A state ethics committee that includes members of both major political parties voted unanimously last week to investigate an ethics complaint against Assemblyman Nelson Albano.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, which is made up
of of four members picked by Democrats and four by Republican leaders in the state Senate and Assembly, voted 8-0 to look into a complaint concerning the actions of Albano, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, during a Feb. 21, 2012, traffic stop just outside Trenton.
State Police Trooper Randy Pangborn clocked Albano going 71 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone as he came into town for a budget address by Gov. Chris Christie. Albano tried to talk his way out of a speeding ticket, but when the ticket was issued he wrote a letter to State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes complaining about the conduct of Pangborn, which turned out to be refuted by a dashboard camera on the police car.
Republicans claim Albano abused his elected office and tried to ruin the career of a law-enforcement officer. Albano eventually dropped his complaint against Pangborn and apologized.
The issue has political ramifications for Albano and his 1st District running mates, Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, as they seek election Nov. 5. The Republicans running against them jumped on the issue, dubbing the case "Troopergate" and calling on Albano to drop his re-election bid and resign from office.
"The committee's bipartisan and unanimous ruling affirmed that this is a very serious matter and that there is sufficient evidence warranting a full-blown ethics investigation into Assemblyman Albano's actions," Republican Assembly candidate Sam Fiocchi said.
Fiocchi had previously written Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, Passaic, trying to get Albano removed from the Assembly Law & Public Safety Committee for "dishonest, unethical and possibly illegal actions" following the traffic stop.
Republican Assembly candidate Kristine Gabor, the wife of a retired state trooper, praised the committee for taking the case.
"Assemblyman Albano's actions raise very serious ethical questions, and his attempts to brush this off as a simple speeding ticket were complete nonsense," Gabor said.
Alison Murphy, Albano's chief of staff, argues the complaint is politically motivated and is something that happens "always before an election." She recalled similar complaints against former Sens. Bill Gormley and Diane Allen, as well as Assemblymen John Amodeo and Vince Polistina, which were dismissed.
"I fully expect this politically motivated claim to be dismissed as well. We go through this process almost every campaign season. It's getting old," Murphy said.
Albano could not be reached for comment, but Murphy said she has advised him not to address the issue anymore. She noted he paid the speeding ticket long ago.
Murphy also raised ethical questions about Edward Beck, the Republican committee member in Dennis Township who filed the complaint. Beck, a code enforcement officer in Linwood, has been facing allegations of a conflict of interest for purchasing a tax lien certificate on a vacant property in Linwood.
"The guy who filed the complaint should worry about his own ethics violations," Murphy said.
Beck recently sold the certificate back to the city of Linwood to remove any appearance of a conflict.
"Ed Beck is not running for anything. Nelson Albano is," said Ryan Reynolds, a spokesman for the Republicans.
Susan Adelizzi-Schmidt, the Republican candidate for Senate, is trying to draw Van Drew into the issue. She noted Albano's letter to Fuentes was on official legislative stationary with Van Drew's name on it.
"It's time we all found out what Senator Van Drew knew on this issue, and when he knew it," Adelizzi-Schmidt said.
Both camps dispute how significant an investigation is.
"This is not some crazy full-blown investigation. It's procedural," Murphy said.
The Democrats said most complaints are investigated, while the Republicans noted several others brought to the committee this week were turned down.
James Willson, assistant counsel for the committee, said all complaints are looked at but some are dismissed after a preliminary analysis. He said the committee decided to look further into the Albano complaint to see "if there is credible evidence of an ethics violation." He said the committee is already getting information from those involved in the incident and must rule by the end of the legislative session the second Tuesday in January. Murphy said she is hoping for a ruling before the election.
A violation could bring a fine ranging from $500 to $10,000 and/or a reprimand. The committee can also recommend that the Assembly take further action.
Willson said such complaints can't be filed 90 days before an election. He said Beck initially tried to file it in March but it was too close to the June primary. He filed it June 11, after the primary and almost five months before the November election.
Contact Richard Degener: