Top N.J. Democrats say group tied to Christie skirted pay-to-play law

Posted: December 31, 2010

TRENTON - Some New Jersey lawmakers have called for the cancellation of state contracts with contributors to Reform Jersey Now, a political organization tied to Gov. Christie that released its list of donors this week after months of criticism that it lacked transparency.

Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D., Union) accused the organization of skirting the state's pay-to-play law, which bars firms that receive more than $17,500 in state contracts from contributing more than $300 to statewide candidates.

The contributions are legal because Reform Jersey Now is registered as a 501(c)(4) organization and does not have to disclose its donors or cap what they can give. A leader of the group said Thursday that it would cease operations, but not because of the controversy.

The organization has touted Christie's agenda since it began in June and said its mission was "to promote public policies that create more jobs and economic growth in New Jersey, result in smaller and smarter government, and make our state a more affordable place to live."

Though Christie has said he was not responsible for the group, it is overseen by some of his top advisers, including lobbyist Bill Palatucci and political strategist Michael DuHaime. The Republican governor has also headlined its fund-raising events.

Public records show that some of the group's top contributors do millions of dollars in business with the state or are tied to companies that do. Reform Jersey Now raised nearly $624,000 from 244 donors.

Christie's office had no comment.

DuHaime, who was a strategist for Christie's 2009 campaign, said Reform Jersey Now "complies 100 percent with every state and federal rule" and exceeded those requirements by voluntarily disclosing its donors. The decision to dissolve had nothing to do with any controversy over the group, he said.

He said the organization spent the contributions on television and radio ads, mailers, and robo-calls promoting Christie's policies, including the 2 percent tax cap that takes effect in January. The remaining funds will be spent on "wind-down costs," such as legal fees, he said.

Of the contracts given to Reform Jersey Now contributors, Buono said: "The most egregious thing is that it's letting corporations buy influence. . . . All this does is further undermine the public's confidence in government, that government is there to protect their interests and fight on behalf of things they believe in."

Top donors to Reform Jersey Now include:

Ferreira Construction, which was awarded about $175 million in contracts this year by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and New Jersey Department of Transportation. The company gave $25,000.

George Harms Construction, which received an $111 million contract this year from the Department of Transportation. The company gave $25,000.

Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, which did $3.8 million in government business last year, including for the New Jersey Schools Development and Turnpike Authorities. Figures for 2010 were not available. The company gave $25,000.

In August, Christie appointed Jorge Berkowitz, a Langan senior associate, to the state's Site Remediation and Professional Licensing Board, where he and a dozen other board members are tasked with enforcing standards required of site-remediation professionals.

Constructors for Good Government, a political action committee overseen by the Utility Transportation Contractors Association. Among the PAC's top contributors are companies that hold millions of dollars in state contracts, including J. Fletcher Creamer & Son, Earle Asphalt, George Harms Construction, IEW Construction, and Mount Construction. The PAC gave $25,000.

Michael Perrucci and Douglas Steinhardt, who are partners at the law firm Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt & Fader, founded by Perrucci and former Democratic Gov. James Florio. The company received $3.4 million in government contracts last year, including with NJ Transit, though current contract amounts were not available. The firm lists George Harms Construction as a client.

Each partner gave $22,500.

Most of the companies did not respond to messages or could not be reached for comment. All did government business in New Jersey before Christie took office, including under Democratic administrations.

With the exception of Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt & Fader, the contracts generally were awarded because the companies came in as the lowest bidder. Contracts for professional services, such as legal work, are not awarded solely on price.

Perrucci, a Democrat, said that he had known Christie for 25 years and considered him a "good personal friend." He also praised Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), saying that he and the governor had dramatically changed the state's direction.

Reform Jersey Now has paid for robo-calls and mailers touting Christie's "tool kit" of proposals to curb property taxes and urging residents to call Sweeney to insist that the Legislature pass them.

"I'm involved in a lot of businesses, and I really just felt that this change is really important, because the best social program for anyone in the world is a job," said Perrucci. "If you stymie the economy, you are hurting the middle class. So to me, it's about bringing some good jobs in New Jersey and creating prosperity for everybody."

He also noted that he had lost out under Christie, with the South Jersey Transportation Authority opting not to renew his firm's legal contract over the summer.

Other major contributors to Reform Jersey Now included the Builders PAC, Toll Bros., and the Issues Mobilization Committee, a Realtors organization. Each gave $25,000.

Jeff Tittel, president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, voiced concern that the builders who stand to gain from state policies have been making contributions. Christie's transition team, which included DuHaime, has recommended policies to streamline development regulations, winning praise from the business community. Critics say those initiatives would weaken environmental protections in favor of developers.

"It's pay to pave," Tittel said.

In September, Christie unveiled a proposal to strengthen ethics laws and said he wanted to expand the strict pay-to-play rules at the state level to cover local contracts and campaigns.

But he has also insisted that pay-to-play restrictions be extended to contributions by labor unions, which are exempt and are a rich source of campaign donations for the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Buono and other Democrats are sponsoring a bill to force groups such as Reform Jersey Now to disclose their donors regularly.

"I think there are a number of unanswered questions. . . . I will tell you that you haven't heard the end of this," Buono said.


Contact staff writer Maya Rao

at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com

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