In State v. Thompson, A-2279-07T4, the Appellate Division held that a violation of the Conflicts of Interest Law and a code of conduct adopted pursuant thereto is not a sufficient basis for criminal prosecution for official misconduct.

In the case, the State appealed from an order dismissing 36 counts of a 42 count indictment. Thirty two counts charged six Treasury employees and two employees of OSI Collection Services, Inc., a vendor selected by the State, after competitive bidding, to collect tax deficiencies and delinquencies, with official misconduct. Four counts charged two of the State employees and the OSI employees with engaging in a pattern of official misconduct.

Twenty eight of the counts can be grouped into fourteen pairs. One count in each pair charged the State employee(s) and an OSI employee, as an accomplice, with the receipt of a benefit, including meals, entertainment, spa treatments and golf outings. The other count charged failure to report the receipt of the benefit to the appropriate ethics authority. In large part, the State relied on the Department’s Code of Ethics as the source of the duty allegedly breached.

Four counts also charged official misconduct when State employees failed to recuse themselves from the process involving an allegation of improper billing by OSI, the extension of OSI’s contract, selecting the committee that evaluated the bids, determined the winning bidder, and setting conditions on the bid that presumably gave OSI a competitive advantage in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:30-2a.

The Appellate Division, in affirming the dismissal of the receiving and failure to report counts, held that reliance on a violation of the Conflicts of Interest Law alone does not set forth a basis to impose criminal sanctions under the official misconduct statute as the imposition of criminal sanctions does not follow from a simple conflict of interest. There must be some additional allegation of wrongdoing. 

Considering the case law regarding official misconduct, the Court concluded that the imposition of criminal sanctions does not follow from a simple conflict of interest. Culpability is not based on the receipt of a gift in the absence of some additional allegation of wrongdoing. The Conflicts of Interest Law does not set forth a basis for criminal liability under the official misconduct statute. Although it sets forth the ethical obligations of State employment, its terms are not self-executing and do not proscribe any conduct. 

The Court also noted that the Conflicts of Interest Law and Code of Ethics apply to all employees in the Department, providing general and generic rules. However, official misconduct requires an alleged failure to perform a duty specifically required of the defendant’s office. Moreover, the Conflicts of Interest Law does not provide sufficient notice that the unreasonable appearance of impropriety may lead to a defendant’s conviction of a crime.