New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s trip to a Dallas Cowboys playoff game, where he sat alongside Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones in a luxury suite, raises “questions that need to be vetted” about whether Christie violated New Jersey state ethics laws governing public officials, a former state ethics commission chairwoman told ThinkProgress.
Christie has attended other Cowboys games this season, but this trip initially led to more scrutiny when the governor’s office was asked if he used taxpayer funds to travel to Sunday’s game in Arlington, Texas. A spokesperson told NJ.com that Christie “attended the game [Sunday] as a guest of Jerry Jones, who provided both the ticket and transportation at no expense to New Jersey taxpayers.”
But Jones paying for the trip could be an issue under the state’s ethics code, which includes a zero tolerance policy for gifts to members of the executive branch. There is a narrow exception that allows the governor to accept gifts from friends and family members, and Christie’s representatives have said that the exception covers the trip because he and Jones are friends. But prior business relationships between the state of New Jersey and a company Jones partially owns could still raise ethical problems, said Paula A. Franzese, the Peter W. Rodino Professor of Law at Seton Hall University and a former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission.
“There is an exception in the governor’s code that allows for the governor to receive gifts from family members and friends, but that is with the implicit understanding that the giving and acceptance of gifts is not intended to curry favor with the governor in his capacity as a public official,” Franzese told ThinkProgress. “This set of facts is problematic and raises a number of important concerns that would include, what kind of friend is Jerry Jones? Did his friendship with the governor pre-date the governor’s time in public office?”
The International Business Times’ David Sirota initially highlighted ethical issues about the trip, noting that both Jones and the NFL have had business relationships with the state of New Jersey since Christie became governor. The state provided the NFL with $8 million in tax breaks and $18 million in subsidies as part of its Super Bowl hosting duties in February 2014.
Jones is an investor in a company that secured a business contract with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo oversee jointly, two years ago. As Sirota reported, Jones’ son was quoted in the press release announcing the deal, which allows Legends Hospitality, a company Jones partially owns, to manage and operate an observatory at One World Trade Center. Sirota reported that government documents showed that Christie “personally pushed” for the selection of Legends Hospitality, though New York Yankees president Randy Levine, a board member for Legends, told the Wall Street Journal that neither Jones nor Christie was involved in the deal.
If Jones and Christie are “longstanding friends,” Franzese said, there would be no problem with Jones paying for the trip. But “if this is a relatively new-found friend, the presumption is that any gift given to a public official…is being made with the intent, explicit or implicit, of currying favor and enhancing influence.”
Even if Jones and Christie are friends, the existence of business ties could create an issue New Jersey ethics officials have tried to root out.
“At minimum, the matter raises an appearance issue,” Franzese said. “The question then is whether or not a member of the public would be left with the reasonable suspicion that some form of quid pro quo was at work here.”
That is pertinent, she added, because in surveying members of the public and private businesses about political ethics a decade ago, Franzese said she found that the most common perception was that “no one gives to a public official not to get something in return. That’s an unfortunate reality of politics as it plays out, so that’s why we adopted a zero-tolerance policy for the acceptance of gifts.”
Jones this week said that he hoped Christie, a lifelong Cowboys fan, would travel to Wisconsin for Sunday’s NFC Divisional Round playoff game between Dallas and the Green Bay Packers.