As Chris Christie’s administration is being slammed by environmental groups for pushing in court for a reduced settlement with ExxonMobil, one group is expressing its support for the governor: the oil giant’s New Jersey lobbying firm.
Public Strategies Impact, the firm that represents Exxon’s interests in New Jersey, has donated $50,000 to "America Leads," a super PAC supporting Christie’s presidential campaign, according to federal campaign finance filings released Friday.
The Christie administration’s proposed settlement, which was announced in February, aims to reduce levies against ExxonMobil from $8.9 billion to just $225 million for widespread environmental damage at the company’s facilities in northern New Jersey. The decade-long case was reviewed in court this week. The governor and his appointees have defended the agreement as a good one for the state. New Jersey Democratic legislators have been seeking to block the settlement.
The donation to the super PAC from Exxon’s lobbying firm is “not surprising,” said Democratic State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who has led the charge to block the settlement. “If the judge approves Christie's settlement, Exxon will walk out with a check," he said. "The settlement's that bad.”
America Leads spokesman Tucker Martin, asked by IBTimes about the propriety of accepting money from Exxon's lobbying firm, said, “We greatly appreciate the support of all our donors.”
In the months leading up to the settlement, Gannett Newspapers reported that PSI cemented “an exclusive strategic partnership” with Christie’s departing deputy chief of staff, Lou Goetting, who is listed on the firm’s website. PSI has also given $80,000 to the Republican Governors Association since Christie became New Jersey’s chief executive, according to Political Money Line data. State documents list PSI as Exxon’s longtime lobbyist, and the firm includes a laudatory quote from an Exxon executive on its website. That website says the firm can help a prospective client secure a “meeting with the Governor’s Chief of Staff and Deputy Chiefs of Staff” and other “key staff members in the Executive Branch.”
America Leads has raised $11 million since February. Its top contributors were Steven and Alexandra Cohen, who together gave $2 million. Cohen’s firm, SAC Capital, was shut down in March 2014 after it pled guilty to securities fraud. As part of the punishment, Cohen is not permitted to manage any money other than his own multi-billion-dollar fortune.
In addition to the Exxon donation, the super PAC raked in money from contractors and corporations with current or prospective business with Christie’s administration.
- Winecup-Gamble donated $1 million to the group. The Nevada ranch company is controlled by billionaire Paul Fireman, the Reebok founder and venture capitalist who is reportedly pushing New Jersey lawmakers to approve a casino in the northern part of the state. The donation from Fireman’s firm came less than a month after Christie expressed his support for permitting gaming in that part of New Jersey.
- George Harms Construction, which has secured more than $180 million worth of road construction contracts from the Christie administration, gave the super PAC $25,000. The firm gave $85,000 to the RGA in the last three years.
- Joseph Buckelew, the chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew, gave $150,000 to America Leads. His company manages insurance pools for local governments in New Jersey, and he reportedly pressed in 2014 for state legislation to reform the state’s insurance laws.
- The law firm Capehart Scatchard contributed $25,000 to America Leads. The firm is listed as a designated bond counsel by New Jersey’s state government and its website says it is involved in “a wide range of public finance transactions throughout New Jersey.”
- America Leads accepted $25,000 from O'Neill Properties Group. Last year, Christie’s administration gave a $223 million tax credit to Sayreville Seaport Associates, a development project led by O’Neill Properties Group.
- Another $10,000 came to the super PAC from Acacia Financial Group, a firm that does business with various public entities in New Jersey.
- The Public Service Enterprise Group donated $250,000 to the super PAC. The utility is regulated by the Christie administration, which in 2010 approved the firm’s request for a rate hike.
- Christie’s brother, Todd, also gave $100,000 to America Leads. Ernst & Young, where he is a director, was awarded a contract by the Christie administration in March to provide financial advice to Atlantic City.
New Jersey has a strict “pay-to-play” law designed to bar state contractors from donating to state officials. That statute includes so-called anti-circumvention provisions that aim to keep firms from doing indirectly what they are prohibited from doing directly. However, the law does not explicitly apply to super PACs, which are technically supposed to be independent of public officials.
"All contributions to America Leads are made well within the established rules and regulations regarding donations to super PACs,” said Martin, the America Leads spokesman.