Christie center of attraction at group's $25,000 a-head fund-raising affairs
BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie Wednesday said he is not responsible for the actions of Reform New Jersey Now, a group operated by the Republican governor's top advisers who seek political donations outside the limits of state law.
"I'm not using anybody,'' Christie told reporters at a press conference in Hamilton. "There are a group of citizens who are out there who advocate policies in line with mine, and that's great. I'm glad to have some help out there because when you're getting hit by an $8 million two-by-four by the CWA or NJEA, it's nice every once in awhile to know that some people out there actually agree with you.''
The group of citizens' advisory board includes Christie confidante and new state Republi national committeeman Bill Palatucci and lists as its treasurer Ron Gravino, who held the same post for Christie's campaign.
Democrats responded that comparing Reform New Jersey now to public worker unions like the Communications Workers of America or the New Jersey Education Association is not equal since it is open that union money comes from the members. Reform New Jersey Now is not required to disclose its donors.
Earlier Wednesday, four Senate Democratic leaders announced they want to amend state campaign finance laws to prevent a group such as Reform New Jersey Now from accepting hefty donations from state contractors.
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and Senators Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Union) and Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) announced they will sponsor legislation to prohibit state contractors from donating to what they described as political shadow organizations, saying that the front groups are just as political as the party organizations they seek to augment and should be subject to the same state pay-to-play rules.
The senators said their call stems from the controversy raised over the fundraising by Reform Jersey. On June 30, the group sent out mailers in some legislative districts — including Sweeney's — promoting Christie's agenda and urging recipients to call Democratic lawmakers and demand they support the governor. Reform New Jersey Now openly tells contributors that state disclosure rules allow them to make unlimited, unreportable donations.
People who wanted to attend a Reform New Jersey Now affair earlier in the week at the Mercer County home of Republican lobbyist Roger Bodman where Christie was billed as the special guest, were asked to pay $25,000 per person. Another $25,000 a-head event is set for Bernardsville next week.
Christie also questioned what he calls the "unfairness'' of the state's campaign finance laws.
"I'm somebody who's gotten the brunt of every part of the unfairness of the system,'' Christie said. "So you think I'm not motivated to get good campaign finance reform? I'd love to.''
Sweeney said, "Groups like Reform Jersey Now are simply fronts for their political parties, so they should be treated just like an arm of a political party. They should be subject to the state's financial disclosure laws. And they should have to live by the same pay-to-play laws that political parties do, too."
"Many of these so-called advocacy organizations are simply political machines marching under a different name and to a different set of laws," Buono added. "Allowing this disparity to continue would only render our campaign finance and pay-to-play laws useless. Groups like Reform Jersey Now need to live up to a higher ethical standard."
Invitations to events featuring Governor Christie and hosted by Reform Jersey Now include specific language that the group "may lawfully accept donations from any source — corporate or individual — in unlimited amounts" that "are not affected by the pay-to-play statutes ... or by applicable executive orders."
As a 501(c)(4) issue-advocacy organization, Reform Jersey Now is not required to disclose its donors. It doesn't have to abide by pay-to-play laws, which ban those with state contracts worth more than $17,500 from donating more than $300 to statewide campaigns.
If the group were a registered New Jersey political action committee, maximum annual donations would total $7,200. An individual could donate up to $25,000 to the Republican or Democratic state parties, but that would be the limit and the donations would be reported publicly every three months. Reform Jersey Now first appeared about a month ago, airing radio ads pushing Christie's proposal to cap the annual growth of property taxes.
Reform Jersey Now's website describes the group as "an independent New Jersey non-profit organization established to promote public policies that create more jobs and economic growth in New Jersey."
The senators said the provision would be implemented as an amendment to current legislation (S-2076) sponsored by Scutari that would require 501(c)4 organizations to disclose their contributors.
"Reform Jersey Now is simply undertaking a role historically reserved for the Republican State Committee, but using a loophole in our law to make an end-run around all of our reporting laws," Scutari said. "This group is doing nothing more than hiding behind its federal nonprofit status to play politics."
Christie's office has declined to comment on the issue and leaders of Reform New Jersey Now maintain they are following the law and will voluntarily disclose their donors — but not its expenses — by the end of the year.