Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

About those 'secret' political contributions

Hmmmm... Woodrow Wilson on the $100,000 bill.
How New Jersey is that?
Plainfield readers of Sunday's Star-Ledger had
an opportunity to see the inner workings of pay-to-play by way of a major story filed by reporter Christopher Baxter on how the Birdsall engineering firm practiced the dark art (see story here).

The story was supplemented by an update that included a list of contracts Birdsall received between 2008 and early 2012, which I found practically useless (for that list, see here). To begin with, it was a large document (with nearly 2,000 pages) and appeared to have been taken from a poorly formatted Excel spreadsheet in which much data was represented by 'xxx' which indicates to anyone who has ever used Excel that the column is too narrow to represent the data it contains.

I noted that the list of contributions had a column headed 'C/S', which a note explained means 'corporate' or 'secret'. The gist of the story is that 'secret' contributions were those made by an employee with a personal check and later secretly reimbursed to the employee by Birdsall.

There is no way of knowing whether the recipient(s) understood this process -- though one has to wonder when the amounts run into the thousands of dollars -- and that is point of view taken in a Courier story digging into the topic today (see here).

For those who have followed Plainfield Today's coverage of pay-to-play, I pointed out this mechanism way back in 2010 --

...non-cash contributions up to $300 are exempted from the requirement that the donor's name, address and employer be reported.

The way many vendors get around the pay-to-play restriction is to have spouses, relatives, in-laws, employees and other make contributions to the $300 limit, meaning that the donor information will not have to be reported.

These contributions are often 'bundled' into one envelope presented to the candidate together, just so the candidate should understand exactly how much money has been generated by the vendor (see original post here).
As the Courier story points out, Birdsall lavished contributions to Middlesex County pols -- $189,000 in contributions between 2008 and 2012, of which only $14,400 was 'secret' donations. Birdsall netted $4.3 million in county contracts over the same period.

In North Plainfield, $2,075 in donations was received, $1,525 of it 'secret'; and Birdsall had contracts totaling $558,000.

Checking for contributions in Plainfield, results were pretty skimpy: it appears a $300 contribution was made to Adrian Mapp's campaign in 2011, and a single ticket was purchased for Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs inaugural ball in 2010. Both are marked 'secret' by the Ledger, meaning that Birdsall evidently reimbursed the donor at some later point.

I did not find any Plainfield contract for Birdsall in the (wretched) document that the Ledger put online. This can probably be accounted for by the fact that since Robinson-Briggs has been in office, the city's engineering firm has been Remington & Vernick and not Birdsall.

In 2011, in the face of much opposition from Mayor Robinson-Briggs, the Council passed a series of four model 'pay-to-play' ordinances drawn up by Citizen Action, the good-government group.

Here is an outline of the ordinances and the practices they deal with --

    1) Ordinance MC 2011-10: Competitive Negotiations for Professional Services -- Currently towns have two options for hiring professionals, the "fair and open" process or the "non fair and open" process, under both systems the city has broad discretion in selecting its professionals. The ordinance would require the municipality to obtain detailed proposal from professionals competitively, giving the city the ability to compare firm's services and rates and to expand the pool of potential firms. For more information about why the fair and open process is ineffective, read the State Comptroller's report:

    2) Ordinance MC 2011-11: Pay to Play Reform - Currently cities only have to use the fair and open or non-fair and open process for awarding government contracts, neither one effectively severs the link between campaign contributions and government contracts. The model ordinance will limit campaign contributions to candidates, parties, and PACs by business entities seeking government contracts.

    3) Ordinance MC 2011-12: Developer Disclosure Ordinance - Requires developers  to disclose their political contributions when applying for a major variance.

    4)  Ordinance MC 2011-13: 'Best Price' Insurance Purchasing -- Requires municipalities to seek competitive proposals for insurance coverage and hiring brokers. And it requires the municipality to hire the broker on a flat fee. Currently towns are not required to use a competitive process for obtaining insurance, and brokers are paid a commission by the insurance company. By hiring the broker directly, the municipality will eliminate any conflict of interest the broker may have and guarantee the broker is seeking the best coverage for the town.
Having the ordinances on the books, however, does not mean the issues have disappeared, as witness the continuing struggle between the Council and the Robinson-Briggs administration over using the corrupt and broken 'fair and open' (non-public-bidding) process which the Robinson-Briggs administration so favors.

So. what can be done?

The California firm that bought the remains of Birdsall (after bankruptcy and forfeitures), Partner Engineering and Science of Torrance, California, says it will not engage in New Jersey's culture of pay-to-play.

According to the firm's president, Joseph Derhake, 'We'll see how that goes'.

We'll see how that goes.


Anonymous said...

Birdsall's filings on ELEC show contract work for engineering/consulting services of $2800 and $2000 with the City of Plainfield dated March 13, 2008 and November 2, 2008 respectively. As for R&V, they've helped bankroll the campaigns of the mayor, Jerry Green, Tracey Brown, Adrian Mapp, and Vera Greaves. They pay the big bucks and get big buck contracts in return (wink, wink).