The Times, Trenton

Pay-To-Play Likely Post-Election Hot Issue

The Times, Trenton — Friday, October 31, 2003

By MICHAEL JENNINGS

Government engineering contracts don't necessarily go to the lowest bidder, which is why, critics say, engineering firms gave New Jersey politicians $8.5 million over the last 3 1/2 years.

In contrast, information technology contracts do go to the lowest bidder and that industry's donations totaled a far more modest $450,000 during the same period of time, according to Dudley Burdge of the Communications Workers of America Local 1034.

Burdge presented the numbers after analyzing campaign disclosure reports from January 1999 through June 2003.

And he says the difference in donations he found illustrates how "pay-to-play" - the tradition in New Jersey, and government in general, of politicians rewarding campaign contributors with no-bid professional service contracts - works.

"It's a marketing expense for the engineering firms. If they don't give, they don't get the work," Burdge said. "It costs taxpayers millions. The (information technology) companies don't give much because those contracts are awarded based on price, not which politicians they gave money to."

He and other critics charge the pay-to-play practice surreptitiously leads to taxpayers financing political campaigns, the equivalent of contractors being given inflated contracts and then kicking back a portion as a campaign donations.

Four firms - Schoor DePalma ($1.17 million), Remmington & Vernick ($714,000), the Alaimo Group ($647,000) and Birdsall Services ($483,000) - each gave more than all the information technology companies, which included the likes of Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Cingular Wireless and Unisys.

All four engineering firms declined to comment.

"It's not the engineering firms' fault," said one leading campaign fund raiser. "New Jersey has set up a system of legalized bribery that's worse than the media depicts it. But it's the game (the firms) have to play to get business."

After next week's election, another effort will be made to get a bill banning pay-to-play approved by the Legislature. A version of the bill applying only to state government sailed through the Senate and was expected to get speedy approval in the Assembly until Gov. James E. McGreevey promised to veto it.

McGreevey is insisting on a comprehensive political reform bill that would address ethical abuses in all branches and all levels of government in New Jersey.

Republicans, who were silent about pay-to-play during the Whitman administration, even after the auto inspection scandal, have railed on the campaign trail against McGreevey's position.

Harry Pozycki, head of New Jersey Common Cause, said he also wants to see comprehensive reform but believes that is being used as an excuse to do nothing now.

"Our first priority is pay-to-play. We have a bill addressing this nefarious system that is on threshold of becoming a law," he said. He contends a law banning pay-to-play would start a drive toward other reforms.

"These are for-profit companies. They aren't giving politicians money for altruistic reasons," Pozycki said.

He said the practice increases contract costs because firms raise their prices to cover the cost of their contributions and reduces the number of firms that compete for government work.

Pozycki said it also gives politicians an incentive to contract out work that could be done for less by government employees. In May, former Essex County Executive Jim Treffinger pleaded guilty to corruption charges, admitting that he created contracts to reward campaign contributors.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Anna Farneski said Pozycki's comments were "insulting" to DOT employees.

"Politicians aren't here handing out contracts. Those decisions are made by the professional staff," she said. "There is a state procurement process . . . and federal rules as well. If we don't use federal money efficiently, we risk losing it, which is something the state can't afford."

Farneski said hiring engineers is not the same as buying phone services or computer software. She said engineers have to design a project to address a unique set of circumstances.

New Jersey Citizen Action's Steven Bonime supports pay-to-play legislation and other reforms to prevent lawmakers from lobbying on behalf of their businesses or campaign donors and argues that publicly financed campaigns are needed to clean up state politics.

"Pay-to-play certainly corrupts the system and I'm all for banning it," he said. "But that only changes the rules of the game. The problem is the game. Politicians need to raise money for their campaigns and the people they go to will benefit from their decisions. As long as we keep playing that game, the public loses."

In Arizona and Maine, candidates must get several thousand $5 contributions to qualify for public financing, Bonime said. After meeting the legitimacy threshold, candidates cannot accept private donations and the cost of in-kind contributions and third-party issue ads are deducted from their allotment of state money.

A Democrat who accepted public financing won Arizona's governor's race last year, defeating a Republican who did not, Bonime said.

He is hopeful the Legislature will approve a commission to study public financing during its lame-duck session after Tuesday's election.

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