Monday, December 17, 2007

Legislating Against Pay to Play

New Jersey has become renowned for its system of “Pay to Play,” whereby contractors contribute to political campaigns in exchange for special consideration on government contracts. Pay to play is often legal so long as there’s no explicit arrangement connecting a contribution to a government contract. Naturally, many communities have banned this practice by forbidding any government contracts being awarded to a political contributor. The question is whether Matawan and Aberdeen should outlaw “Pay to Play” as well. I would oppose such legislation based upon free speech rights and the “Law of Unintended Consequences”.

I’m well aware how our area has been affected by graft. In 2005, Matt Scannapieco, the mayor of Marlboro, pled guilty to accepting $245,000 in bribes from developers. In 2006, Barry C. Bowers, the engineering inspector for Old Bridge, pled guilty to receiving over $25,000 in home renovations from contractors. That same year, Paul A. Coughlin, the mayor of Hazlet, pled guilty to accepting a $3,000 bribe from an FBI cooperating witness pretending to be a contractor. Months later, John Merla, the mayor of Keyport, pled guilty to the same charges.

At the same time, both Matawan and Aberdeen have both been tainted by, if not in fact, the appearance of pay to play. In 2004, Councilman Buccellato donated $3,900 to the Monmouth County Republican Committee. A few months later, the county awarded him a $25,000 contract for “call-in professional architectural services”. Last month, while considering whether to call, and pay for, a recount, the county awarded him another contract worth $125,000 even though Buccellato’s proposal was at least $30-40,000 higher than the others. Councilman Buccellato has also been a vocal supporter of awarding the Transit Village Project to the Columbia Group, a developer run by Jack Morris, a county Republican power broker.

Aberdeen’s Township Engineer, CME Associates, has donated nearly $60,000 to the Aberdeen Democrats since 1999. Coppola & Coppola, the consultant hired to develop the township master plan and review zoning variances, has donated at least $5,500 to the Aberdeen Democrats over that same time period.

Yet, I still oppose legislation that prevents political contributors from seeking government contracts. First, I believe that political contributions are a form of political speech and therefore ought to be protected under our Bill of Rights. Forbidding someone from receiving a government contract because of a political contribution is the same as penalizing him for political activity. No citizen should have to choose between political activity and feeding his family.

Additionally, I fear the Law of Unintended Consequences. In the 1990s, President Clinton sought to punish “excessive” executive salaries and made anything over $1 million non-deductible from corporate taxes. This led to an explosion in executive compensation via cashless stock options. Then McCain-Feingold tried to regulate campaign financing and funding moved from well know committees and PACs to shadowy 527s. Sarbanes-Oxley tried to outlaw Enron-style accounting shenanigans and international corporations began going public outside the United States.

Politicians will always find a way to raise money and interested parties will always find a way to give it to them. Better it should be in the open than in the shadows. Rather, I would allow any person or organization seeking business with the government to contribute to any campaign but with the following requirements:

  1. On the cover page of all proposals and bids, the vendor shall list all political contributions over $300 made by its executives and their agents over the prior five years at the local, county, state, and national levels where the town/borough council is located.
  2. Prior to voting upon any contracts, the town/borough council shall review, in a public forum, the vendor’s political contributions and include a listing of such contributions in the minutes.
  3. Should the vendor be found non-compliant, the town/borough shall nullify the contract or be awarded penalties up to 50% of the contracted amount.
People have a right to free speech and unencumbered political activity. But they don’t have the right to anonymity when the public good is at stake. When the government awards money to a political donor, we should all know about it. >>> Read more!

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