When lawmakers vote on bills, you might expect that they are physically in the state house chamber listening to debate and pushing the "yea" or "nay" button.
That is not always the case.
In July, when New Jersey Gov. Christie called a special legislative session to pass a package of judicial bail reforms, I-Team cameras caught several legislative aides sitting at their bosses' assigned desks and pressing the electronic vote buttons for them.
Official state Senate rules clearly state that "no Senator's vote shall be recorded unless the Senator is present in the Chamber."
But time and time again, the I-Team caught votes being cast when the senators were not in the room.
On at least two occasions during the bail reform session, Sonia Das, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, voted in place of Democratic Sen. Joseph Vitale, who represents Woodbridge.
Das declined to comment when asked about the legality of her voting in place of an elected lawmaker.
Das also declined to say where Sen. Vitale was when she casted his votes. After the legislative session ended, other staff members from Sen. Weinberg's office were able to get Vitale on the phone. He said he became ill during the debate leading up to one of the votes.
"I just increasingly didn't feel well and I asked one of the staff persons that was sitting next to me if she wouldn't mind voting for me while I went to the restroom and threw water on my face and tried to feel better," Vitale said.
The I-Team also observed other staff members voting in place of senators.
Al Barlas, chief of staff for Sen. Kevin O'Toole, a Republican who represents Wayne, sat in O'Toole's designated seat and pressed his vote buttons at least three times while I-Team cameras were focused on him. Barlas defended doing so.
“Sen. O’Toole was in the building. At the time of the vote, he was actually in with the governor’s chief counsel discussing the [bail] reform package,” Barlas said.
Republican Sen. Sam Thompson, who represents Old Bridge, cast at least one vote for himself during the special session, but as debate on the merits of bail reform continued, he got up from his seat. An unidentified woman in a red blazer sat down at his desk and pressed the vote button for Thompson while he was away. Thompson said having staffers push the buttons is a harmless custom.
“You don’t let the staffer make the decision for you. We are present. It’s not like we’re not in the building. We say, 'If they get to the vote before I get back, press the button for me,’” Thompson said.
Indeed, all the senators the I-Team caught missing votes said they were physically present in the state house while aides were casting their votes. Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat who represents Piscataway, said he was in a legislative meeting across the hall in room 103 when his legislative aide voted in his place.
“It is perfectly permissible to have your aide vote your conscience,” Smith said.
In some cases, senators pressed buttons on the desks of other senators in order to cover for them.
I-Team cameras were rolling when the Senate President called attendance and Republican Sen. Steve Oroho, who represents Allamuchy, pushed two buttons – one on his own desk and one on the adjacent desk to register Sen. O’Toole as present. Oroho said he knew his colleague would make it to the chamber soon because he had just seen him in caucus.
“Maybe he stopped in the bathroom. Maybe he stopped in the office or had a quick constituent meeting,” Oroho said.
I-Team cameras also captured Republican Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, who represents Montville, pushing the button on the desk of Republican Sen. Gerry Cardinale, who represents Cresskill, to mark him as present.
“Within certain limitations it is relatively common, particularly on a quorum call,” Cardinale said.
“I don’t see an abuse of that at all,” added Pennacchio. “Occasionally there is a pressing of the buttons but I don’t see a wholesale abuse of a technical rule.”
The Senate vote on bail reform paved the way for a referendum that will be on the ballot this November to amend the state constitution.
But the bail reform vote would not have been possible if not for a questionable procedural maneuver earlier in the summer.
Legislative rules say bills -- like the bail reform package -- must be on lawmakers' desks for at least 20 days before they are voted on. Last June, as time ran out to allow for that 20-day window, New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto called for a quorum on a Friday afternoon. With summer vacations in full swing and nothing on the legislative calendar, there was just one assemblyman in the building.
Nonetheless, the Assembly leadership marked all lawmakers present as long as they were somewhere in the state.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, who represents Morris Plains and is the Assembly Parliamentarian for the Republicans, questioned the maneuver that resulted in him being marked as present.
“This just struck me as being damn near close to fraud because there was nobody out there who believes we were there. [We] hadn’t been there. [We] had no intention of showing up," Carroll said.
After the I-Team inquired about the July quorum call, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat who represents Secaucus, introduced a resolution to loosen legislative rules, explicitly allowing lawmakers to phone in their consent during quorum calls. The rule change passed 72-0, just hours before this story was published.
“This was developed as an antidote to the perceived problems in the July quorum call,” said Tom Weisert, a spokesman for the resolution co-sponsor, Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Parsippany).
Under the new rule, lawmakers would still have to be physically present in the Assembly chamber to cast votes. However, they would be allowed to use secure phone or email communication to register their consent for other ordinary business to continue.
In an email, Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, described the July quorum call as “routine,” but said the revised rule is intended to “provide clarity.”
“This Assembly change recognizes the current common use of communication equipment that did not exist in 1947 when the Constitution was adopted,” Hester wrote.
Hester added that the rule change would not be retroactive but would apply to quorum calls going forward.
Follow Chris Glorioso on Twitter @glorioso4ny