Sweeney calls New Jersey union threat extortion

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney

The top Democrat in the New Jersey Senate is asking the U.S. attorney and the state attorney general to investigate whether actions by two public employee unions are criminal.

Senate President Steve Sweeney says leaders of the New Jersey Education Association and the Fraternal of Police threatened to withhold political contributions unless the Senate passes a constitutional amendment to mandate state payments into the public employee pension system.

“This demand by the unions for a quid pro quo transforms the promise of the campaign contribution to bribery and the threat of withholding that contribution to extortion under both state and federal law,” Sweeney said.

He says he’s embarrassed by what the union leaders are doing.

“I am blown away that they would make these kind of threats like it was nothing. I’m a union official. It makes unions look bad,” Sweeney said. “You can withhold contributions from somebody because you’re unhappy with the legislature, but to specifically tie it to an action is in my mind illegal, and I’m not tolerating it.”

New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer says the union has done nothing illegal or unethical.

“NJEA has simply informed legislators and party officials that we are withholding support that we are under no obligation to give,” Steinhauer said.

Montclair State University law and political science professor Brigid Harrison says Sweeney’s assertions are a crazy strategy that will hurt him with an important constituency if he does run for Governor.

“Traditionally when we think of political contributions, we think of them as being voluntary funds contributed to a union’s supporters and I can’t see how it is not their right to withhold those contributions,” Harrison said.

Monday is the deadline for the Senate to pass the constitutional amendment to get it on the November ballot.

Sweeney says there won’t be a Senate vote on it until there’s an agreement on a new Transportation Trust Fund plan that ensures the state has the revenue to make mandated pension payments.

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