Morning News Digest: January 22, 2010

The Shot Heard ’Round the Clubs
The mystery of Finn M. W. Caspersen still haunts the high-Wasp enclaves of Florida’s Jupiter Island, the Rhode Island shore town of Westerly, and New Jersey horse country: What led the well-connected, immensely wealthy 67-year-old philanthropist to such a shocking act? The author searches out the shadows in an outwardly impeccable life.  (Cohan, Vanity Fair)

Senate GOP has more money than Dems; Codey gives away $185k before ceding PAC to Sweeney

Republicans are ecstatic that, for the first time in recent memory, their senate leadership PAC finished the year with more cash on hand than their Democratic counterparts. But the reason for that has more to do with internal Democratic drama than with a Republican fundraising resurgence. As a lame duck senate president, Richard Codey (D-Roseland) took $185,000 from the Senate Democratic Majority PAC and distributed it to his own election fund and the funds of a few key allies. In November, Codey gave $75,000 to his own campaign, $50,000 to state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), $30,000 to state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) and $30,000 to state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence). All three remained supporters of Codey for senate president, even after it was clear that state Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) had the votes lined up to topple him. All three of them also lost their committee chairmanships to senators who supported Sweeney. Codey said he decided to distribute the money to those senators because they were listed as possible redistricting targets in anInside Edge item on “They were just the ones who were threatened in what we call theNorcross Gazette – Wally Edge,” said Codey. Codey, a mortal enemy of South Jersey power broker George Norcross – who worked for years to remove him from the senate leadership post – said the column’s speculation was a clear signal that Norcross and his South Jersey Democratic had those senators in the crosshairs (An October 7 Inside Edge listed state Sen. John Girgenti (D-Hawthorne) – a Codey ally – as a possible target, but he was not a recipient of the funds). (Friedman, PolitickerNJ)

Joseph Leo announces retirement as Middlesex GOP chairman; Samuel Thompson hopes to replace him

Assemblyman Samuel Thompson (R-Old Bridge), who chaired the Middlesex County GOP in the 1980s and 90s, hopes take back the party’s top post in the wake of Chairman Joseph Leo’s decision not to seek another term. The retirement and new candidacy were both announced at the Middlesex GOP’s holiday party last night. “I pledge that as County Chairman I will work tirelessly to build the strength of our organization, to significantly increase our fundraising to solicit the best possible candidates and to build a Republican organization in Middlesex County capable of winning elections at all levels,” said Thompson in a written statement. Thompson, 74, also announced that he has the support of all 25 of the party’s municipal chairs. Middlesex County has been a Democratic bulwark in recent years, but went for Republican Gov. Christopher Christie over Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine in November. Thompson chaired the party between 1986 and 1994, during which they elected a Republican county clerk and won a majority on the freeholder board. The Middlesex County Republican Organization will elect a new chairman at its June reorganization meeting, which will take place on the same Tuesday of the month. Conservative activist and blogger Michael Illions is the only other announced candidate for chairman. (Friedman, PolitickerNJ) Halfacre campaign slams Sipprelle on contributions to Democrats The campaign manager for GOP congressional candidate Michael Halfacre is questioning why primary rival Scott Sipprelle contributed to five Democratic congressional candidates last June. Tom Fitzsimmons says that Sipprelle, a millionaire venture capitalist who is promising to self-fund his bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-Hopewell), contributed to U.S. Reps. Allen Boyd (D-FL), Barron Hill (D-IN), Charles Melancon (D-LA), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), and Heath Shuler (D-NC). But according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Sipprelle has contributed about $100,000 to federal campaigns in recent years, with 95% of those funds going to Republicans. “Last June was the height of the battle for Congressional Republicans,” said Fitzsimmons. “The Democrats had rammed through the stimulus, cap and trade was being debated, government-run health care was on the table- and in the middle of all that, Scott Sipprelle made donations to not one, not two, but five separate Democrats.” Fitzsimons said that Sipprelle gave more money to congressional Democrats than he did to the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Christopher Christie. “I think that speaks volumes about what kind of ‘Republican’ Scott Sipprelle really is,” Fitzsimmons said. “Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts on Tuesday showed once again that voters want someone with the courage of their convictions to go to Washington and oppose the Pelosi/Reid/Obama agenda. Mike Halfacre will go to Washington and oppose that agenda at every turn; Scott Sipprelle was supporting it just seven months ago.” Halfacre is the mayor of Fair Haven. “Scott Sipprelle is running for Congress to reform a dysfunctional political process and to repair the financial fabric of America. Mike Halfacre’s desperate, negative attack violates Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment of not speaking ill of another Republican and clearly shows a campaign in distress,” said Sipprelle strategist Chris Russell. “The fact is that Scott has a long history of generously supporting Republicans all across the country and has been proud to do so.” (Editor, PolitickerNJ)

Gov. Chris Christie, former Gov. Jon Corzine dispute over N.J. budget

Lingering animosity between New Jersey’s former and current governors reached a boiling point today, as a dispute over the health of the state budget threatened long-term consequences. Just 48 hours into his new role, Gov. Chris Christie said New Jersey faces a $1.3 billion shortfall in the current budget and blamed former Gov. Jon Corzine for setting him up to fail by hiding the depth of the problems. “He was trying to make it as hard as he possibly could,” Christie said. “Avoidance of the facts and avoidance of the truth was a staple of the Corzine administration.” Corzine and his advisers accused Christie of pulling numbers out of thin air and insisted they left the incoming governor with a $496 million surplus. “Gov. Christie’s remarks demonstrate a poor temperament, and a casual relationship with the facts,” said Corzine spokesman Josh Zeitz. “Being governor entitles you to do a lot of things, but fabricating budget numbers from whole cloth isn’t one of them.” The political vitriol between the Democrat Corzine and Republican Christie has persisted with few breaks since Christie defeated Corzine Nov. 3. But with investors and lawmakers dependent on accurate financial information — and another multi-billion-dollar shortfall looming for the next budget — the conflict means more than just the sniping of two bitter rivals. At issue is the validity of revenue projections for the ongoing $29 billion budget Corzine signed last June. A memo by Corzine Treasurer David Rousseau said that while the overall budget deficit was $1.1 billion — including a revenue shortfall of $425 million — a series of budget cuts and other actions left a $496 million surplus as of Jan. 14. Christie, however, said he asked the Treasury Department on Tuesday to forecast revenue through the end of the budget year June 30 and was told tax collections would be $1.2 billion short. After factoring in his advisers’ interpretations of Corzine’s spending and cuts, Christie came up with a $1.3 billion deficit and said he is looking at various options to fix it. Corzine advisers cast doubt on the projected revenue shortfall, saying Treasury does not routinely issue such reports because revenue collections can fluctuate wildly from December through April, especially in an unpredictable economy. Ratings agencies studying the state’s creditworthiness are particularly sensitive to dire forecasts, said Brad Abelow, Corzine’s former treasurer and chief of staff. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

Assemblyman Samuel Thompson will seek chairmanship of Middlesex Republican Committee

Assemblyman Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex) will seek the chairmanship of the county Republican Committee, a post he previously held for eight years. Thompson announced he was running at a Middlesex County Republican Organization gathering at the VFW Hall in East Brunswick Wednesday. Party Chair Joseph Leo announced at the same meeting that he would not be seeking re-election to another term. The GOP committee will select a new chairman at its convention in June. Candidates for committee must file applications by April. “There’s so many things I want to do, I didn’t want to wait until the convention,” Thompson said when reached at his home last night. He plans to work on fund-raising and gathering candidates for the committee and the November elections for county seats and congressional races. “We’re getting quite a few really good candidates,” Thompson said. He is among five members serving on a “candidate encouragement committee” to screen people seeking the party nomination. In November’s gubernatorial election, Gov. Chris Christie carried Middlesex County, which historically has been a Democratic stronghold. Democrats hold a 2-1 advantage over Republican among registered voters in the county. Democrats retained control of all the county Freeholder seats, but Republicans won 21 municipal seats. Thompson, 74, said voters are seeking a change, noting Christie’s statewide election as a Republican, and Scott Brown’s election Tuesday as senator from Massachusetts. (Haydon, Star Ledger)

N.J.’s Christie vows to slash board, commission pension troughs

Governor Christie on Thursday promised to eliminate a number of New Jersey boards and commissions where political appointees are then able to pad their public pensions, in some cases mostly for attending monthly meetings. “These were pension plays — gifts to the people who lost the election, to keep them in a pension system that you and I and our children are going to pay for. I think the time for that is over,” Christie said at a news conference in Trenton. Christie was referring to the outgoing administration’s final days, when Gov. Jon Corzine appointed dozens of Democratic aides and department heads to government boards overseeing such professions as marriage therapists, contact-lens dispensers and veterinarians. Some of those boards pay members at least $100 a month to attend a meeting, and another $50 to review agendas. The pension fund is $30 billion short of its obligation. The Record on Thursday reported that two Corzine cabinet members — the commissioners of Education and Labor and Workforce Development — would qualify for annual retirement payouts of $27,768 and $27,987 if they finish their three-year terms. Each had been paid $140,460 to oversee state departments. Most, if not all, of Corzine’s hires will have no job in the new Republican administration. As board appointees, however, they can add service years toward a pension — meaning they can earn credit toward the 10-year minimum to qualify, or increase their retirement payout if they’re already vested. “This is stuff that’s been done by previous governors and previous administrations to keep their friends in the pension system in order to accumulate the number of years they need to get the maximum amount of payoff they can get from the taxpayers,” Christie said. “It’s wrong. It’s wrong when Republicans do it. It’s wrong when Democrats do it. In the end we are fleecing our own state.” Christie said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and senior staff will review the boards and their roles during the first half of the year, and promised “a significant elimination.” Corzine recognized that the pension fund was in deep trouble, and in 2008 signed legislation to reduce abuse of the system. Prior to 2008, for example, state employees had to earn a minimum of $1,500 a year to join the pension fund. Corzine raised the minimum to $7,500 — but the law grandfathered those in the system. A spokesman for the former governor said the appointments were for “outstanding public servants.” (Young, The Record)

U.S. Supreme Court ruling on campaign spending may undermine elections

A 63-year-old law limiting political spending by labor and big business was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court today in a landmark decision that called any ban a restraint of free speech. The ruling by a sharply divided court lifted restrictions on what corporations and labor organizations may invest to sway voters in federal elections, meaning both groups now have free rein to pour money in support of races for Senate and the House of Representatives in all 50 states. “The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer,” wrote the court in its 5-4 decision. But those who have worked to limit campaign spending warned of a huge influx of corporate money that would undermine the integrity of elections large and small. “With a stroke of the pen, five justices wiped out a century of American history devoted to preventing corporate corruption of our democracy,” declared Fred Wertheimer, president of the Washington-based government-watchdog group Democracy 21. The decision, which now also threatens similar limits imposed by 24 states on state and local races, will change the rules of engagement for congressional races this fall, allowing corporations and unions to target individual races in an effort to influence policy. The ruling covers the money corporations and unions may spend from their own profits on independent ads and other advocacy efforts on behalf of candidates or issues. It does not change restrictions on direct contributions to candidates for federal office, which remain prohibited under federal law, but are allowed in New Jersey state races. However, the closely watched case could end New Jersey’s own long-time ban on political contributions from casinos and regulated industries — such as banks and utility companies — which may now be unconstitutional in light of the high court ruling. “Somewhere, John D. Rockefeller is smiling. This goes back to the robber baron days,” said state Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Mercer). “This is a rollback of decades of campaign finance law. It’s going to affect every campaign from fire commissioner to President of the United States.” (Sherman, Star Ledger)

3 Hudson senators not likely to torpedo Christie choice of Schundler to head education

Gov. Chris Christie’s nomination of former Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler to be the next state commissioner of education is not likely to be blocked by senatorial courtesy. None of Hudson County’s three state senators said yesterday they plan to exercise their unwritten, but traditionally respected, power of “senatorial courtesy” to block appointments of nominees who live in their county. “He (Schundler) is a former Hudson County mayor who has a very good understanding of urban areas and he was a good administrator,” said state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-North Bergen. “The weakness is that he doesn’t have a background in education, (but) I have faith in the fact that he can do a good job and I have no problem signing off on him,” added Sacco, who is also North Bergen’s mayor and the associate superintendent of the school district. Speaking for state Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham, D-Jersey City, who served on Christie’s transition team, Christian Martin, her chief of staff, said yesterday that Cunningham will “most likely” vote for Schundler. The most noncommittal statement came from state Sen. Brian Stack, who is also the mayor of Union City. “I recognize that philosophical differences exist with regard to our positions on education, but I remain open to a meeting with Mr. Schundler to discuss his vision for New Jersey’s schools,” Stack said in a statement. Schundler, who started a charter school in Jersey City while he was mayor, is a supporter of school vouchers and merit pay for teachers. (Thorbourne, Jersey Journal)

Former Jersey City Deputy Mayor Beldini’s corruption trial to start Monday

Jury selection will begin Monday in the federal corruption trial of former Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini. U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares yesterday dismissed several motions made by Beldini’s attorney Brian Neary to have the case tossed. Beldini will be the first to go to trial among the defendants charged in the massive political corruption and international money laundering sting, which netted 44 people on July 23. Neary argued in federal court in Newark that due process wasn’t followed and that the government’s evidence does not support the charges against Beldini. He also raised questions over whether all of the evidence has been turned over to him. Linares dismissed most of Neary’s motions and held off on ruling on others, saying it was premature. The judge also ruled that Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sandra Moser and Thomas Calcagni can explore allegations that Beldini failed to report campaign contributions and accepted straw donations as treasurer of Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy’s campaign fund in 2009 and four years ago in 2005. Neary argued that the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, which regulates campaign finance, had not charged Beldini with any wrongdoing. The roughly three-hour hearing included lengthy argument over whether the government had turned over all of its evidence to Neary. At the center of the case is the FBI’s cooperating witness, failed Monmouth County developer Solomon Dwek, who was charged with bank fraud in May 2006. Dwek subsequently secretly recorded meetings with those who were charged in July. In addition to the Dwek tapes, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also plans to use conversations between Beldini and political consultant Jack Shaw, who was found dead in his home after he was charged July 23. The FBI had a wiretap on Shaw’s phone. Neary challenged Dwek’s credibility as a witness. Dwek became a federal informant after he allegedly tried to pull off a $50 million bank scam. Charges against him are still pending. (Hayes, Jersey Journal)

Political fundraising is down for NJ campaign committees

Political fundraising by New Jersey’s six largest committees has declined in the past four years, according to reports released today by the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Though 2009 was an election year for both the Governor’s office and the Assembly, contributions to state committees were down 36 percent and political organizers spent 34 percent less of that money. Jeff Brindle, executive director of the commission, said new laws limiting political contributions and the economy were responsible for the drop in political fundraising and spending. “Pay-to-Play laws have led to a sharp reduction in contractor cash to these committees,’’ Brindle said. “The recession also has made it tougher for campaigns.” The last time there were both gubernatorial and Assembly races in 2005, the so-called “big six” raised $19.3 million and spent $19.7 million. Last year,the same parties raised $12.4 million and spent $12.9 million. Brindle said a committee’s total spending in a year may go over the total amount they receive because committees can tap into funds from earlier years, or temporarily take on debt. The State and Legislative Leadership Committees are required to report financial activity to the Commission on a quarterly basis. (Fuchs, Star Ledger)

Mulshine: Corzine’s gone and so is that 10.75 percent income tax rate he imposed on us

Here’s a piece of really good news that I haven’t seen reported: New Jersey no longer has one of the highest income tax rates in the continental U.S. That 10.75 percent tax on incomes above $1 million is now gone. I learned that yesterday after Gov. Chris Christie’s press conference at the Statehouse. Christie was in fighting form at the presser, by the way. He laid into Corzine for leaving a big deficit and appointing his Democratic cronies to part-time jobs so they could pad their state pensions. But the biggest news for me came afterward when I got chatting with Chief of Staff Rich Bagger. He himself hadn’t yet realized that the tax had sunset, but after he did some checking he confirmed that as of midnight on Dec. 31 the three new tax rates imposed by Corzine as a “temporary” measure will indeed be temporary. I suspect that if Corzine had been re-elected the Dems would not have let the taxes sunset after a year, as they promised back in June. But Christie has promised not to revive those taxes. As for the Dems, they’re not dumb enough to propose that just to let Christie play the hero and veto them. So now New Jersey’s top rate is below that of California, which is 10.25 percent. Oregon charges the most on the mainland, 11 percent. Hawaii also has that as the top rate. As for our top rate, it is now 8.97 percent on incomes above $500,000 annually. That rate is still too high. It represents the so-called “millionaire’s tax” imposed by Jim McGreevey to provide bigger property-tax rebates. In that case the rebates were temporary but the tax was permanent. The idiot Republicans in the Legislature at the time did not push for a sunset provision, and many voted for the bill even though it permitted the Dems to drop the rebates in a year, which they did. (Mulshine, Star Ledger)

Morning News Digest: January 22, 2010