New rules on ousting corrupt sheriffs; recent plea deal points to need
Paulo Lima, Staff Writer
(BERGEN COUNTY, N.J.) --In the wake of deposed Bergen County Sheriff Joseph Ciccone's guilty plea to misconduct charges, the county prosecutor is calling for closer oversight of the sheriffs throughout the state.
Ciccone, who admitted defrauding the county and shaking down officers to pad his campaign war chest, was forced out of office two weeks ago with a promise that prosecutors would seek only probation.
State and local prosecutors said they consented to a no-prison deal primarily because it was the only way to get Ciccone out of office immediately. As elected officeholders, sheriffs are protected by the state constitution and cannot be removed until convicted of a crime or voted out.
And that's a problem, says Bergen County Prosecutor William H. Schmidt.
Schmidt wants to see sheriffs made accountable to a separate agency such as the county prosecutor's office or state Attorney General's Office. Although that agency would not have daily oversight duties, it would have the authority to take control of the department if a sheriff is charged with corruption.
"The question of how you handle a corrupt sheriff really is an open question that needs 1 to be addressed by the Legislature immediately," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said such a law would have changed the way prosecutors dealt with Ciccone, meaning that he probably would now be under indictment, awaiting trial, instead of planning his next career.
"If the same mechanism were available for dealing with a corrupt sheriff, then I suspect we would not have been as likely to permit a plea agreement that resulted in a non-custodial sentence," Schmidt said.
"While he deserved to go to jail, to have someone retain that office would have had a deleterious effect."
Ciccone and other sheriffs have taken the position that as elected officers, they answer only to the public. Schmidt calls such an attitude "dangerous" because of the unique nature of the sheriff's position, which combines law enforcement power with politics.
State law sets out clear guidelines on how to handle all other levels of law enforcement when problems arise.
For instance, county prosecutors have the authority to supersede a municipal police chief and take over a department. Schmidt did that in Lodi in July 1998 amid a massive investigation into alleged ties between Lodi police officers and members of organized crime. Schmidt ordered his investigators into the department, where they remain today, monitoring day-to-day operations.
Of course, the county prosecutor, in turn, can be superseded by the state attorney general. That happened in Essex County, where Attorney General John Farmer stripped Prosecutor Patricia Hurt of her authority in July 1999 amid allegations of overspending and mismanagement. Hurt resigned a few weeks later, and Governor Whitman named Assistant Attorney General Donald Campolo as Hurt's replacement.
Police chiefs and prosecutors, like attorneys general, are appointed, not elected by popular vote.
"If someone is acting illegally or inappropriately in a law enforcement position, to have to wait for an election is too long," Schmidt said.
Assemblyman Charles "Ken" Zisa, D-Hackensack, who is also Hackensack's police chief, said he would not agree with a law that gives an appointed official power over someone elected by the public.
"The prosecutor is appointed by one person," said Zisa, who has announced that 1 he will run on the Democratic ticket for sheriff in the November elections. "The sheriff is elected by a few hundred thousand."
Zisa also questioned the wisdom of removing an elected official on the basis of a charge or indictment.
"An indictment is not a conviction," he said. "You should remain in office until you're convicted of a crime. This is America."
Any significant change limiting the power of New Jersey's 21sheriffs would probably require a constitutional amendment. Such a measure would first have to be passed by the state Legislature, then approved in a voter referendum.
Zisa doubted his colleagues would even consider such a measure, which he called a power play on Schmidt's part.
"This is such a basic part of the New Jersey Constitution that I really don't believe the Legislature would try to change it to give Prosecutor Bill Schmidt more power," he said.
Officials in the state Division of Criminal Justice, which worked closely with Schmidt's office during the Ciccone probe, agreed that the current system is not perfect. But they do not seem to share Schmidt's view that reform is a pressing matter.
"It is clearly a problem, and the problem was brought to light by the Ciccone case," said Anthony Zarrillo, deputy director of the division. "We haven't really had a lot of history having to remove county sheriffs. Since this case isn't one of many, I don't know there is a crying need for it."
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