A spokesman for the office declined to comment, citing a policy of not commenting on "pending or potential" investigations. The office is an independent entity that probes misconduct in state and local governments.
Maroccia and D'Agostino vice president John D'Agostino Jr. each made $500 donations to Merlino's campaign in the months before she won her election in November, according to state campaign finance records.
State law forbids local governments from awarding contracts worth $17,500 or more to any person or firm that has made campaign contributions totaling $300 or more during the prior 12 months to local elected officials — unless the government has opted to follow a "fair and open" policy mandating that the contract is awarded through a public bid.
In December, outgoing Democratic Mayor Ralph Condo and Republican Committeeman Bill Richardson led a successful campaign to end the township's "fair and open" exemption and ban campaign donors from township contracts.
The next month, Richardson and fellow GOP Committeeman Bill Hurley complained to the comptroller about the contracts.
"I've been involved in community government for a long time, and I have seen campaigns where for a [committee] job that pays $4,000 in salary you're seeing campaign contributions totaling $40,000," said Richardson. "Most of the money comes from professionals who want to do work for the town. It's happened on both sides, don't get me wrong."
In November 2010, when the "fair and open" policy was still the rule, Richardson's own campaign received $3,000 in donations from the Berlin law firm Maressa Patterson, which was replaced by Maroccia as township solicitor in January.
Maroccia, who was removed as township solicitor for a different reason last month — for sharing news of a police officer's suspension with a local gossip website — said that the ban did not apply to him because the change in the township's pay-to-play law did not take effect until after the request for professional services went out in November.
"They changed the law a couple days before I took over. This was an attempt by the outgoing administration to keep me out," he said. "You can't apply a law retroactively."
Said Merlino: "The way I look at it, I didn't violate any law."
The township has since reverted to the "fair and open" policy, even though the practice has been widely criticized as a loophole for government contractors to buy work through political donations. The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission has pushed the legislature to end the exemption, and last year Comptroller Matthew Boxer also issued a report urging reform.
"The fair-and-open exception is more than just a loophole that weakens the local government pay-to-play law," Boxer said in September. "Qualifying for the fair-and-open exception returns the local government entity to the essentially unregulated system of contracting that existed before the pay-to-play law — and qualifying is ridiculously easy."
D'Agostino, who provides insurance consultation to three other municipalities in New Jersey, said he received two tickets to a Phillies game in return for his $500 contribution — with the campaign keeping the markup.
He said making political contributions was an expected practice but not one that guaranteed work.
"If people in politics ask me to buy something, I buy it. Same thing with the students who come in from the school asking to sponsor lacrosse. Being a businessman, you're asked to give donations every day of the week," he said. "I've never seen where that really matters, because if that was the case I'd write a check to every campaign in New Jersey."
D'Agostino replaced heavyweight insurance firm Conner Strong & Buckelew as Waterford's insurance consultant. The chairman of Conner Strong is George E. Norcross III, a managing partner in the parent company of The Inquirer.
Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @osborneja.