Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Law firms donate a little, get a lot despite NJ's pay-to-play law

By on 11:48 PM

The five law firms with the biggest contracts in Middlesex County gave a total of $134,075 to the political campaigns of county freeholders, who determine which firms get these lucrative contracts. And they made $3.1 million in county money from 2012 to 2014 from those contracts.

The bulk of the donations -- more than $65,000 -- came from Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer of Woodbridge, one of the most politically connected law firms in the state with particularly strong ties to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization.

Stacey Bersani, the spokeswoman for the county, said Middlesex County "strictly abides by the state's pay-to-play law."
Law firms
Experts in the law say she is correct. This practice is completely legal under the state's pay-to-play law.

While state law prohibit contractors from donating to county political parties and limits the amount of individual contributions from contractors to freeholders to $300, there are a few ways to get around the law, according to Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Commission.

Fair and open

"There is a loophole known as the "fair and open" provision. If that is invoked, the amount goes to $2,600," Brindle says. Under fair and open, a contract would have to be put out to bid and advertised, but there's no restriction over who could be awarded that contract.

The problems, says Harry Pozycki, the father of New Jersey's pay-to-play law and a former county freeholder, is that since the law was adopted in 2006, contractors have been looking for ways to circumvent it. The law isn't perfect and needs to be tweaked, he said.

"It's getting crazy," said Pozycki, who is also the chairman of The Citizens Campaign, a citizen activist nonprofit organization. "Its good to have pay-to-play laws because any time you can create distance between an entity and contracts is a good thing, but they are circumvented."

Ben Dworkin, a political science professor at Rider University's Rebovich Institute, said every time some kind of campaign finance reform is adopted, "it rarely closes all of the loopholes.

"There's an old adage that money in politics is like water on pavement, it will always find the cracks," Dworkin says. "If you close a loophole in the law, they'll always find a way to get the money there (to campaigns)."


The Wilentz firm is Middlesex County's bond counsel and made $150,266 last year, according to records supplied by the county.

The firm and eight of its employees also gave thousands of dollars in donations to the campaigns of the two Democrats on the freeholder board who were running for re-election, Charles Tomaro and Carol Barrett Bellante.

According to reports submitted by the law firm to the state Election Commission, as required under the state's pay-to-play law, the Wilentz firm and its employees gave Tomaro's campaign $9,000 and Barrett-Bellante's campaign $11,050.

Dvorak & Associates of New Brunswick, one of the law firms representing the Middlesex County Joint Liability Insurance Fund Defense, made $264,642 from its contract with the county in 2013, and donated $5,000 to the re-election campaigns of Freeholders Blanquita Valenti, Kenneth Armwood and Charles Kenny. The firm also donated $2,000 to a Democratic political action committee, the Coalition for Government Efficiency.

Even the law firm of Thomas Kelso, the county's counsel, made donations to freeholder re-election campaigns in 2012 and 2013. Kelso's firm, Kelso & Bradshaw, made the most with $1.2 million in county contracts, including the firm's contract to represent the county as general counsel.

Local laws

Counties and municipalities can also forego the state law by adopting their own pay-to-play ordinances and laws. Middlesex County does not have its own law, although 14 out of its 25 municipalities—do, including the two largest, Edison and Woodbridge.

There are more than 200 counties, county agencies and municipalities in the state that have their own pay-to-play laws. A complete list is available on the N. J. Department of State website.

Brian Amaral and Anthony Attrino contributed to this report.

Pay to play alive and well in Middlesex County

Data from 2012 to 2014 shows the amount that law firms donated to Democratic candidates and causes in Middlesex County, and the amount those law firms received in county contracts the same years.

Convery & Convery & Shihar contracts


Wilentz donations


Wilentz contracts


Martin Kane Kuper donations


Martin Kane Kuper contracts


Kelso & Bradshaw donations


Kelso & Bradshaw contracts


Dvorak & Assoc. donations


Dvorak & Assoc. contracts


Convery & Convery & Shihar donations


Convery & Convery & Shihar contracts

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