Thursday, September 01, 2005

Green candidate challenges freeholders to end pay-to-play

Green candidate challenges freeholders to end pay-to-play


Brian Unger hopes voters will paint their election ballots Green this November: Green Party, that is.

Unger, who is running for the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders on the Green Party ticket, has recently made waves with his call for tough anti-pay-to-play legislation on the county level.

Unger proposed a reform package he titled the “Public Accountability in Contracting Act” (PACA). The Green Party candidate’s proposal would forbid the awarding of contracts over $10,000 to individuals or businesses that contribute more than $400 to freeholder campaigns. It would also prohibit current contractors from contributing to campaigns of incumbent freeholders. Additionally, Unger’s plan calls for a four-year ban on contracts with businesses or individuals who have made political contributions to freeholder campaigns.

On September 22, 2004, then-Governor James E. McGreevey issued an executive order, effective October 15, 2004, prohibiting state contractors who receive more than $17,500 in contracts with state agencies from contributing to a gubernatorial campaign or a state or county political party committee.

A bill approved by the state legislature on June 16, 2004, to take effect on January 1, 2006, would prohibit contractors who receive more than $17,500 from counties or municipalities from making campaign contributions to county or municipal political parties or candidates running for office in that county or municipality.

Unger said the state legislation is filled with loopholes, and he criticized the Board of Chosen Freeholders for not passing a stronger resolution at the county level.

“There is a grass-roots movement in the towns and counties to do the tough, honest work that the state legislature doesn’t have the moral or ethical fiber to do,” Unger said. “There is a bill in the [New Jersey Legislature] now that would allow municipalities and counties to continue to adopt their own [anti-pay-to-play] measures, but it’s not going anywhere because no one’s looking, and there isn’t enough pressure to move the bill forward into law.”

Unger said the all-Republican Board of Chosen Freeholders is incorrect in believing that anti-pay-to-play legislation cannot be passed at the local or county level before the state acts.

“Mercer County has adopted pay-to-play reforms, other counties are considering them, and many towns including Long Branch and Belmar have already done so. The citizens of Dover Township are going to referendum to force their government to adopt more stringent measures,” Unger said. “We need this measure now because the state’s legislation is weak and only in effect from January to June of each year. So it’s important that as many towns and counties as possible adopt the toughest pay-to-play and wheeling legislation. Every county in the state should do this. It could help steamroll the legislature into meaningful action.”

“Wheeling” is a practice whereby contributors give money to a political action committee (PAC) and, in turn, the PAC gives money to the candidate the contributor was actually looking to give money to. Wheeling places a degree of distance between a candidate and a contributor, particularly when a direct contribution would give the appearance of impropriety or a conflict of interest.

The state’s provision only prohibits “wheeled” contributions from January 1 to June 30 of each year.

“Wheeling allows contractors, vendors and party bosses to secretly contribute to campaigns without proper disclosure. With cash gifts hidden, the contributors influence legislation, the award of contracts and patronage jobs, etc.,” an August 25 release from Unger’s campaign stated.

Contractors and contributions

Political contributions by county contractors frequently find their way into freeholder elections.

Money from the Monmouth County Republican Committee is used to heavily finance Republican freeholder elections. For example, during Rob Clifton’s and Amy Handlin’s 2004 general freeholder election, the two Republican candidates each received $50,598.12 in in-kind contributions, about 40 percent of the total money the pair received at that time, from the Monmouth County Republican Committee, according to New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) reports.

Under Monmouth County Republican Chairman Niemann’s watch, the Monmouth County Republican Committee raised the $430,035 in contributions over $400 from July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005, excluding money contributed to the county party by election funds of would-be office holders.

Of the $430,035 the Monmouth County Republican Committee collected during Niemann’s time as county chair, $75,570 came from companies that received a contract or multiple contracts with the county, as approved by the Board of Chosen Freeholders, from June 2004 to April 2005.

Additionally, according to the Monmouth County Republican Committee’s July 15, 2005 quarterly ELEC report, the organization received $37,000 of the $37,500 raised that quarter from the Monmouth Leadership PAC. Notably, $37,000 is the maximum a political action committee can donate to a county political committee. The $37,000 contribution was made on June 13, 2005.

The Monmouth Leadership PAC is billed as a non-partisan ideological committee created to promote the candidacy of strong leaders in Monmouth County. In fact, the Monmouth Leadership PAC shares the same P.O. Box with the Monmouth County Republican Committees well as many of the same contributors.

An end to wheeling?

Unger said that wheeling funds from various county political committees and PACs can be stopped through relatively simple legal measures.

Unger’s proposal would require that any business or individual applying for a county contract of over $10,000 submit a certification stating that they did not give funds to county candidates through outside individuals or committees.

“A simple cross-check with ELEC contribution reports would indicate if improperly wheeled money had come to the candidate. Certifications are a common regulatory mechanism widely used by state, federal and local governments. The process would halt wheeling for any contractor that wanted a county contract,” the release from Unger’s campaign stated.

At the very least, Unger hopes voters will look to the Green Party when they go the polls this year.

“The two major political parties in power cannot agree on who loses and who gains. Neither has been able to get the upper hand politically and both have successfully stopped tough, credible legislation from passing year after year after year,” Unger said. “The Monmouth County Freeholders are wrong. They can adopt pay-to-play reforms now and they should. Our home county is the political corruption poster child for the entire state. We need to be out front leading the fight for clean honest government.”

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