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Albio Sires

Hudson County Politics Message Board

Speaker's town his pay-to-playground

Published April 11 in the Asbury Park Press
By TOM TRONCONE
STAFF WRITER

If you want a no-bid town contract in West New York, it pays to have a friend in town hall, especially if that friend is Mayor Albio Sires, who is also the speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.

In West New York, Sires is the king of pay-to-play, the practice of rewarding major campaign contributors with no-bid contracts, a Gannett New Jersey newspapers' investigation shows.

Sires, in his role as the Democratic leader of the state's lower house, has personally blocked comprehensive pay-to-play reform from passing the Assembly for more than a year.

Since 2000, West New York, which has a commission form of government, has given more than $4.5 million in no-bid contracts to financial supporters of Sires' various campaigns and the local Democratic organization that he controls.

Sires insists he supports limiting pay-to-play. But a proposal he wants passed by June would restrict the practice only for state government. If signed into law, the proposal would leave Sires free to run his own pay-to-play empire in West New York.

Critics call pay-to-play a hidden tax that drives up government spending because contractors may charge more for their work to cover their campaign contributions.

Just last week, Sires gave Gov. McGreevey's public insistence on top-to-bottom pay-to-play reform a lukewarm response, even though he was McGreevey's handpicked choice for speaker in 2002.

"(Sires') commitment to reform in New Jersey does not extend to county and local governments, where billions in taxpayer dollars are spent," said David P. Rebovich, managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "And where political donors can now channel their funds to attempt to influence not just local officials, but legislators."

Sires contends that campaign contributors do not influence who gets appointed to professional positions in West New York, such as town attorney or engineer.

A Gannett review of contracts and campaign contributions showed that nearly all professional appointees and companies awarded no-bid contracts gave thousands of dollars each to Sires' various political funds.

Sires, 53, said many of the town's appointees are his friends.

"I know these people long before -- some of them -- long before I became mayor," Sires said. "Those people supported me and gave me money long before I became mayor. I know them to be professional, I know them to be trustworthy, and I think that there is nothing more important than that."

A Gannett review of campaign contributions and West New York professional contracts found:

  • Contributors to the Sires-controlled West New York Municipal Democratic Committee, or WNYMDC, were paid $4.5 million in taxpayer money through no-bid contracts from 2000 through March 2004.

    For example, Assistant Town Attorney Joseph Mariniello Sr. contributed $19,750 to Sires' political funds from 2000 to 2003. He and his Fort Lee firm, Mariniello and Mariniello, received more than $640,000 in West New York business from 2000 to March 2004. Mariniello is paid a town salary of $77,747 and receives health benefits.

  • Most professional appointees, some of whom are on the West New York payroll, have contributed to Sires' political funds since he became mayor in 1995. They have given more than $350,000 to the WNYMDC through last year.

  • Beyond the contributions from professional appointees, more than 100 town and board of education employees contributed more than $200,000 to Sires' WNYMDC from 1999 through 2003.

  • Sires appointed the son of a large contributor, who is also a friend, to a $35,000-a-year job as a commissioner on the State Commission of Investigation. Among the independent state agency's duties is to investigate government corruption and waste.

  • Two companies that were contributors to the WNYMDC were cited in a 2001 town audit as receiving no-bid contracts above the legal threshold. The town since has changed its bidding process, and about 85 percent of its contracts are now put out to bid.

    The mayor dismisses questions about the role political contri-butions play in awarding no-bid contracts to professionals, such as Town Attorney George Campen, a golfing buddy of Sires.

    The people who contribute are his friends, and his friends get the no-bid contracts and profes-sional appointments because of trust, Sires says.

    Because of all the attention to the issue, Sires said he is con-sidering a pay-to-play ban in West New York.

    "Quite frankly, with all this go-ing on, I've talked to my attor-neys, and we may do some sort of no-bid contract ordinance in West New York," Sires said.

    No changes at local level

    Sires, owner of A.M. Title Agency Inc., Union, has pros-pered politically from his friends' generosity over the years. They have streamed hundreds of thousands of dol-lars into his campaigns and po-litical committees -- money he's used to expand his influence throughout the state.

    As speaker, Sires is paid $65,333 a year. He also is paid $15,000 a year as the West New York mayor and receives health benefits.

    He is one of 14 legislators who also serves as a mayor. There are 120 members in the Legisla-ture.

    In his position as speaker of the Assembly, Sires can control what happens to pay-to-play re-form. He alone decides whether the 80 house members can vote on any bill, and is one of the two most powerful men in the Legislature. State Sen. Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, controls the Senate as its president. Last year, Codey and the Senate vot-ed unanimously in favor of comprehensive pay-to-play re-form and sent the bill to the Assembly, where it died in committee.

    Sires says limiting pay-to-play at the state level would curtail this "potentially corrupting" practice. But he says he sup-ports a 25-point Democratic plan for ethics reform that would allow pay-to-play to con-tinue at the county and local levels of government.

    Critics have said that if pay-to-play is restricted only at the state level, contributors could still influence a legislator at the local level if he or she holds a dual office such as mayor.

    The Democrats' proposed re-form legislation seeks to "set an example of ethical behavior that would put pressure on counties, municipalities and school districts to adopt their own reforms," according to a Democratic press release. But it leaves the system of pay-to-play untouched in most of the 21 counties and 566 municipali-ties in the state. Some local governments, not waiting for the state to act, have passed their own pay-to-play prohibi-tions.

    On April 2, Gov. McGreevey called for a comprehensive pay-to-play reform bill to reach his desk for signing into law by July. But Sires would not com-mit to such a sweeping reform.

    "We recognize that the gover-nor is recommending that the Legislature examine a series of additional issues related to the reform package, and we wel-come his input," Sires said in a statement.

    A little help for his friends

    Government watchdogs ques-tion the relationship between Sires and the town's profes-sional appointees.

    "If you see virtually everybody who is getting a professional contract giving to the cam-paign, then I think it does at least raise appearance prob-lems and raises questions about what type of connection there is between the contribu-tions and getting the contracts," said Larry Noble, executive di-rector of the Center for Respon-sive Politics in Washington, a nonprofit good-government group.

    Sires not only controls the West New York Municipal Democratic Committee but sev-eral re-election committees and the New Democratic Assembly Leadership political committee. As speaker, Sires directs which candidates get an almost un-limited amount of campaign funds through the leadership committee.

    With Sires at the helm, the WNYMDC has raised more than $2 million, more than $250,000 of which was eventual-ly moved into Sires' campaign funds, according to election re-cords.

    He was first elected to the As-sembly in 1999 and has been re-elected twice. He has been mayor since 1995 and was re-elected to that post in 1999 and 2003.

    According to West New York financial records and data from the state Election Law Enforce-ment Commission, friends of Sires who have benefited from pay-to-play in West New York include:

  • The law firm of Town Attor-ney George Campen -- whom Sires called a longtime friend -- which gave $19,250 in contribu-tions to Sires' political funds from 2000 through 2003. Cam-pen's partner, Gregory Farmer, is the town's Alcoholic Bever-age Control Board prosecutor. During the same period, the law firm of Farmer and Cam-pen, Union City, received $602,718 in legal work from the town. Campen is paid a salary of $80,153, and Farmer is paid $10,000. Neither receives health benefits.

  • Attorney David Corrigan, in-dividually and with his former law partner, Robert Murray, contributed more than $22,000 to Sires' political funds from 2000 through 2003. Corrigan and Murray are labor attorneys for the town, and their law firms were paid more than $305,000 for legal work. Neither Corrigan nor Murray is paid a town salary.

  • Lisa & Associates, which served as town auditors until 2002, contributed $10,000 to the WNYMDC from 2000 through 2003, and received $324,000 in business from the town. The firm's principal, Gerard Lisa, pleaded guilty in July to mak-ing corrupt payments to former Hudson County Executive Rob-ert C. Janiszewski to maintain its county auditing contract.

  • Carr, Daley, Sullivan & Weir of Jersey City, which replaced Lisa & Associates as West New York's auditors last year, con-tributed more than $26,000 to the mayor's political funds from 2000 through 2003, and were paid $264,000 for town business.

  • The law firm of Netchert, Hillmann & Dineen, Jersey City, which handles the town's workers' compensation cases, contributed $14,500 to Sires' po-litical funds from 2000 through 2003. The firm got $190,000 in legal work from the town from 2000 through March 2004. Sires said William Netchert is a long-time friend.

  • Two architectural firms, Ana Galvan & Associates and Rivar-do, Schnitzer & Capazzi, con-tributed $10,250 and $21,200, re-spectively, to Sires' political funds from 2000 through 2003. The Ana Galvan firm received $349,049 in work from the town, and the Rivardo firm was paid $419,323 from 2000 through March 2004.

    Sires says the appointments, which are approved by the town's commission members, are not influenced by campaign contributions.

    "I know these people long be-fore I became mayor," Sires said of the town professionals. "I know (Town Attorney) George Campen; we've been go-ing away for 15 years on a golf trip. He's a personal friend. (WNY Housing Authority At-torney) Frank Leanza is the same way. (Workers' compen-sation attorney) Billy Netchert is the same way. Those people supported me and gave me money long before I became mayor."

    Richard Turner, the town busi-ness administrator who is the mayor of nearby Weehawken, said that simply because some-one contributes money to a campaign doesn't mean he will keep a contract if he doesn't do the proper work.

    Likewise, some of the top con-tributors to Sires' political funds say they would give mon-ey even if they had no chance of receiving no-bid contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

    "The people that get appointed are active (in politics), and that's why they get appointed," said Keyport lawyer David Cor-rigan, who is labor counsel for West New York. "I think the important question is whether the people that get appointed do a good job."

    "I've been interested in Hudson County politics since I was a kid," Corrigan said. "I like peo-ple who do a good job, and Albio does."

    Rebovich, of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics, ques-tions such explanations.

    "When I go to Business and In-dustry Association meetings . . . all the business people, all they say is, 'Dear God, I wish the system would end, we're tired of paying, we're tired of donating,' " Rebovich said. "Even attorneys, for goodness sakes, don't want to give. It's too much."

    Donor's son gets SCI post

    Joseph Mariniello Sr., the as-sistant town attorney who served as the treasurer for the WNYMDC in the late 1990s, praised Sires as "one of those unique government officials who are not out for them-selves." He said he put money behind Sires' early, unsuccess-ful campaigns for mayor and handed out political leaflets with two of his sons.

    One son, Joseph Mariniello Jr., a 34-year-old attorney and part-ner in his father's law firm, was appointed by Sires in March 2002 as one of four SCI commissioners at a salary of $35,000 a year.

    Mariniello Sr. said the appoint-ment stemmed from Sires' fa-miliarity with the younger Mariniello. The nearly $20,000 in contributions made by Jo-seph Sr. to Sires' political funds did not influence the appoint-ment, the father said.

    In the SCI position, Mariniello Jr. helps decide what govern-ment problems the investiga-tive body tackles. The commis-sion has no law enforcement powers, but forwards its find-ings to the state attorney gener-al's office for possible criminal charges.

    The four commissioners of the SCI are each political appoin-tees -- two by the governor and one each by the Senate presi-dent and Assembly speaker.

    "I don't think there is any stan-dard for appointments," Mari-niello Jr. said. "I've known Al-bio personally for probably 15 years, since before he was may-or. He was and is a family friend."

    Sires said he sees no problem appointing to the state's inves-tigative commission the son of one of his largest campaign contributors.

    "He is young, he is intelligent, he is good," Sires said. "I picked the best guys that I was com-fortable with -- that I knew. Y'know, who am I gonna pick? Somebody from Monroe?"

    Bidding rules violated

    An audit of West New York conducted for the fiscal year 2001 by Lisa & Associates found that the town violated the state's competitive bidding pro-cess by giving no-bid contracts that exceeded the legal limit to three vendors.

    One of the vendors, Royal Printing Services, West New York, has been a significant WNYMDC contributor. Royal Printing received $38,895 in no-bid contracts from West New York in 2001, more than double the legal limit of $17,500.

    Ralph Passante, owner of Royal Printing Services, said he was not aware his company was cit-ed in the auditor's report. Pas-sante said he contributes to Sires' political funds because of the way Sires' administration has turned around the town.

    "I see the change in this town since this man has taken over," Passante said. "There is a dif-ferent atmosphere. . . . When you are in a town and see con-structive things going on, whether I get a dollar's worth of business or not, if a person does a good job, they should be rewarded."

    Since Sires took office in 1995, Royal Printing has contributed $10,500 to Sires' political funds, according to state election fil-ings.

    Sires said that based on the auditor's findings, the town now puts "85 percent" of its con-tracts out for bid.

    Under state law, contracts for professional appointees do not have to be open for bidding.

    "This is classic -- the definition of -- pay-to-play, when people who have jobs and contracts with a municipality then give campaign contributions to the political party of the municipal-ity," said Assemblyman Wil-liam E. Baroni, a first-term Re-publican from Mercer County who proposed an ethics reform package in March that included a comprehensive ban on pay-to-play.

    While the contributions to the WNYMDC are permitted, Baroni said it's a practice done by both Democrats and Republi-cans that needs to end.

    "I'm not saying that Speaker Sires did anything extraordi-nary," Baroni said. "The prob-lem is he didn't do anything extraordinary. This is the ordi-nary course of business. Repub-licans do it, Democrats do it. It's wrong."

    Staff writer Lilo H. Stainton contributed to this story.

    Tom Troncone: (732) 643-4050 or ttroncone@app.com

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