NorthJersey.com

Lawyers Won War Of Dueling Donations

NorthJersey.com — Wednesday, August 11, 2004

By BENJAMIN LESSER
STAFF WRITER

4th of 7 parts (links to all parts of this series in sidebar to right)

UNDER THE INFLUENCE: MONEY IN TRENTON

PART ONE:
Sunday, August 8, 2004

A record $56 million flowed to the winners in last year's legislative elections, much of it from interest groups trying to influence state policy. And the pressure to give keeps growing.

PART TWO:
Monday, August 9, 2004

Can't win in court? Get the law changed. That's a strategy that appears to be working for one millionaire who opened his checkbook to legislative candidates after losing a family dispute.

PART THREE:
Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Record found that three legislators took more in donations than they were legally allowed to receive from one businessman, but they gave the money back and under the law will likely face no punishment.

PART FOUR:
Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Doctors ramped up their contributions last year as they battled to limit their exposure to big malpractice judgments in court. But lawyers also gave big, and won in the end.

PART FIVE (A) | PART FIVE (B):
Thursday, August 12, 2004

One of the most reliable sources of campaign cash for politicians is other politicians. Money from politicians is used to enforce party discipline or help ambitious candidates make new friends.

PART SIX:
Sunday, August 15, 2004

Who were the top 10 donors to each North Jersey legislator? And who gave the most to the Senate and Assembly Democratic and Republican PACs?

PART SEVEN:
Monday, August 16, 2004

Campaign finance reforms touted by legislative leaders this year will affect only a fraction of contributors, and even they may be able to keep giving money and getting contracts.


THE STAFF

  • Herb Jackson, 42, has covered New Jersey government and politics or directed coverage as an editor for 15 of the past 20 years. A Hudson County native and Rutgers University graduate, he has worked in the Trenton bureau of The Record since 1998. Since February 2002, he has taken readers behind the scenes in Trenton with his column, "Capital Games."
  • Benjamin Lesser, 28, has worked on computer-assisted projects since coming to The Record in November 2000 from The Times Union of Albany, N.Y. While attending the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he worked for the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. He has also taught classes at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
  • Editors: Deirdre Sykes, Charles Stile
  • Copy editors: Mike Kozma, Nancy Cherry
  • Graphics editor: Jerry Luciani
  • Designer: Robert Townsend
  • Graphic artist: Bob Rebach
  • Photographer: Chris Pedota
  • Doctors and trial lawyers, locked in a fierce battle for the hearts and minds of state lawmakers weighing malpractice reform, contributed nearly $1.2 million to 2003 legislative campaigns.

    Generous donations were nothing new for the trial lawyers' political action committee, which anted up about $280,000 for 2003 and $800,000 over the last three election cycles. They always give a lot of money.

    But it was a departure of sorts for the doctors, who more than tripled their contributions to try to help persuade lawmakers that the way to rein in skyrocketing insurance premiums was to cap jury awards in malpractice cases.

    Indeed, MEDAC – the PAC run by the Medical Society of New Jersey – gave nearly $900,000 in the last election, a far cry from the combined $385,000 it spent on the previous two legislative campaigns combined.

    "In order to move the political process in your favor, the way to talk to them ... you have to give them donations," Dr. Manzoor Abidi, president of the medical society, said in explaining the change in tactics.

    The society's leaders decided during the summer of 2003 that they needed "to pull out all the stops" leading up to November, Abidi said, so they began to aggressively raise money from members to give to sympathetic candidates.

    And those candidates, the doctors believed, were mostly Republicans. As a result, MEDAC sent most of its dollars to GOP hopefuls and their party's PACs.

    But the strategy didn't work: The doctors had invested heavily in the wrong party.

    New Jersey Democrats won decisively on Election Night, seizing the majority in both houses of the Legislature. And that spelled trouble for the doctors.

    "We realized we lost the game," Abidi said.

    The trial lawyers' PAC, meanwhile, had given most of its money to Democrats.

    "Certainly, after the election, we were very confident that caps would never be passed," said Dennis Drazin, chairman of the PAC for the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, called ATLA.

    Drazin dismissed the notion that donations buy direct influence. But he did acknowledge that they enable donors to "educate" receptive lawmakers.

    "I don't think you influence people with money. You get a chance to educate them on the issues," Drazin said. "I don't think I've been able to persuade someone to vote a different way because I wrote them a check. We educate them about things they may be unaware of."

    He also said the lawyers would have been politically active with or without the malpractice issue.

    "We were aware of what they were doing, but I don't think we tried to raise extra money," he said. "Whatever we were doing we were going to do anyway."

    The legislators

    Among the legislators most involved in the malpractice debate was Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, the Democratic chairwoman of the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee. Weinberg - who received $3,000 from ATLA and $1,750 from MEDAC - said she usually sides with doctors, but not this time.

    "If I had a bias at the beginning, it was toward the medical community," she said. "It was the facts of the situation that changed my mind."

    "As far as I was concerned, the money didn't have anything to do with it."

    She believed that, in some ways, the doctors were "very ill-advised." For example, she said, a friend told her a doctor had placed her photograph in his office with the caption: "Bad for medicine."

    "That stepped right over the line," Weinberg said.

    Republican state Sen. Gerald Cardinale of Demarest said the doctors lost because they hadn't traditionally been players in the political process. Cardinale's top contributor was MEDAC, at $12,800. The trial lawyers' PAC gave him nothing.

    "The doctors, I think, were looked upon by those who are influenced by money differently because they traditionally were not active in politics," said Cardinale, who is a dentist. "So their interest would dry up as soon as they achieved their objective and the lawyers will be around forever."

    One of Cardinale's running mates, Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk of Montvale, supported the doctors' fight for caps but knew it was a lost cause after Election Night.

    "That was the sense, that it was all over," she said. Vandervalk received $3,000 from MEDAC and $2,500 from ATLA.

    Vandervalk, who served with Weinberg on the Health and Human Services Committee, believes the perception that donations are a prerequisite to being heard in Trenton is a serious concern.

    "It's all wrapped up in the idea that 'we'll give large sums of money and then we'll be recognized and get what we want whether it's a contract or legislation or anything else,'x" she said. "I think that's the perception out there and that has to change.

    "Unless we do some serious reform, it's not going to change."

    Fund created

    The doctors did get some of what they wanted from legislators. A bill signed by Governor McGreevey in June – a consolation prize of sorts – created a $78 million fund to help physicians pay the high costs of malpractice insurance.

    "We still passed a bill that is helpful to doctors," Weinberg said.

    However, the doctors say they didn't get nearly enough to bring the crisis under control.

    "Certainly this issue is not going away," Abidi said.

    Abidi said mistakes had been made in part because the doctors were "naive."

    "We should have concentrated on fewer races," he said.

    The doctors also attracted negative attention when some of them called one-day strikes - agreeing only to handle emergencies - or went door-to-door, clad in their white coats, seeking support in some legislative districts.

    The lawyers, on the other hand, waged a fierce public relations struggle with their foes. Each time doctors planned a rally at the State House in Trenton, trial attorneys hit the phones to contact clients they had represented in malpractice suits.

    "When they had their rallies, we made sure we had some of the victims to go public and put a human face on the issue," Drazin said. "As time went on, we did win the PR battle."

    In the end, the more politically savvy and experienced trial attorneys were able to defeat the passionate but admittedly naive doctors.

    "They may have spent a lot of money, but they didn't use a lot of common sense," Drazin said. "It came to a point in time that doctors committed political malpractice."

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