New Jersey doesn’t have a law that requires law enforcement officials charged with a crime to be suspended, a loophole that creates a potential path for Robert Kugler to serve as Bergen County Sheriff even though Saddle Brook suspended him as their police chief.
If Kugler, a Republican, were to win an uphill race against incumbent Anthony Cureton on November 2, blocking his swearing in would be complicated.
The state attorney general charged Kugler with corruption and official misconduct earlier this year and indicted by a grand jury on September 13. He is set to be arraigned next week in an election where voting has already begun.
Saddle Brook suspended Kugler after the attorney general filed criminal charges alleging that he violated a local ordnance by ordering police officers to provide funeral procession escorts for a local funeral home he owns without reimbursing the borough.
Sheriff falls into a small box of elected officials who are essentially self-employed. The only way to remove a state constitutional officer would be through impeachment by the legislature or by a judicial order. No suspension mechanism exists.
If Kugler were to be convicted, he might be required to forfeit his public office. Still, Kugler has the presumption of innocence, and two criminal defense attorneys told the New Jersey Globe that this might be a tough case for state prosecutors to win.
The attorney general’s office declined to comment on what would happen of Kugler wins.
“We’re not going to answer hypothetical questions regarding a pending criminal matter,” said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the attorney general.
In the event of an upset victory by Kugler, the New Jersey Legislature would have the option of passing a law requiring the immediate suspension of law enforcement officials charged with crimes. That would need to occur during the upcoming lame duck session and be signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy prior to January 1.
This is the second time this month that an elected constitutional officer fell in to a gray zone.
It took the state judiciary about a month to figure out what to do with Passaic County Surrogate Bernice Toledo after the state attorney general filed criminal charges against her. Surrogate is the only elected judgeship in New Jersey, and it took a while for the Supreme Court to suspend her with pay.
Toledo is not seeking re-election and she’ll be gone on January 1, 2022.
The last sitting sheriff to face criminal charges was Joseph Spicuzzo, who was also the Middlesex County Democratic Chairman. He quickly resigned his post.
Sheriff is the only elected law enforcement position in the state. With the exception of the attorney general, who is appointed to a specific term, the removal of other police officers and prosecutors is less cumbersome.
In February, Jersey City police officer Stephen Wilson was charged with driving to Atlantic City for a sexual encounter with two underage girls. Jersey City immediately suspended him.
After Somerset County Prosecutor Nicholas Bissell was indicted on federal corruption charges in 1995, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman immediately fired him.
Sometimes the process moves slowly.
In 1992, Attorney General Robert Del Tufo launched a grand jury probe into missing funds in a real estate partnership involving Superior Court Judge Michael Imbriani. Eighteen months later, Imbriani was reassigned from criminal cases and moved to civil court after the probe went public.
Imbriani retired from the bench three months later, was charged six weeks later, and pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges in 1996.
In Kugler’s case, two things happened: his local governing body suspended him with pay, and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office took control of the local police department.
Kugler’s victory in unlikely.
Bergen Republicans haven’t won a countywide general election since 2013. The last Republican sheriff, Michael Saudino, switched parties to win a third term in 2016 and resigned in 2018 after getting caught on tape making racist and homophobic comments.
Despite the criminal allegations made against him, Republicans have stuck with Kugler.
He defeated Harry Shortway, Jr., the 82-year-old Midland Park mayor at the party convention by a vote of 269-98, 73%-27%. In the primary, he defeated Shortway by an 82%-18% margin.
Kugler mounted a campaign for the Democratic nomination for sheriff after Michael Saudino resigned in 2018 but lost the convention by a wide margin to Cureton. He ran as an independent, winning 13,203 votes (4%) countywide.
He became a Republican in 2019.