So Richter took out his pen and wrote a check to the committee for $100,000 - one of the largest individual contributions in New Jersey history.
"It gave everybody a high," recalled Cherry Hill lawyer Lewis Katz, another committee member. "They really felt that it would sort of set a standard for everybody else to push harder."
Push they did. The committee went on to raise $13 million, propelling Florio and the Democrats to victory.
The check had another impact: It made Irv Richter a principal focus for those who think campaign contributions can translate into influence.
Since writing the check, Richter's Hill International has continued to build its portfolio of major public construction projects, adding $6 million in new state contracts. In December, Florio nominated Richter's wife, Janice, to a Camden County judgeship.
Republicans cited the check on the Senate floor in February when they balked at confirming Janice Richter's nomination. Sen. Leanna Brown (R., Morris) said the size of the contribution - written on the couple's joint account - made it appear that the judgeship was "being bought."
Under a campaign-finance bill approved by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Florio earlier this month, donations like Richter's are now limited to $25,000. The bill was prompted by a bipartisan committee that in October 1990 said there was a public perception officials were "for sale to the contributors making the largest donations."
Richter says he made the donation out of loyalty to Florio, a friend for more than a decade.
Still, he acknowledges it is no accident that some companies have more success winning government work when their friends are in office.
"If your competition has access because they've been political contributors and you don't, you're going to be at a serious disadvantage," said Richter. "So you always have to be concerned about that."
When Hill International loses a public job in New Jersey or Philadelphia, it's unlikely to be for lack of access.
Over the last 15 years, Irv and Janice Richter have become a pre-eminent power couple in South Jersey, hosting fund-raising events at their lavish Cherry Hill home for Florio, Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bill Bradley, and Mayor Rendell. Janice Richter, 46, a lawyer and a Hill board member, is chairman of Zurbrugg Memorial Hospital. Irv Richter, 48, is a member of the Rutgers University board of trustees.
Combined, the Richters and their companies have made more than $230,000 in campaign contributions. In addition, William Doyle, a former top officer of Hill, donated $19,000 in 12 years with the company.
In a little more than a decade, Hill International has grown into a $100 million company that has worked on many of the biggest construction projects in the Philadelphia area: the renovations of Independence Hall, Philadelphia City Hall and the Market-Frankford El, and construction of Philadelphia's convention center, the Point Pleasant Pump project and Camden County's sewer system. Public agencies have accounted for about half of the company's revenue.
Clearly, Hill could not have been built on political connections alone. It is well-regarded within the industry, and many, if not most, of its competitors also make regular political contributions.
Ralph Stanley, former administrator of the Urban Mass Transit Administration, credits Irv Richter with having helped to develop an oversight program to control cost overruns on UMTA-funded projects like the Market- Frankford El.
"They did a terrific job for us," said Stanley, now an executive with Bechtel Corp. "If I had a problem in this area, he'd be one of the first people I'd call."
As Florio assembles a re-election fund-raising machine, a look at Irvin Richter and Hill International illustrates the value - and the limitations - of political connections.
Based on interviews with more than 30 present and former associates and others, the story that emerges is one of a brilliant and driven entrepreneur, one who overcame a jail term early in his career and went on to be a lawyer and a businessman who helped create a niche in the construction industry.
Standing at a podium before a backdrop of rich red velvet curtains, in the subdued glow of two immense crystal chandeliers, the chairman of Hill International was leading a panel discussion in front of 150 heavyweights in construction, engineering and finance.
Clearly, Irv Richter had arrived.
The occasion was a Forbes magazine seminar on "Rebuilding America." The setting was the gilded grand ballroom of New York's Plaza Hotel, just a subway ride from the Queens public housing project where he lived as a child.
In the beginning, there was nothing international about Hill. Richter said he began the firm in 1976, borrowing money from a friend and operating out of his house. The company has grown at a dizzying pace, peaking at more than
2,000 employees before Richter sold off most of its engineering subsidiary, Gibbs & Hill Inc. Hill still has 500 workers in more than a dozen cities in the United States and abroad.
Richter first showed his entrepreneurial flair and his interest in politics in Somerset County, N.J., where his family moved when he was 11.
In high school, he was an athlete, an honors student and student council president. He won a statewide essay contest to earn a Washington internship with then-U.S. Sen. Harrison Williams.
Richter founded his first company, which sold engagement rings to students, while studying political science at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He told a local newspaper that he had begun the company because he planned a political career and needed to be wealthy to maintain his independence.
Back in Somerset County after college, his plans went awry.
In 1970, according to news accounts, Richter, then 25, pleaded guilty to misappropriating $91,150 he had received from more than two dozen investors for several business ventures he was attempting to start. At his sentencing, $3,200 was left.
Richard J. Van Fleet, of Branchburg, recalled in a recent interview that he had given Richter $20,000 to put in a trust fund for creation of a company to build geodesic domes. Instead, Van Fleet said he had told prosecutors, Richter spent the money on himself and on losing investments in the stock market.
"He was living high on the hog, and most of (the money) went in that direction," Van Fleet said. "He had a great big car. He was renting a big house in Somerville."
Richter said the money had been spent on legitimate business expenses - start-up costs and stock-market investments that went bad. He said he had relied on two partners who told him they had received the investors' permission to begin using the money before the companies were incorporated. The former partners could not be reached for comment.
"It was a civil matter that got elevated to a criminal matter," Richter said in a recent interview. "I lost more money in that than anyone."
Another investor, former barber Eugene Viscione, said he had declined to press charges because he believed Richter had no intent to defraud investors.
"If they would have given him a chance I think they all would have made money," Viscione said. "They screwed themselves."
Richter said that after he got out of jail he paid back the investors he had solicited. He declined to give the names of those investors.
Richter said he had pleaded guilty because his lawyer assured him that he would receive probation - and that he risked a long jail term if he went to trial. He was shocked when the judge sentenced him to jail.
Richter spent six months incarcerated at three facilities. At his first stop, Yardville Youth Correction Center, he was a cook.
The future millionaire was earning 53 cents a day.
After his 1971 release, Richter moved to South Jersey and found work with a construction consultant.
There, he said, he discovered that lawyers and contractors needed someone who could sort through complex construction disputes, someone who could identify liability and damages in layman's language. By merging his analytical skills with the knowledge of engineers and other construction experts, Richter saved lawyers' time and resolved disputes more quickly.
After a dispute with his boss, Richter quit and went into business for
himself, charging hourly rates above those of engineers yet far below lawyers' fees. He had created his niche.
"You may walk down the street, a tune comes into your head and you write a hit song," he explained in his spacious, paneled office at Hill headquarters on Route 130, formerly home to builder William Levitt. "And somebody says to you, 'How does that happen?' The answer is you don't know. For whatever reason, I could see my way very clearly through problems and how to really focus in on where the disputes were and help them find a solution."
Richter added to his credentials by going to night school and getting a law degree from Rutgers University. He had gotten bad advice from his defense attorney in Somerville, he said, and that experience convinced him that he wanted to know the law for himself:
"I wanted to make sure in the future that as a businessman I knew and understood the law."
Richter said that while he was attending classes, the dean of the law school - who had noticed Richter's conviction on his application - "wanted to kick me out because he thought I'd never be admitted to the bar." Richter insisted he was willing to take that chance.
After graduating in 1980, Richter applied for admission to the bar in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was rejected by both, he said, because of the conviction. He filed appeals. Committees for the Supreme Courts in both states held hearings and approved Richter's applications.
In 1981 - after he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar and before he was admitted in New Jersey - Richter was pardoned by Gov. Brendan Byrne. Two years later, Richter's conviction was expunged.
Richter said he applied for a pardon before 1981, but was rejected. He said he believed that his second bid may have been aided by his business partner, William Doyle, a former chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority and cousin of former Gov. Richard J. Hughes.
"Bill had friends in state government. I don't know what he did," Richter said. "Obviously something changed."
Richter became a national authority in the field of construction claims, eventually writing three books. "They were one of the best construction claims consultants in the world," said one former Hill executive. "That was their claim to fame in the early '80s."
Hill's success enabled the Richters to buy a home, formerly owned by the Flyers' Bobby Clarke, in the exclusive Wilderness Acres section of Cherry Hill; a $525,000 Shore house in Longport, and a condo at the West Palm Beach Polo & Country Club.
As the business grew, Richter brought in Doyle, a seasoned construction executive, to provide management experience. He expanded Hill to include construction and project management - monitoring contractors during construction to prevent problems from developing.
In this field, Hill faced more intense competition from bigger companies.
Because such contracts are not awarded simply on price, competitors look for an edge.
"Bill Doyle and Irv used to have a form for all big jobs where we would list all the decision-makers and who was assigned to get to that person and convince that person to vote favorably for us," said one former Hill executive. "Dinners, sporting events - we'd go as far as people would allow us."
Hill entertained Florio and other officials at Doyle's Veterans Stadium superbox. The firm hired former government officials, including W. Oliver Leggett, a onetime deputy mayor to Mayor W. Wilson Goode, and former State Sen. Tom Foy (D., Burlington). Foy was known in the company as "the ambassador" for his contacts in New Jersey government.
And there were political contributions.
"It was common practice for the executives to be told, 'Here's 10 seats (for a fund-raising event). Get them sold," said the former Hill official. ''And then we'd have to lay on our suppliers to buy these seats. (Richter's) secretary would be calling every two days."
Richter said that account was "absolutely false." He said he had never asked employees to sell tickets. He said he paid for tickets and asked employees to invite clients and friends to fill the seats - following industry-wide practice.
"We try to develop relationships that are a lot broader and stronger than just business," Richter said.
"There are very, very few people who can ever help you get work," he said. "There are a lot of people . . . that can stop you from getting work."
Richter's political involvement is most obvious in Camden County, where Richter's companies have given more than $20,000 to Democratic candidates since 1988. Over the same period, Hill has received more than $10.7 million through two contracts with the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority.
Herman Englebert, executive director of the agency, said it had interviewed Hill and about two other companies before selecting Richter's firm for a $7.7 million job overseeing construction of the Big Timber Creek sewer interceptor.
Because Hill successfully completed the Big Timber Creek job, Englebert said, the authority awarded the company a no-bid $3 million contract to oversee building of a sewage sludge composting plant.
Asked whether Hill's campaign contributions had been a factor in its selection, Englebert responded: "One never knows what someone might be saying to one or two commissioners. . . . The board certainly would look more favorably upon qualified firms that are local firms."
"We're a major player in South Jersey," Richter said, "and therefore it's important to me that we have access to those people who are important in affecting our lives. . . . But do I think it has any impact on (getting) work? No."
Richter also has spread his largess in Philadelphia, supporting Rendell and City Controller Jonathan A. Saidel, who received $1,000 each in 1989.
In 1991, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, led by Saidel, selected Hill to oversee construction of townhouses at the Southwark homes. Saidel and Richter said there was no connection between the contribution and the contract.
"To suggest that Jonathan Saidel is going to award us a major construction-management project, on a project that has high visibility to him in the city, for $1,000 is ridiculous," Richter said.
Records show that Hill's original bid on the project was $790,000, the highest of 12 proposals and more than double the median bid of $335,000.
Lee Casper, a retired home-builder who served on a Chamber of Commerce committee that reviewed PHA operations in 1991, questioned why PHA needed to hire anyone when it had architects and engineers who could have supervised the project.
The chamber committee questioned the process by which Hill was allowed to lower its bid to $392,490 - an opportunity the chamber committee said had not been offered to other bidders.
Casper said the committee had been told by Hill executive Doyle that Saidel had asked the company to bid. Saidel said he had not invited Hill to bid on the project.
Doyle, in an interview, said he had met with Saidel after Hill's salespeople "exposed me to some of the prices that were being bid." Doyle said he told the controller: "We can't do it for that price. Nobody can.' "
According to Doyle, Saidel replied: "Bid it. Bid it the right way."
Doyle acknowledged that Hill had later reduced its bid. Doyle said Hill had done so because PHA had scaled back the oversight it wanted done.
Casper remains sharply critical of the contract. "That contract," he said, "had not been offered or consummated in the best interests of the city of Philadelphia. There's not a question in my mind."
PHA killed the contract after it drew criticism from the chamber and from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Last September, HUD decided the Housing Authority lacked the staff to manage the townhouse project and other construction work at Southwark. PHA is now reviewing new proposals from 15 companies, including Hill International.
Since Florio took office, Hill has won two contracts worth about $6 million with N.J. Transit and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. Richter and state officials say Hill won the contracts on merit.
When the Turnpike Authority reviewed proposals from four firms to oversee widening of a 24-mile section of the roadway in the waning months of the administration of Gov. Thomas H. Kean in 1989, Hill's was ranked last, according to Jim Kennedy, then the authority's assistant executive director.
"They're a real fine firm," Kennedy, a Republican political appointee, said of Hill International. "But the area that we were questioning them in was an area that they didn't have a lot of experience in."
Richter said in an interview that he wasn't surprised to hear of the authority's conclusion.
"They were looking for a lot of inspectors," Richter said. "That is not our strength."
Because of delays in the project, no contract was issued in 1989.
After Florio took office in 1990 and replaced Kennedy and other top Republicans at the authority, the four firms were invited to submit new proposals for a scaled-down widening project. This time, turnpike officials ranked Hill first.
Richter says Hill won the job the second time because his firm was the most
qualified and its $4.3 million price was more than $1 million lower than its closest competitor.
Turnpike executive director Donald L. Watson said the biggest reason for Hill's selection was that it was able to begin the project sooner.
Some Turnpike Authority employees and former officials contend there routinely are political considerations in the awarding of authority contracts, under Republican or Democratic governors. These officials will not comment by name, and Watson disputes that such statements are relevant under his administration.
"There was no politics involved. I don't even know these people," said Watson, who joined the Turnpike Authority in 1990 from the California Department of Transportation.
In December 1991, N.J. Transit awarded a $4.1 million contract to Bechtel Corp. of San Francisco to oversee construction of the "Kearny connection," a link between two North Jersey rail lines. The proposal for that contract was submitted jointly by Bechtel and Hill International, the major subcontractor.
A former Hill executive who asked not to be named said Bechtel had teamed with Hill to obtain Hill's political connection.
Mike Saade, manager of one of Bechtel's New York subsidiaries, said the company had chosen to work with Hill for several reasons, including the fact that it is a New Jersey company.
"We felt it would help to have someone who was already familiar with New Jersey Transit," Saade said.
Richter said Bechtel had chosen Hill because "any big firm always wants local contacts. . . . As a local firm you pay local taxes, you have local employees, and you are not about to let this project go bad, because you live here."
Vince Soleo, N.J. Transit's director of procurement, said the Kearny connection was the only N.J. Transit contract Hill had won in five attempts since 1988.
"They've lost bigger contracts than they won," Soleo said. " . . . I don't care what influence they have in Trenton. We do our thing independently."
Richter and others say publicity brought by the $100,000 check may have cost Hill some state business.
"If you took a vote among my staff, I think they would say the result of that contribution was negative," Richter said. "And I think it was negative. If I had understood what the reaction would have been, I wouldn't have written it."
Several political sources said Richter may be costing his company a chance for a contract at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
"This guy (Richter) went around telling everyone who would listen that he had this contract," said one official involved in the project who refused to be named. Hill's talk about the contract, the official said, makes it "very politically difficult to give it to him."
"He projects a bad image for the administration because he brags a lot," said a Democrat active in New Jersey politics. "And then on the other hand complains that he doesn't get enough work."
Richter said stories of his boasting about political connections had been spread by competitors.
"Anybody who would go around and make a representation that they have a governor and that governor is getting them work doesn't know Jim Florio and doesn't know how the process works," said Richter, who said he had been social friends with Florio for more than a decade. "Because all you have to do is say that and you're going to have problems with people who are sensitive to public (perception)."
Florio spokeswoman Jo Astrid Glading said there was no link between Richter's campaign contributions and Hill's contracts.
"Irv Richter has one of the largest . . . firms in South Jersey, and he has competed for contracts and won them and competed for contracts and lost them," Glading said. "Contributions have nothing to do with it."
Glading rebutted complaints by Republican legislators and some members of the Camden County bar of a link between the $100,000 check and Florio's nomination of Janice Richter to a Camden County judgeship.
Glading said suggestions that such a link existed were "offensive."
"New Jersey has one of the best systems in the country for selecting judges," Glading said. "There's a rigorous screening process before a nomination is made."
If confirmed, Richter would join the bench with 12 years' experience, less than virtually any other Superior Court judge in the state.
The Senate suspended a vote on Richter in February when it became clear that she lacked the 21 votes to win confirmation. In a brief telephone interview, Janice Richter defended her qualifications, noting that she had recently completed the Supreme Court's rigorous certification process for civil trial attorneys.
She acknowledged that she had been aided by her political ties.
"I would never say I'm the most qualified person in Camden County to be a judge. . . . Many of the most qualified people either aren't interested or don't have the entree."
Though primarily identified with Democrats, Richter has formed alliances with Republicans.
Republican lobbyist Peter Terpeluk says that after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, he, Lautenberg and U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.) lobbied Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher and won Richter a coveted seat on the ''Freedom Flight" to Kuwait with the liberated country's U.S. ambassador.
Although Richter remains on the Democrats' finance committee, political sources from both parties say he has made overtures to Republican hopeful Christine Todd Whitman.
Richter said he would support Florio. He acknowledged that he would like to meet with Whitman, the GOP front-runner.
"We're a major taxpayer in this state," he said. "If she's going to run for governor, I'd be interested in what she has to say."