by MATT FRIEDMAN
Two firms owned by Republican fundraiser Lysa Israel have collected over $550,000 from the New Jersey Republican State Committee and legislative campaign committees in 2005 and 2006, while her husband, Tom Wilson, has served as GOP State Chairman — a potential conflict that has emerged as an issue in Wilson’s bid for re-election this month.
During Wilson’s thirty months in office, nearly $850,000 in state GOP funds have gone to his wife, his brother-in-law, and himself, according to reports filed with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission and the Federal Election Commission.
Republican State Committee officials have declined to confirm Wilson’s salary, and since numerous monthly checks to Wilson include both salary and expense reimbursements, public records do not reveal an exact amount. Republican sources say that his salary is more than $150,000 annually – an amount that is consistent with the state GOP filings.
Some party leaders have been critical of state GOP fundraising efforts – which have severely lagged behind the Democrats – and say that the party’s poor electoral performance under Wilson and his business partnership with Robert Stears, a lobbyist pleaded guilty to bilking the Burlington County Bridge Commission out of more than $1 million, has led some Republicans to question his leadership.
Critics say that if Republicans are going to wage campaigns against Democrats that focus on ethics and fiscal responsibility, then having Wilson in office leaves them vulnerable to reciprocal charges.
This week, attorney Dean Buono filed a lawsuit against Wilson and other principals of The Strategy Group, a Trenton lobbying firm where Stears was once a partner. Buono, a former Democratic candidate for Burlington County Freeholder, alleges that Wilson shared in the profits received from Stears’ over billing the government agency and is seeking a return of the money.
Several Wilson allies said it was unfair to blame the State Chairman for fundraising problems, strongly suggesting that it is difficult for a party out of power to raise money.
Fundraising contracts for Turnkey Productions and T&L Consulting, Israel’s firms, is no secret to most GOP insiders. Israel is widely regarded as one of the state’s most highly regarded fundraising professionals, and her contracts with the state party and legislative leadership PAC’s precede her husband’s election as State Chairman in November 2004.
Israel left Turnkey at the end of last year. She is now raising money for John McCain; Wilson is supporting McCain for the Republican presidential nomination.
While there are no allegations of illegal activity, there is still grumbling beneath the surface.
And his brother-in-law, Kevin Israel, who was on the Republican State Committee payroll in 2005, was the only campaign manager to run a race that ousted a Democratic incumbent that year. Israel managed Jennifer Beck’s successful bid for State Assembly against Democrat Robert Morgan.
Wilson declined numerous requests to offer comment, but he has many powerful Republicans on his side, eager to defend him and his record.
They say that Wilson bears no responsibility for the party’s troubles, pointing instead to a well oiled Democratic machine and a party image that’s been taking lumps not just locally, but nationally.
Ocean County GOP Chairman George Gilmore, who heads the state organization of Republican County Chairmen, thinks Wilson has done well and is confident he will be re-elected.
“I’m not attributing this statement to anybody, but it’s easy to say you’ll do a better job, raise more money,” said Gilmore. “But when you get in office, you’re faced with the realities of life: that Democrats control the Governor’s Office, the Senate and Assembly.”
Gilmore did not see anything unusual or questionable about Israel’s arrangement with the committee.
“Unless someone can show that the fee being charged was exorbitant, you’re going to pay the fee. That’s the cost of fundraising,” said Gilmore. “I’ve had the experience — I’ve done fundraisers without experts and I’ve used (Israel’s former partner) Robin Visconi. You pay what you get for.”
Warren County GOP Chairman Douglas Steinhardt also supports Wilson, arguing that he’s done a great job considering the difficult circumstances Republicans find themselves in. He is not worried that Democrats will try to tie Wilson’s reputation to Stears during Republicans’ 2007 campaigns.
“He certainly hasn’t been implicated, and the best argument for Democrats or even any Republicans can come up with is that he should be removed because he didn’t do something, that’s ok, I’m willing to stand behind that guy,” said Steinhardt.
But the support of Wilson is hardly solid.
“His wife doing the fundraising and his brother (in-law) was working too,” said one New Jersey Republican player who did not want his name used. “Is it legitimate? Maybe it is. But how much money has that family taken from the GOP?”
A PoliticsNJ.com survey of Republican State Committee members published last week showed that Wilson had fewer than 50% of members either committed to voting for him or leaning his way — not considered a strong showing for an incumbent. The largest single group of committee members surveyed claimed to be undecided.
Some of Wilson’s opponents are just starting to go public with their grievances.
Yesterday, the Cape May County Regular Republican Organization sent out a press release endorsing Peter Mancuso for State Chairman and asking Wilson not to seek re-election.
“This is a statement intended to communicate to other chairmen and state committee people throughout the state that Cape May County recognizes a major campaign issue that the Democrats are going to use come the fall,” said David Von Savage, the Cape May GOP Chairman. “Our intent is to avoid a train wreck before it’s too late, to correct the problem.”
Morris County GOP Chairman John Sette also supports Mancuso.
“If you think we’ve been successful under Tom’s leadership, then vote for Tom,” said Sette. “If you think we haven’t, vote for Peter Mancuso. And if Peter doesn’t do a good job, throw him out too.”
Wilson’s two opponents for State Chairman, former Assembly Majority Leader Paul DiGaetano and former Morris Township Mayor Peter Mancuso, said they wanted to keep their campaigns positive and would not offer any specific criticism of Wilson’s leadership.
DiGaetano promised Wilson that he would not “trash” his character during his campaign, but did say that, if elected, he will not have any family members working for the committee.
“I’m not going to speak against his wife’s contract or his brother-in-law’s,” said DiGaetano. “If people ask me about my own chairmanship I will tell you that I don’t have anyone in the family who will work in the state committee either in the fundraising capacity or as a employee or consultant. That’s just the choice I’m going to make.”
Mancuso chose his words just as carefully.
“I don’t know anything about it more than what you’re telling me now,” he said, referring to Israel’s contracts with the committee. “I’m running on the platform of I can help raise money and I’m not taking a salary or anything for myself. That’s essentially where I am, and nothing has changed.”
David Rebovich, the Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics, feels that Wilson’s troubles basically are rooted in two issues: New Jersey Republicans have been outpaced in fundraising, and have not fared well at the polls.
“The losses on Election Day exacerbate any criticisms that party loyalists and activists have with the leadership, and I do think that party activists would be more tolerant of the leadership and even family money making if the party had been successful,” said Rebovich.