The exuberant bromance between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Jerry Jones, owner of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, is raising ethics and conflict-of-interest red flags.
Jones flew the governor and presidential aspirant on his private jet to a Cowboys game on January 4 in Dallas and entertained him in a luxury sky box.
In These Times asked, “When Christie received free owners’ box seats for recent Cowboys games, was he complying with New Jersey’s tough ethics rules banning gifts and favors to public officials?”
A company Jones partly owns won a 15-year contract with the Port Authority. Jones’ company will provide hospitality services at Port Authority-controlled One World Trade Center when it opens later this year.
Christie and New York governor Andrew Cuomo jointly oversee the administration of the Port Authority.
In a post on his great Conflict of Interest Blog, Jeff Kaplan said Christie’s defense is that he and Jones are personal friends.
“While it is true that the relevant New Jersey ethics code does permit gifts from personal friends,” Kaplan said, “this cannot mean what the governor claims as that would essentially permit any government employee to receive a gift from any vendor by declaring his or her friendship with that vendor.”
That interpretation would gut the ethics law, Kaplan said. It would also encourage vendors and government employees to become friends — “thereby making the conflict of interest worse and further discouraging ethical vendors from competing for the government’s business.”
Christie has said the friendship started a few months after Jones’ company won the Port Authority contract. Kaplan said that argument underscores that this is not the kind of relationship for which the gift exception was designed.
“As a former federal prosecutor who brought many corruption cases, the governor almost certainly knows that this interpretation of the ethics law is untenable,” Kaplan said.
“But as a politician with his eyes on the White House he seems to have made the choice that his ‘jury’ — potential voters — won’t care.”
NJ.com said Christie signed an updated version of the Code of Conduct for the Governor in April 2010. Executive Order 24 stipulates that “all public officials must avoid conduct that violates the public trust or creates an appearance of impropriety.”
Financial terms of the contract Jones’ company won have never been made public. The deal is projected to generate $875 million for the Port Authority, NJ.com said.
Susana Guerrero, the executive director of the New Jersey ethics commission, said in an interview last week: “I personally don’t see anything contrary to the ethics laws.”
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He can be contacted here.