Middlesex PACs rife with potential conflicts

By Darryl R. Isherwood and Max Pizarro

In July 2009, land use attorney and state Sen. Bob Smith, (D-17), appeared before the Monroe Township Planning Board representing a client, Federal Business Centers, hoping to expand a warehouse facility in the township.

Reviewing his application for the township was engineering firm Feist and Associates and sitting on the planning board that night was Monroe Township Mayor Richard Pucci.

It’s a scene that plays out weekly in townships across the state.  But all of the players that night had one thing in common: All are linked to a web of political action committees that operates inside Middlesex County, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from county businesses and funneling the money to local and county candidates, in the process bypassing local laws banning pay to play.

Smith’s client that night, Federal Business Centers, had donated a total of nearly $40,000 to the string of PACs in 2009, including to one – PEG PAC – whose chairman was Monroe township attorney Joel Shain.  Feist and Associates was also a frequent donor that year, contributing more than $10,000 to three different PACs.

On the other side of the ledger, the Monroe Township Democratic Party, which Pucci chairs, was the beneficiary of $36,000 in donations from the web of PACs that same year, while council representatives Henry Miller, Gerald Tamburro and Stephen Dalina received $17,800 from the PACs.

And Smith, who appears before planning and zoning boards throughout the county, is the man behind the curtain of PACs, controlling the donations and directing the outflow of money, according to interviews with eight sources familiar with the workings of county fundraising.  County Democratic Chairman Peter Barnes confirmed as much last week in an interview with the Star Ledger, when he said Smith headed a fundraising committee that controlled the PACS.

The incestuous nature of the PAC donations and the potential conflicts of interest are not limited to Monroe, and Smith’s public/private footprint cuts a wide swath through Middlesex County.

Since 2009, the PACs have collected more than $1.5 million, mostly from vendors with contracts with the county or with various towns throughout Middlesex.  The bulk of the money – more than $1.1 million – was then forwarded to county and local candidates and Democratic Parties.

The contributions and subsequent donations are not illegal under state campaign finance laws, but the committees in question, which go by “good government” names such as Coalition for Government Efficiency, The Committee for Civic Responsibility, and Citizens for a Green Environment, are circumventing local pay to play laws.

Smith vehemently denies that he has any role in the PACs saying he raises money only for his own race and for other senators who need his help.

“I raise money for the senate majority office and senators who are in vulnerable races. I do not raise money for the county organization.”

The senator also dismissed any notion that his success as an attorney is the result of influence.

“Every year in New Jersey people vote for super lawyers,” Smith said. “I’m regularly named a super lawyer in planning and zoning. I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I generally produce a good result. This is not influence. It’s a function of good application.”

Barnes has since said he “misspoke” when implicating the senator, but if Smith is the man who pulls the strings as several sources in and out of the county allege, it’s hard to argue that the potential for conflicts exists.

Donations from several of the PACs in question uniformly appear in towns and at the county level where Smith’s law firm, Smith and Associates, does business. Many of the firms charged with protecting the townships’ interests also appear regularly on the PAC donor rolls. Research by PolitickerNJ.com finds that Smith represents clients before boards or holds contracts for work in Middlesex County, Middlesex Borough, Edison, Monroe, South Brunswick, Carteret and his hometown of Piscataway, all hotbeds for PAC money.

The potential for conflicts was on full display last month when Smith appeared before the county freeholder board representing Maryland-based engineering firm Soil Safe Inc., a big donor to Senate President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), and the Gloucester County Democratic Party.  Soil Safe was seeking approval to build a recycling facility on an old Carteret industrial site that Smith and company officials say remains contaminated despite a DEP clean-up.  The DEP disputes the assertion and has issued a No Further Action letter on the site. 

Democratic freeholders Chris Rafano, James Polos, Carol Barrett, Pete Dalina, Charles Tomara Ron Rios and Blanquita Valenti, have received a combined $131,000 from the PACs over the past three years.  In addition, the County Democratic Party has received more than $120,000 from the PACs since 2009.

Smith testified at the public hearing and application received approval from every freeholder with the exception of Dalina, who was absent and did not vote.

Polos, who received $7,000 from the PACs during his 2009 run for office, said he was surprised to see Smith appearing before the board, but said his testimony had no impact on the decision.  Polos said the fact that the Carteret Borough Council had approved the project weighed heavily on his aye vote.

“I did not know he was involved with the application until that night and when he spoke I was surprised and actually his comments were unnecessary as the application was strong on its own merits,” Polos said. “His comments had no impact as far as I am concerned.”

But Bob Spiegel, Executive Director of the Edison Wetlands Association, who testified against the project, said Smith’s presence absolutely had an effect.

“The county freeholders, Smith and (Assemblyman John) Wisniewski, and the consulting firms are one big incestuous group that supports one another’s projects,” Spiegel said. “Several companies that have given more money to the PACs and to the individual campaigns than any other companies are given the bids time and time again.”

Smith’s influence is not restricted to his ability to raise funds.  His presence looms large in the county as a sitting senator and chairman of the Environment and Energy Committee and a member of the powerful Judiciary Committee.

His dual roles in the county were on full display last month during a meeting of the County Planning Board.

On March 13th, the board, which counts Rafano and Monroe Township Councilman Gerald Tamburro – himself a heavy recipient of PAC money during his 2009 run for office – as members and Dalina as its chairman, voted to draft a letter to Senator Smith asking him to sponsor legislation to allow alternate board members to vote in the absence of any regular member. 

On the same agenda was a 108-acre Chevron project in Perth Amboy and Woodbridge.  The attorney for Chevron was none other than Smith.

The application was approved. 

PAC money also has been heavily donated in townships where Smith’s firm has public contracts.

In 2011, as Democrats fought to take control of the Middlesex Borough mayor’s office, the web of PACs donated heavily to Democratic candidate Ronald Dobies and his running mates.

In the heat of the election, the Dobies Team took more than $14,000 from several different PACs operating in Middlesex County.  The PACs also had donated heavily in past years to the township’s Democratic committee as well as to other local candidates.

Dobies won, handing control of the township to Democrats.

Soon after, Smith’s firm was awarded contracts as the borough attorney and the municipal prosecutor.

Dobies denies there was any relationship between the PAC donations and the contracts awarded to Smith’s firm.

“I’ll tell you about Bob Smith,” Dobies said. “He and I graduated from the same college. We’re old friends. Look, he was in the courts before me when Republicans were in charge. The only reason he became borough attorney was because Ed Johnson decided not to take it.”

Not only does Smith’s firm have the public contract, but the senator is trying to secure permitting for a private client.

Smith represents 150 Lincoln Boulevard LLC, a developer that wants to build an apartment complex on the site of a former paint factory off Lincoln Boulevard in the borough. The project requires a $1 million cleanup, paid for by the developer, according to principal Massimo Pinelli, a donor to Smith.

It’s unknown if Smith will continue to represent Pinelli now that Smith’s partner acts as the borough’s attorney.

The presence of the PACs and their circumventing of local pay to play laws were first reported by PolitickerNJ earlier this month. 

In response to the initial story and a later one in the Star Ledger, Gov. Chris Christie took aim at the PACs and at Middlesex County officials the governor says should be called to answer for allegations that they intentionally bypass local laws to fund their elections.  Democrats countered that Republicans use the same tactics in counties they control.

Responding to a statement issued by Barnes late last week calling the existence of the PACs and the donations they receive and make a “loophole” Christie mocked Barnes’s standing as the “law and order chairman.”

“The responsible guy that they sent in there- the former FBI agent – to clean up the corrupt Middlesex County Democratic Organization when asked about this conduct said ‘talk to Bob Smith’,” Christie said. “Boy I’ll tell you I sleep easier at night now knowing that Barnes is on top of cleaning that place up.”

Christie also had some choice words for Smith.

“If anyone thinks Bob Smith is cleaning it up, Bob Smith is cleaning up with the money he is taking into his shadowy PACs,” the governor said. “He’s not cleaning anything up.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, Barnes fired back at the governor, calling Christie a bully and saying the governor is only making noise about the Middlesex PACs to deflect from his own use of PACs.

“As a retired FBI special agent who served honorably for 26 years, I can assure you that all fundraising is done within the letter of the law and any attempt to insinuate otherwise is one hundred percent deceitful and disingenuous,” Barnes said.

Barnes and others in the county stress that PAC contributions are not illegal under current law and any impetus to close the hole lies with the Legislature.

Smith likewise pinned the blame for the PACs’ existence on a system that does not enforce uniform regulations at all levels of government.

“There is a solution to the craziness we have now and that is publicly financed elections – or complete transparency,” said the senator. “In New Jersey, we have nothing but chaos. The state needs one set standard across the state.”

Middlesex PACs rife with potential conflicts