Express-Times

Publicly Financed Races To Get Trial Run

The Express-Times — Monday, November 29, 2004

By TERRENCE DOPP
The Express-Times

TRENTON — Pointing to a Hudson County lawmaker who used campaign accounts for personal use, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts says the case demonstrates the need for publicly financed elections.

Roberts, a Democrat who represents Camden, pushed a test run of public funding as part of a 25-point ethics package he ushered through the Legislature earlier this year.

"I think we have a situation where a good legislator and individual made a decision that was terribly wrong. He paid the price and that is appropriate," Roberts said. "Everything we do to make lawmakers less dependant on (campaign) contributors and more independent is a great thing."

Just two states – Maine and Arizona – hold publicly-financed elections. Both passed the laws when voters made an end run around politicians through initiative and referendum efforts.

The New Jersey test calls for two districts – each with its two-member Assembly delegation split between parties – to be chosen in the 2005 election.

Lawmakers there would need to raise 1,000 $5 donations and 500 contributions of $30 each to receive up to $250,000 in public money derived from taxpayers. If it proves successful, the Legislature can expand the program.

Focus was placed once again on money and ethics when Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto, a Hudson County Democrat, admitted profiteering from campaign accounts.

Roberts' comments last week were stronger than those he made in the days after the politician's plea, when he said he hoped the incident did not outshine Impreveduto's 17-year legislative record.

"At the end of the day individuals make their own decisions. When you see it happen, it's disappointing and disgusting and I hope it was an isolated case," Roberts said. "I'm truly convinced this (public financing) is the way to go."

Impreveduto, a high school teacher outside of political life and former chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Ethical Standards, was the first sitting member of the Legislature prosecuted by a state attorney general in modern history.

He has admitted he raised money for a campaign despite lacking credible opposition and used the money for his own gain.

Impreveduto pleaded guilty on Nov. 19 in state Superior Court to using up to $50,000 in campaign money between 1999 and 2004 to pay for eyeglasses, trips to Aruba and $2,000 in federal income taxes.

According to published reports, he also placed family members on he public payroll. The Star-Ledger of Newark recently reported Impreveduto spent $238,000 since 2002 in taxpayer funds to keep his daughter, sister and other family members on the staff of his district office. During that time he was given $304,000 to staff his office.

But Roberts and other public financing proponents said Impreveduto's biggest error was that he collected more than three-fourths of his campaign contributions from lobbyists with business pending before the Assembly Regulated Professions Committee. He served as chairman of the panel.

"It's a sad case in point. It's a poster child situation for public financing of elections," said Staci Berger, a lobbyist with New Jersey Citizen Action, a group that has campaigned to remove money's influence in politics. "The amount of money Anthony Impreveduto raised for somebody not in contention at all makes a graphic case for why we do not need itty-bitty reform. It has to be comprehensive."

Berger said the situation shows efforts to end pay-to-play politics have not gone far enough in the Garden State. The practice of awarding lucrative no-bid contracts to donors is traditionally found in the executive branch and at the local levels, which are rich with patronage opportunities.

"What these people were putting money in for was not for a contract but for a policy," Berger said. "None of the laws or rules we've adopted addresses the gaping loopholes there. You can drive a Mack truck through them."

Assemblyman Michael Doherty, R-Warren/Hunterdon, disagreed with the legislation creating publicly financed elections. He said the arrangement to be used in the trial run requires lawmakers to raise too many small donations and is skewed heavily to favor Democrats.

"Nobody has 1,500 contributors. I believe Democrats are cynically trying to manipulate the system. They can have 1,500 people from a union contribute statewide," Doherty said. "If you really want to do it, you have to have the candidates just making the decision."

Other bills in the 25-point ethics plan pushed by Roberts required greater financial disclosure by lawmakers and tightened restrictions on lobbyists.

Critics said it did not go far enough in tackling pay-to-play politics at the local level.

Efforts to do that are pending in Trenton and in several communities statewide.

Debate on the issue comes after a year in which Democrats shattered fund-raising records and federal agents raided the Democratic State Committee.

Two financiers to former Gov. James E. McGreevey also pleaded guilty to wrongdoing stemming from unlawful political fund-raising.

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