NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Money came in from corporations, developers, lawyers, engineers, consultants, and contractors, many that do business with the government, then it was transferred to political campaigns.
And that’s pretty much all that happened at New Brunswick’s “Women For Good Government,” one of ten bare-bones fundraising operations in New Jersey that have been linked to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization and two state legislators in recent news reports.
In 2008, Women For Good Government filed paperwork naming a new Chairwoman, Amy Papi. Papi, of East Brunswick, listed her occupation as “Governmental Affairs Agent,” but listed her employer as “self-employed-consultant.”
Papi, who served as Chairwoman of the PAC until it ceased operations, declined to tell the Star-Ledger’s Matt Freidman who was actually responsible for the PAC:
“A few women who got together. I’m not going to go and give names.”
Though it is unclear exactly what Papi’s involvement was, the organization flourished under her leadership.
Spending hardly any money, the organization exceeded their own expectations in 2008, raising a fortune by expanding their base to include at least one donor they may come to regret.
WHERE THE MONEY CAME FROM
Francis X. Gartland, a 70-year-old former insurance broker from Baltimore, fell hard. First, he got in trouble for bribing the superintendent of the state’s fourth largest school district, Toms River, to get and maintain the district’s lucrative insurance contract.
Longtime superintendent Michael Ritacco, and two other conspirators, also took a hard fall for scamming the district and taking up to $2M in bribes.
Then it was discovered that Gartland had also been bilking the city government and the school district of Perth Amboy out of $2.6M. He also was indicted for illegally disguising the source of contributions to that city’s mayor.
He recently pleaded guilty to first-degree money-laundering and second-degree theft by deception and is currenty awaiting sentencing.
Gartland and his wife, Diana, each gave to Women For Good Government for the first time shortly before the 2008 general election. Francis gave $2,600 and his wife gave $4,666.67, though she was later reimbursed $66.67.
Both listed their employer as Federal Hill Risk Management, an insurance firm based in Baltimore, MD.
Employees of Federal Hill, and the company itself, gave a $77,730 combined to five of the ten suspicious Political Action Committees (PAC’s) in Central New Jersey. A similar group based in Mountain Lakes, Committee for Efficiency in Government, also was a frequent beneficiary of contributions from Federal Hill and its associates.
The Gartlands and employee Derek Johnson collectively gave to all the usual suspects: Democracy in Motion PAC, New Expectations PAC, Raritan Bay Leadership Fund, Committee for Civic Responsiblity, and 19th District Democratic Leadership Fund.
Women For Good Government got the biggest chunk of Federal Hill money of the Central Jersey-based fundraising committees, $16,932.
Federal Hill was found to be stealing from Perth Amboy’s taxpayers by deducting fees for nonexistent “wellness” programs from the paychecks of all city and school employees.
To make matters worse for Gartland, he also got in trouble for his work to raise campaign money for disgraced former Perth Amboy Mayor Joe Vas.
In 2006, Vas mounted an unsuccessful campaign for US Congress. Gartland and Thomas O’Leary, brother of ex-South Amboy Mayor John O’Leary, were both indicted for recruiting “straw donors” for the campaign.
“Straw donors” are not really donors, but officially take credit for giving the money to obscure who really is making the donation. This allows candidates to exceed contribution limits and hide the sources of their financial support. It is also a federal crime.
Vas was voted out of office after 18 years as mayor in May 2008. Still a New Jersey Assemblyman, he was indicted, and eventually found guilty in March 2009.. Vas was sentenced to six and half years in prison for countless instances of corruption, including spending city funds on himself and fixing an affordable housing lottery.
Gartland and Ritacco are both due to be sentenced in early July.
RECALL RITCHIE CAMPAIGN
In Women For Good Government’s first spending report to ELEC, it revealed its first two “good government” priorities. On May 18, 2007 they passed along, or “wheeled,” $10,400 to Edison Democrats 2007, the official campaign committee for four Township Council candidates, one of whom was a woman.
One month later, the PAC cut a check for $10,000 to “Committee Against Recall” in Franklin Township, but it was never cashed according to the report. Later that year, a check for $8,200 was sent to “Recall Defense Committee.”
Ellen Ritchie, who represented the Township’s Third Ward on the Council, had drawn the ire of residents that opposed an affordable housing and big box retail project slated for their neighborhood. They were able to secure a special election to oust her from office in November 2007.
The Recall Defense Committee was Ritchie’s was her official fund to maintain office. It only reported seven donations, including $100 from herself, and $1,000 from a business owner.
The other donations all came from political committees including Somerset County’s Democratic Organization. But the bulk of Ritchie’s funds came from the very same PAC’s suspected of coordinating with each other and powerful elected officials.
The same day that Women For Good Government forked over $8,200 to the committee, another strikingly similar committee based in New Brunswick gave Ritchie the exact same amount. Raritan Bay Leadership Fund was operated out of the law offices of Shamy, Shipers, and Lonski on Livingston Ave. and has been connected to Assemblyman Jon Wisniewski of Sayreville.
Two weeks later, New Expectations PAC, another very similar political committee tied to the Assemblyman, gave another $8,200 to Ritchie, meaning that the secretive PAC’s gave her $24,600, more than two-thirds of the campaign’s total funds.
Ritchie had been targeted for removal from office because of her support for a controversial large-scale development that would include 660 residences and a Home Depot, in a rural area near the township’s border with New Brunswick. Ritchie was a former Planning Board member and represented the ward where the development was proposed on the Council.
The developer who proposed the plan was Jack Morris, whose Piscataway-based Edgewood Properties has built several large-scale projects in New Brunswick, and has at leasst two additional plans in the works.
Morris was a business partner of former New Brunswick Mayor John Lynch, who went to jail for years on corruption charges.
He is also a major donor to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization (MCDO) and has frequently contributed to officials in towns where he sought to build.
Citizens who felt Ritchie was too cozy with Morris led the charge to recall her, and she lost the first recall election in Somerset County history in a landslide. The proposed development was officially removed from the township plan shortly thereafter.
Edgewood Properties is the owner of New Brunswick’s Walgreen’s pharmacy, and the developer of a gated community on Remsen Avenue, Fulton Square.
Edgewood was recently approved to build retail and residential buildings in the parking lot of the AMC Movie Theater on Route 1.
The Walgreen’s in New Brunswick opened in 2004. However, the surrounding “Towne Center” was supposed to include a housing component and a supermarket, but neither were built.
The project stalled in Phase 2, and a bank building finished years ago still sits unoccupied on Handy Street, while a vast wasteland occupies the other end of the site.
Both of Morris’ projects were granted 30-year tax abatements by the New Brunswick City Council.
WHERE THE MONEY WENT
The next two reports filed with ELEC detail how the organization surpassed its self-reported expectations nearly seven-fold, raking in a total of $65,840 in 2007. It spent two-thirds of that sum giving to various campaign committees, and banked the rest. Aside from $60.39 on “checking supplies,” the organization did not report any operating expenses or reimbursements.
In addition to the campaign to prevent Ritchie’s recall, Women For Good Government supported several other efforts in the November election. They gave $7,200 to Monroe Township’s Democratic Organization, $5,000 each to the Sayreville Democratic Organization and the election fund of Hamilton Mayor Glen Gilmore, $2,500 to support former Old Bridge Mayor James Phillips, and $300 to the South Plainfield Democratic Organization.
Phillips won re-election and served most of his term before resigning due to health issues. He has continued to serve as Middlesex County’s Treasurer to this day. Gilmore, who was seeking a third term, lost.
In 2008 and 2009, Women for Good Government wheeled its two largest contributions ever: $25,000 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC), presumably to be spent on Democratic campaigns for state and federal officials.
But that was just a piece of the action. While millions were spent on presidential and gubernatorial elections in NJ, hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed from PAC’s like Women For Good Government to local-level candidates and municipal party organizations.
In 2008, Women For Good Government’s ample funds were again steered toward the Democratic Organizations in Sayreville, Monroe, and South Plainfield ($5,000 each), as well as Somerset County ($5,000), Piscataway ($5,000), South Brunswick ($3,000), Milltown ($2,500) and to the candidate committees for Democratic candidates in Middlesex Boro ($7,200) and South Brunswick ($2,400).
Contributions were made directly to the campaigns of Millie Scott ($5,000), a Piscataway Councilwoman seeking a seat on the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and Vinny Capuano ($2,000), a candidate for Mayor of Clifton.
Scott won the Freeholder seat, and went on to replace the recently-indicted Joseph Spicuzzo as Sheriff, but only after earning his endorsement. Capuano lost his bid for Mayor by some 400 votes.
Women For Good Government also gave $3,500 to then-Mayor of East Brunswick Bill Neary’s campaign fund. He returned the donation after deciding not to seek re-election.
The next year, Democratic organizations and candidates in Monroe, Edison, Franklin, Old Bridge, Middlesex, Piscataway, and Milltown got thousands from Women For Good Government organization, as did the NJDSC.
Recipients of Women For Good Government’s funds all had one thing in common: They were Democrats running for office in New Jersey.
Another trend is that the donations paid out by Women For Good Government were most often in towns with laws specifically designed to prevent private interests from purchasing influence from elected officials.
Towns with “pay-to-play” reform laws on the books include Sayreville, East Brunswick, South Brunswick, Milltown, and Edison, which adopted the reform in 2006 by way of a citizen-initiated referendum.
SPENDING SHIFTED FROM WOMEN CANDIDATES
Prior to 2009, there was at least one female member of the tickets supported by Women For Good Government’s donations to municipal party organizations.
But in 2009, Women For Good Government sent $7,200 to the Monroe Democratic organization, even though all three candidates were male. Another $7,000 went directly to the candidate committee for them: Friends of Miller, Tamburro, and Dalina.
They also sent $5,500 to support three men running for office in Middlesex Boro and gave $4,000 to the Milltown Democratic Organization where two men were running for council.
While the in-county donations to all-male tickets are hardly scandalous, Women For Good Govenment’s money also flowed to some peculiar places outside Middlesex County, each time funding male candidates exclusively.
A whopping $16,000 was sent to four male town council candidates in Ocean County’s Berkeley Township shortly before the November election. A PAC known as Pride in Berkeley also received a transfer of $7,200 from Women For Good Government.
Berkeley has a pay-to-play reform law on the books.
Also, 40 miles away in Bergen County, an incumbent male freeholder named David Ganz somehow got the organization to give him $2,600. A donation in the amount of $5,000 was also made to Bergen County Young Democrats, a PAC based in Teaneck, whose donors are often one in the same with Women For Good Government’s.
In its final year of operation, the organization continued to occasionally support women seeking elected office at the county level, though most of its funds were spent trying to elect men elsewhere.
On March 3, 2010, Women For Good Government gave to the campaign funds of two women on Middlesex County’s Democratic ticket, but none to their male running mates.
A few months later, the PAC reported its last incoming and outgoing donations and quietly ceased operations with just over $31,000 in its bank account.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a seven-part series.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.