Not for nothing, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie carries an outsized reputation as an inexhaustible and prodigious fundraiser. Under his leadership, the Republican Governors Association -- which raises and spends money to bring more governorships into the party fold -- has harvested a record $102 million in the past year. This helps explain why many Republican candidates have been able to run competitive campaigns in traditionally Democratic strongholds throughout the country.
But a conspicuous slice of this money has come from companies that have secured contracts from the Christie administration to perform work in New Jersey. Proponents of tighter campaign finance rules say this is no coincidence. In their telling, Christie is effectively using New Jersey as the goodie bag for companies willing to deliver funds to the association, or RGA, handing out taxpayer-financed state contracts as a reward for those who participate.
An International Business Times review of the RGA’s campaign finance reports found many examples of donations from firms with business before the Christie administration.
Months after winning $17 million worth of New Jersey construction contracts from the Christie administration, the Walter R. Earle Construction Co. in September delivered $25,000 to the RGA, bringing its total to $50,000 for the election cycle. Another firm, George Harms Construction, has secured more than $180 million worth of road construction contracts from the Christie administration, and has given the RGA $60,000 during this election cycle.
A company called HNTB, which boasts multimillion-dollar contracts to do work for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and New Jersey Transit, put $40,000 into the campaign coffers in the last few months -- bringing its total to $240,000 for the election cycle.
Then there are contractors the Christie administration hired to help the state rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. The IBTimes review found 13 such contractors have given the group nearly $600,000.
Had these funds been entrusted directly to Christie's personal campaign as fuel for his own election, they could have tripped New Jersey’s so-called pay-to-play rules, which aim to prevent public contracts from being distributed as a means of courting campaign cash. As compared to the rules regulating governors in other states, the pay-to-play rules governing Christie have been billed as some of the toughest in the country. But these donations and hundreds of thousands of dollars more from companies that do business with New Jersey were given not to Christie directly but to the RGA.
"This is the perfect storm undercutting the New Jersey pay-to-play rule," said Craig Holman, an official at the campaign finance watchdog group Public Citizen, which lobbied for the original pay-to-play laws. "Christie is running the RGA, so government contractors in New Jersey can throw vast amounts of money at the feet of the governor, whose administration is responsible for awarding contracts and subsidies. It completely guts pay-to-play laws."
Holman noted New Jersey's rules include so-called anti-circumvention provisions designed to bar donations to coffers like the RGA as a means of getting around the state's campaign finance strictures. "The state is choosing not to enforce the anti-circumvention clauses," Holman said.
Neither Christie nor the RGA responded to IBTimes requests for interviews.
In just the RGA’s last quarterly filing before the November election, 15 companies with business before the Christie administration contributed nearly $600,000 to the organization. Over the course of the entire election cycle, those 15 companies have given more than $1.5 million to the group. Some of the firms build roads and others engineer bonds; some consult on financial management and still others run parts of the state lottery. But many have one thing in common: Had they written their checks to Christie's campaign instead of the RGA they might be vulnerable to a state enforcement action.
The companies that contributed the money to the RGA generally described those donations as endorsements for good government while rejecting any notion they advanced the funds as a form of payment for the business they have with the Christie administration. Some noted they donate to RGA and the Democratic Governors Association alike. But the DGA, which has raised significantly less money than the the RGA, is chaired by Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont -- whose state is far smaller than New Jersey and therefore has far fewer opportunities to award contracts to conduct state business.
“I know people want to say it’s quid pro quo, but we do business with people all over the country, not just in New Jersey,” said Jared Moskowitz, an executive vice president at AshBritt, which received a no-bid Hurricane Sandy reconstruction contract from the Christie administration before the firm gave the RGA $100,000 in September. That donation followed a $50,000 donation in 2012 just days after the contract was first awarded. “AshBritt has been donating to the RGA and the DGA consistently for the last five years,” Moskowitz said. Campaign finance records show the firm has given the DGA $170,000 in the current election cycle.
HNTB declined to be interviewed for this article.
Some $35,000 of third-quarter RGA contributions came from two law firms -- Capehart Scatchard and Archer & Greiner -- that government documents list as designated bond counsel. The firms’ websites say they work with New Jersey agencies. Capehart Scatchard also represented a firm that won a contract from the Christie administration to administer Hurricane Sandy-related housing programs. Some $10,000 came from a partner at Hill Wallack, which is also a designated bond counsel for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. The firm’s website says it was appointed as bond counsel by New Jersey’s Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, and it was hired by the state to provide legal advice in Hurricane Sandy reconstruction.
RGA contributions totaling $100,000 in the last quarter came from GTECH and Scientific Games -- two firms that are part of a consortium the Christie administration recently contracted to manage the state’s lottery system. And $10,000 came from Acacia Financial Group, a firm contracted by the Christie administration’s Department of Treasury to do financial analysis.
“There is no relationship between the contribution and any of the company’s activities in New Jersey or any other state,” said GTECH spokeswoman Angela Geryak Wiczek, who noted the firm has given to both the RGA and the DGA.
On top of contributions from firms receiving state contracts, the RGA’s third quarter report shows it raked in cash from firms with other kinds of state business:
Public Strategies Impact, one of the state’s most influential lobbying firms, gave $25,000. The firm’s website boasts of taking “pride in getting our clients in front of the key decision-makers” in the New Jersey governor’s office and says the firm can get its clients meetings with the governor’s chief of staff, cabinet officials and “key staff members in the executive branch.” The firm recently announced it had hired Christie’s deputy chief of staff as an adviser.
Penn National Gaming, which owns a stake in a Freehold, New Jersey, racetrack, gave $50,000 one day after Christie officials issued a directive effectively legalizing sports betting at New Jersey racetracks. A Penn National Gaming spokesman recently told the (Newark) Star-Ledger it is taking a “wait and see” approach to sports betting. A Penn National spokesman told IBTimes the company currently is “not even pursuing sports betting in New Jersey.”
Novartis gave $100,000 to the RGA months after Christie officials at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority awarded its subsidiary, Sandoz, a $9.1 million subsidy. That was in addition to $20,000 worth of RGA contributions by Sandoz earlier in 2014.
Verizon gave the RGA $50,000, months after Christie officials at the state’s Public Utilities Commission approved a settlement with the company that critics say lets it off the hook for a prior obligation to expand broadband services throughout the state.
Earlier this month, a New Jersey Senate committee advanced legislation to restrict campaign contributions from firms that receive state economic development subsidies. The bill includes provisions covering contributions to national groups like the RGA. The sponsor of the legislation, Democratic Sen. Raymond Lesniak, told the Guardian he believes the Christie administration has been leveraging its power to award state funds for “fundraising purposes to an extent unparalleled in our state’s history.”
Julia Glum also contributed to this report.