DRPA keeps political donations of its contractors secret

Posted: February 02, 2013

Even as it touts greater transparency, the Delaware River Port Authority is keeping secret the political contributions made by its contractors.

The agency exempted vendors' political contributions from public disclosure when it adopted a new right-to-know policy in November.

The policy states that DRPA "seeks to promote greater transparency and accountability in its dealings and communications with the public, recognizing that an informed citizenry enriches the function of government."

But not, apparently, when it comes to public scrutiny of possible "pay-to-play" violations by political donors who could be rewarded with government contracts.

Contractors doing or seeking business with DRPA must disclose to the agency any political contributions made in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But the DRPA withholds those reports from the public.

In December, the DRPA board adopted new political-contribution disclosure rules to address the perception of political influence and to eliminate any potential for political influence in awarding contracts.

The board gave the DRPA inspector general the job of reviewing contractors' contribution disclosures. But it kept them secret, arguing that vendors might be discouraged from bidding if the information were made public.

New Jersey's "pay-to-play" laws require contractors of state agencies to disclose their political contributions, which must be a matter of public record, said Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The Camden-based DRPA, as a bistate creation of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is not bound by the pay-to-play or right-to-know laws of either state.

DRPA spokesman Tim Ireland said Thursday the agency's contribution-disclosure process was an "internal management control" intended "to prevent conflicts of interest, not to generate data for public perusal."

The public can search state and federal campaign-finance reports for donations by vendors, including those seeking DRPA contracts, Ireland said in a statement.

"We recognize that our decision imposes some inconvenience on interested members of the media and the general public, but it doesn't impose much," he said. "Campaign-finance reports for federal and state offices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are readily available - often online."

An attorney for the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government said the DRPA decision was self-serving.

"The rule is clearly designed to protect the interests of the bistate agency by surrounding potential financial information that could reveal conflicts of interest in a shroud of secrecy," Walter M. Luers said.

"This is another reason why Pennsylvania and New Jersey should immediately adopt bistate legislation that makes bistate entities subject to those states' freedom-of-information laws."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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