In game of 'pay-to-play,' Sires a winner, data showFirms with municipal contracts fattened his local political coffers Saturday, April 10, 2004 BY JEFF WHELAN AND JOE DONOHUE Star-Ledger Staff
Last month, Assembly Speaker Albio Sires unveiled a sweeping ethics package he said would make New Jersey a national leader in cleaning up government.
But nowhere in the 25-point plan did Sires propose new campaign finance restrictions at the local level, leaving untouched the long-standing practice called "pay- to-play" in which companies are rewarded with government contracts after making political contributions.A Star-Ledger analysis of thousands of town payment records and campaign finance reports show that Sires, the third-highest ranking elected official in state government and the mayor of West New York, has flourished under the status-quo.
Twenty-four companies that have made campaign contributions to Sires' local political accounts since July 1, 2000 have each earned $50,000 or more from West New York's municipal government during the same time period. In all, those companies have contributed $318,300 and were awarded $10.9 million in work by the Sires administration.
For example, Schoor DePalma, a politically connected engineering firm, made $18,500 in political donations and earned $724,394. The law firm of Mariniello & Mariniello, meanwhile, earned $654,404 after contributing $28,000. Joseph Mariniello, a partner in the firm, is also the campaign treasurer for West New York's Democratic Committee, controlled by Sires. Neither company returned phone calls for comment.
Sires said he "absolutely" does not make decisions about city contracts based on campaign contributions, adding, "We just mail the tickets and they come to the events."
"I don't think West New York is worse off than any other municipality. That is how people have raised money for years in this state. West New York is not unique," he said.
Richard Turner, the town business administrator, said all firms were paid the industry standards.
Contributors receiving government contracts is pervasive throughout New Jersey, and was evident in the local campaigns of both Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey and Republican gubernatorial nominee Bret Schundler when they were mayors of major New Jersey cities.
Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), one of the most outspoken proponents of legislation to ban pay-to- play on all levels of government, declined to single out Sires, whom he has clashed bitterly with over the issue.
"I think the play-to-play issue does not pivot around one individual," Kean said. "and I'm not going to comment on one individual. The system is broken, through all layers of government."
Sires said he declined to expand his bill to address pay-to-play at the local levels because he didn't think there was a consensus for such a move in the Legislature. He also said he would not seek to impose a local ban on contractors who make campaign cash donations in West New York.
"Quite frankly, I don't know how else we would finance campaigns," said Sires, who has championed public financing of state legislative campaigns, a measure he said is needed to avoid a system in which only the wealthy can run for office.
As campaign finance reforms stalled in the Assembly last year, Sires also led Assembly Democrats to raise a record-breaking $4.7 million on the way to expanding their majority in last year's legislative elections. Sires, who controls that powerful fund-raising account, again tapped West New York contractors to bring cash to the coffers.
Among town contractors who made donations to Assembly Democrats: DeCotiis Fitzpatrick Cole and Wisler ($70,000), K. Hovnanian Companies ($15,000) and Schoor DePalma ($21,500). Carl Goldberg, a developer who has done extensive work in West New York, was one of a select group that pledged to raise $100,000 for the Assembly Democrats.
Two years ago, the Senate passed legislation to sharply limit campaign contributions by state contractors. But McGreevey vowed a veto unless it was expanded to apply to local and county governments, and the bill died in the Assembly.
In March 2003, the Senate approved a measure addressing McGreevey's concerns, but Sires declined to post it for a vote, saying he would work toward a more comprehensive package.
Last month, Sires and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) unveiled their plan, entitled "Restoring the Public's Trust," calling it the most expansive ethics reform in three decades. In addition to a crackdown on pay-to-play at the state level, it contains provisions to outlaw no- bid contracts, put new restrictions on lobbying and force lawmakers to disclose more about their personal finances.
However, it does not ban dual office-holding, sparing Sires himself and nearly two dozen fellow lawmakers who hold two elected positions.
McGreevey has said he hopes to sign an ethics package by July 1. But he said the Sires package does not go far enough, prompting critics to allege Democrats are engaged in a bit of political theater to ensure the lack of consensus kills the measure and preserves their fund-raising advantage as the party in power.
Kean called Sires "the face of the efforts to stop reform," but added, "he did not do so single- handedly. He had a great deal of support" from "the entire Democratic leadership structure."
As Sires gears up for a political fight over campaign finance reform and ethics, a looming federal trial are giving new life to West New York bribery whispers that have haunted him for years. A jury in Newark will begin hearing testimony next week in the corruption and fraud trial of Rene Abreu, a Hudson County developer who once was among Sires' closest friends and fund-raisers.
Among the allegations is that Abreu funneled bribes from illegal video gambling operators to a "high-level" but unidentified West New York official. Prosecutors told prospective jurors this week that Sires' name is likely to surface in trial testimony or that he could be called to the stand. They have declined to elaborate.
Sires has acknowledged that he is the official referred to, but steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and said the allegations, which first surfaced more than five years ago, don't bother him beyond "a certain degree of embarrassment."
Sires has acknowledged that Abreu was once a close friend, but said they have not spoken in years. He said the trial won't distract him or affect his efforts in the legislature.
"This is not something that started the other day, this has been going on for eight years," Sires said. "It's the same old thing."
Staff writers John Martin and Brian Donohue contributed to this report.
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