetoed by Christie and then New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The New Jersey Legislature also conducted a probe into the circumstances of the rape allegations leveled by Katie Brennan, a former housing official in Gov. Phil Murphy's administration. She said her allegation that she was raped by a Murphy campaign aide in 2017 largely went unheeded during his transition to power and in his first year in office.

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Those proceedings took place in the Statehouse as the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office conducted its review of the Hudson County prosecutor's handling of the allegation. (The alleged assault occurred in Jersey City.)

The committee's work led to a broader — and long overdue — reassessment of how women are treated in the government workspace and a pack of new laws that changed the way state government handles sexual assault allegations.

Former Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, who co-led the Bridgegate hearings and a panel exploring sexual harassment in the Statehouse, also said law enforcement's work should not prevent the Legislature from carrying out its oversight responsibilities. What law enforcement is pursuing is "irrelevant," she said.

"It's not about hanging somebody from the town square,'' Weinberg said. "It's to find out what went on so that you can improve it, or make sure it doesn't happen again in the future." 

For a time it seemed that there was a real desire to take a thorough, unvarnished look at the state's handling of the coronavirus crisis at the Paramus and Menlo Park homes, which bore the brunt of the tragedy (Another 13 died in the Vineland veterans home.)

The Legislature, said former Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, had a "moral obligation" to ferret out the failures and identify who is responsible.

That moral obligation boiled down to just one joint hearing followed by a raft of mostly minor reforms that call for improving communications with family members and the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which oversees the three homes.

But the bills, signed in September 2021 with the governor's and legislative races in full swing, also served to blunt attacks by Republicans over the Murphy administration's handling of the issue. It was a cover-your-flank reform.

There were other damage control steps: A consultant's report that identified deficiencies and lax preparations in nursing homes (although it did not focus on the three veterans homes). A settlement reached with the families of veterans. And a vow by Murphy himself to conduct an extensive "post-mortem" after the election.

There hasn't been much follow-through on that promise. And a top Murphy official last week implied to legislators during a budget hearing that there probably will not be the promised post-mortem.

The sit-back-and-wait approach will suffice.

"With three current investigations going on, I think we're hopefully going to get the answers we're looking for,'' said Brig. Gen. Lisa J. Hou, who leads the state military affairs department.

The truth is, the Democrats who still run Trenton have no real interest in conducting a headline-grabbing investigation or a no-holds-barred post-mortem.

The Democrats are shellshocked from the outcome of the November contest, when the party lost seven seats in the Legislature and Murphy squeaked out a narrow win. All 120 seats are up for reelection next year.

Democrats want to move quietly to the cautious middle. They have no interest in raising voters' temperature and letting Republicans pound away at them over the issue. Let the investigations do their work. Let them file a report, grab some headlines and go away.

It's the Trenton way of doing things. It's safe. It's also a dereliction of their duty.

"When the Legislature wants to stick its nose in, it will,'' said Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would create a special legislative probe. "It seems like the only reason that they don't is politics."

Charlie Stile is a veteran New Jersey political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @politicalstile