Is New Jersey’s Regulated-Industry Ban on Political Contributions Ripe for Challenge?

Since 1911, New Jersey law has prohibited the making of political contributions by such highly regulated industries as banks, utilities, and insurance companies. The reasoning underlying this prohibition was clarified by a New Jersey Attorney General Advisory Opinion, which explained that these “[c]omprehensive regulatory programs, vital to the protection of the public, could become prime targets of elected officials seeking to satisfy perceived debts to corporate benefactors affiliated within a regulated industry.” For more than a century, this law has remained in effect. But new legal developments raise questions about the constitutional validity of this ban on regulated-industry political contributions.

In early May of 2017, in Free and Fair Election Fund, et al. v. Missouri Ethics Commission, et al., the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri declared unconstitutional a provision of Missouri campaign-finance law that prohibited banks, insurance companies, and telephone companies from making any political contributions to PACs. (Missouri law already prohibitions all contributions to candidates and political parties from corporations, without regard to whether the corporations in engaged in a heavily regulated industry.) The court determined that this complete ban on contributions from heavily regulated industries is unconstitutional because the law was not closely drawn to avoid abridging First Amendment rights to engage in the political process. This decision was based in part on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition that “there is not the same risk of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance when money flows through independent actors to a candidate, as when a donor contributes to a candidate directly.” In this case, making contributions to PACs did not give rise to the same risks of quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof because the PACs were independent entities that could determine for themselves how to use funds received from a contributor. This lessened risk was not reason, in the eyes of the court, to prohibit certain corporations from participating in the political process.

This issue is far from settled, as Missouri’s Attorney General announced that he will appeal the court’s decision, and there are key differences between New Jersey’s regulated-industry ban and Missouri’s regulated-industry ban and New Jersey campaign-finance law and Missouri campaign-finance law.  However, the Free and Fair Election Fund decision begs the question whether New Jersey’s regulated-industry ban is ripe for challenge.

 

Is the Time Ripe for New Jersey Pay-to-Play Reform?

For more than a decade, New Jersey has had in place a series of pay-to-play laws that impose reduced contribution limits and heightened disclosure requirements for government contractors. The goal of these laws is to ensure fair contracting procedures and to remove favoritism from the procurement process.

But are these laws working as intended when seemingly innocent mistakes leading to relatively small political contributions remove otherwise qualified and competitive bidders from government contracts? News last month that a paving company was disqualified from $7 million in New Jersey Executive Branch contracts because of a $500 political contribution has government contractors throughout the State understandably concerned about their own compliance procedures. The disproportionate effect of a relatively small political contribution has highlighted the need to reform New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws.

And Jeff Brindle, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, agrees. The need for reform is not a new issue, but the dramatic nature of this ineligibility determination may provide the impetus to begin this process in earnest.

In the current legal landscape and a blockbuster New Jersey election year that will see the election of a new governor as well as 120 State legislative races, government contractors need to focus on their pay-to-play compliance. Merely assuming that you are in compliance is simply not good enough, when a contribution of only a few hundred dollars can disqualify your company from millions of dollars of contracts. At this point in the election cycle, even one unintentional contribution can disqualify your company for up to 5 ½ years and, starting in April, refunds will not cure an excessive contribution once we have entered the 60 days preceding the 2017 primary election.

Genova Burns LLC has been at the forefront of pay-to-play compliance since New Jersey’s law was enacted more than a decade ago. If you are unsure of your compliance procedures, Genova Burns LLC can assist you in navigating the current legal landscape as well as any reforms that the future may bring. If you have any questions or would like to discuss your pay-to-play compliance program, please contact Rebecca Moll Freed, Esq. at 973-230-2075 or Avi D. Kelin, Esq. at 973-646-3267.

Deadline for New Jersey’s Annual Pay-to-Play Disclosure is Approaching: Is Your Company Ready to File?

After ELEC sent out its reminder email on March 6, we are reproducing below a Genova Burns LLC client alert that was distributed last week for any potential filers who may require additional information about the annual pay-to-play disclosure.

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (“ELEC”) requires each business entity that received payments of $50,000 or more (in the aggregate) as a result of government contracts during the 2016 calendar year to electronically file a Business Entity Annual Statement (“Form BE“) with ELEC no later than Thursday, March 30, 2017.

The obligation to file arises whenever payments from New Jersey government entities reach the $50,000 threshold. This includes contracts with the State of New Jersey Executive and Legislative branches, counties, municipalities, boards of education, fire districts, and independent authorities, regardless of method of award.

Additionally, detailed contract and contribution information must be disclosed whenever the business entity or a covered individual made a “reportable” contribution during 2016. A contribution is “reportable” when it exceeds $300 per reporting period. In light of these requirements, it is necessary to review personal political contributions made by a business entity’s partners, officers, and directors (and certain members of their families). Additionally, because of varying election cycles, it may be necessary to review contributions made over the course of several years to determine whether any 2016 contributions are reportable.

Companies that fail to file on time may be subject to monetary penalties. To ensure a timely and accurate filing, companies that have yet to begin preparing Form BE should not delay.

Genova Burns LLC can help your company comply with the Form BE filing requirements. Contact Rebecca Moll Freed, Esq., Chair of the Corporate Political Activity Law Group, at rfreed@genovaburns.com or 973-230-2075 or Avi D. Kelin, Esq. at akelin@genovaburns.com or 973-646-3267.

When it Comes to Pay-to-Play, Not All Political Recipients are Created Equal

If any New Jersey State contractor or potential State contractor out there ever thought that it didn’t need to put political-activity and pay-to-play compliance at the top of its “To Do” list, we have a cautionary tale for you.

Earlier this week, after losing out on the opportunity to perform two separate NJDOT contracts worth just over $7 million, the Superior Court, Appellate Division in Mercer County held that a paving company would remain ineligible for New Jersey state government contracts through the end of Governor Chris Christie’s current term of office because the company made a $500 contribution to a county party committee. Under New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws, contributions that exceed $300 per calendar year to a county political party committee will disqualify the contributor for contracts with the State of New Jersey Executive Branch. In this case, the devil is in the details – the company wrote its check payable to the “Somerset County Republican Org to Elect Provenzano,” referencing a candidate for County Sheriff. The contribution was made in connection with an event sponsored by the Somerset County Republican Organization, which provided attendees with the option of making their checks payable to different recipients. Unfortunately for the paving company, the payee name on its check was ambiguous and was eventually deposited by the Somerset County Republican Organization. If the company check had been more clear, or had been deposited by the County Sheriff candidate (or had been made payable to the County Freeholder candidates that were also listed on the invitation), the paving company would not have been declared ineligible for contracts with the State of New Jersey. The company only realized the implications of the contribution after the close of the 30-day refund period, and thus finds itself sitting on the sidelines for the remainder of Governor Christie’s current term of office.

This case reaffirms that although both contributors and recipients sometimes make mistakes, New Jersey’s Executive Branch pay-to-play restrictions provide no room for “inadvertent” contributions except during the limited 30-day refund period. In this case, the President of the company “signed the check as a matter of office routine since he signs virtually all company checks every month.” There is nothing routine when it comes to New Jersey pay-to-play restrictions. What is the moral of the story?  If you hold a State contract with the New Jersey Executive Branch and are thinking of making a political contribution, be informed about the State’s stringent pay-to-play laws and implement careful compliance and oversight policies for political contributions. Make it crystal clear who the recipient of your contribution is.  Don’t let lax compliance and an inadvertent $500 contribution cost you $7 million in contracts.

Pay-to-Play for New Jersey Public-Sector Labor Unions?

New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws are perhaps the most stringent in the country, with a web of overlapping laws, executive orders, and ordinances covering procurement contracts and redevelopment agreements with all levels of government. As the law stands now, labor union collective-bargaining agreements are not covered by any of these pay-to-play restrictions. (Governor Christie issued an Executive Order in 2010 that would have expanded existing pay-to-play restrictions to cover labor unions, but this Executive Order was struck down because it didn’t advance any then-existing legislative act or constitutional mandate.)

But there have been renewed calls in recent days to enact Senate Bill 341, which would limit the political contributions of those labor unions that enter into collective negotiations agreements with the State of New Jersey, or with New Jersey counties and municipalities.  Unlike current statewide Executive Branch pay-to-play restrictions, the proposed legislation provides for monetary penalties for violations. This legislation raises the possibility of a future amendment of New Jersey’s current statewide Executive Branch pay-to-play restrictions to provide for monetary penalties in the traditional procurement context as well. If passed, these new union pay-to-play restrictions would represent a profound transformation in New Jersey’s pay-to-play regime and for New Jersey politics as a whole.

2016 Presidential Conventions: What Congress Members and Attendees Need to Know

With the 2016 presidential conventions underway and as the November presidential election draws near, this post is part of a series on what different entities and groups need to know about their political activity as the 2016 election approaches. This post examines congressional gift rules that may be implicated during the conventions.

Congressional gift rules permit Members and staff who are convention delegates to attend convention events that are open to all convention delegates or to all delegates from their state or region.

Generally, Members of the House of Representatives and their staff may accept any gift paid for by the host cities (in this case, Cleveland, Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Additionally, a Member or staff person may accept a non-cash gift valued at less than $50 from any individual who is not a registered federal lobbyist, registered foreign agent, or an entity that employs or retains such individuals.

Impermissible, however, is Member or staff acceptance of a gift, provided by the host city, that was specifically or informally designated by a donor for distribution to Members or staff. The following non-exhaustive list of gifts may not be given to or received by Members of the House of Representatives or their staff:

  • Meals;
  • Entertainment;
  • Transportation;
  • Services; and
  • Anything of monetary value except as provided in the rule.

Staff and Members who are convention delegates may accept invitations to events and other gifts that are offered to all of the convention delegates or to, for example, all of the convention delegates from their state.

Additional general exceptions to the normal prohibition rules may also be relevant during the convention, including the widely-attended-event exception. This exception allows event sponsors to invite Staff and Members to attend an event that is attended by at least twenty-five individuals from outside Congress who are interested in a given issue and which is related to the official duties or representative function of elected officials.

As the 2016 conventions will be attended by many people subject to the congressional gift rules, it is important to keep these restrictions in mind as convention events are held.

Babatunde Odubekun, a summer associate at Genova Burns, assisted in the preparation of this post.

2016 Presidential Conventions: What Delegates and Attendees Need to Know

With the 2016 presidential conventions underway and as the November presidential election draws near, this post is part of a series on what different entities and groups need to know about their political activity as the 2016 election approaches. This post examines the rules governing contributions made to convention delegates under federal law.

Permissible Contributions to Delegates

Events and gifts paid for by the host cities (in this case, Cleveland, Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) may be accepted by delegates. It is also permissible for a delegate to accept any gift paid for by any unit of federal, state, or local government. Delegates are also permitted to accept meals, lodging, entertainment, and transportation from a political organization in connection with a campaign or fundraising event that the organization is sponsoring.

Classification of Funds Raised and Spent for Delegate Activity

Funds raised and spent for the purpose of furthering delegate selection are considered contributions and expenditures made for the purpose of influencing a federal election. There are no limitations on the monetary amount of contributions from permissible sources to delegates for the purpose of furthering their own selection as delegates. Once selected, travel and subsistence expenses related to the delegate selection process and the national nominating convention are considered expenditures. Additional considerations may arise when a federal candidate or officeholder attends the convention as a delegate.

Who is Prohibited from Contributing to a Delegate?

Individual delegates may not accept contributions from sources prohibited from making contributions in connection with federal elections. These sources include:

  • Corporations (including banks, trade associations, and non-profit corporations);
  • Labor organizations;
  • Foreign nationals or businesses (except lawful permanent residents); and
  • Federal government contractors, such as partnerships and sole proprietors with federal contracts.

With the Republican National Convention underway and the Democratic National Convention is only a few days away, it is not too late for delegates and their potential supporters to be aware of the rules.

Babatunde Odubekun, a summer associate at Genova Burns, assisted in the preparation of this post.

New York State Issues Guidance on Prohibited Coordination with Super PACs

After Citizens United and its progeny paved the way for independent expenditure activity and unlimited contributions to Independent Expenditure Only committees (better known as Super PACs), one key question in campaign-finance law has become how to determine whether Super PACs are coordinating their activities with candidates, party committees, and their agents.

Although the FEC has issued guidance on what constitutes prohibited coordination under federal law, many states have yet to offer their own interpretation of the types of coordination that would be prohibited for Super PACs active in state or local elections. It is under this backdrop that the State of New York has defined for the first time what types of activities will give rise to a finding of prohibited coordination.

These factors include (but are not limited to):

  • Whether a candidate formed an entity that later makes expenditures benefitting the candidate;
  • Whether a candidate raised funds on behalf of an entity that later makes expenditures benefitting the candidate;
  • Whether an entity making expenditures benefitting a candidate is operated by former staffers or immediate family members of the candidate;
  • Whether a communication reproduces material prepared by a candidate’s campaign, such as b-roll footage;
  • Whether an entity making expenditures benefitting a candidate engages in strategic discussions with the candidate’s campaign regarding the campaign’s strategy;
  • Whether an entity making expenditures benefitting a candidate shares vendors or space with the candidate’s campaign; and
  • Whether a donor to a candidate also provides a material portion of total funding to an entity making expenditures benefitting the candidate.

As Citizens United develops from a new phenomenon to established law, it is likely that additional individual states will offer their own guidance on the definition of coordination. The state of New York is one of the first to establish factors for regulators to consider. New Jersey, through several bills currently under consideration in the Assembly, may be attempting to do the same. These types of definitions and the role that Super PACs may play will be felt in the 2016 presidential election, New Jersey’s 2017 gubernatorial election, and beyond.

Allison Benz, a summer associate at Genova Burns, assisted in the preparation of this post.

New York State Announces Broad Set of Ethics and Campaign-Finance Reforms

Late last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and State legislative leaders announced agreement on a broad set of ethics and campaign-finance reforms focused on increased disclosure, transparency, and public trust.

Pursuant to this reform package:

  1. Super PACs (also known as Independent Expenditure Committees) may make and receive unlimited contributions so long as they do not coordinate with a political candidate. New York’s agreement expands the definition of coordination in this context to include the retention of a common vendor, the employment of a candidate’s former staffers, and the sharing or rental of common space. This agreement also increases disclosure requirements for Super PACs.
  2. Any public officer convicted of corruption is precluded from collecting a public pension.
  3. New disclosure requirements will be put in place for political consultants who represent both political officeholders or candidates and also private-sector clients with government business.
  4. Various reporting thresholds have been lowered under the State’s lobbying laws, including a reduction from $50,000 to $15,000 of the reporting threshold for organizations that lobby on their own behalf.
  5. 501(c)(4) social-welfare organizations are permitted to engage in political activities so long as political activity does not become the primary purpose of the organization. In contrast, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations are strictly prohibited from engaging in any political activity. Under New York’s agreement, 501(c)(4)s will be required to disclose funding and support received from 501(c)(3)s.  Additionally, a 501(c)(4) will be required to disclose its funding sources if they engage in political activities.

501(c)(3)s and the 2016 Federal Election: Do You Know What Your Employees Are Doing?

As the 2016 presidential primary season proceeds, we are quickly approaching the summer conventions and the November presidential election. With the political contests becoming more heated, this post is part of a new series on what different entities and groups need to know about their political activity as the 2016 election approaches.

There are many obvious benefits to earning the designation of a 501(c)(3) charitable organization—the organization is exempt from tax and donations are deductible. But the Internal Revenue Code places a key limitation on all 501(c)(3) organizations by prohibiting them from engaging in any political activity. Violation of this prohibition on political activity may lead the IRS to refuse or revoke 501(c)(3) status. A 501(c)(3) therefore must avoid any partisan activity that supports or opposes political candidates or political parties.

A 501(c)(3) generally MAY NOT:

  • Make political contributions (monetary or in-kind).
  • Issue a statement that supports or opposes a candidate (e.g., stand-alone statements, statements in newsletters, or material on a website).
  • Endorse a candidate.
  • Ask a candidate to sign a pledge on any issue.

However, a 501(c)(3) may generally engage in non-partisan activity that is related to the democratic process. Therefore, a 501(c)(3) generally MAY:

  • Engage in non-partisan election-related activities such as get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives.
  • Engage in limited lobbying (related to the mission of the organization), including ballot-measure advocacy.
  • Educate all candidates on issues within the purview of the organization.
  • Conduct non-partisan public-education and training sessions about participation in the political process.
  • Prepare and disseminate non-partisan candidate questionnaires and sample ballots.

However, the officers, directors, and employees of a 501(c)(3) retain the right to personally engage in political activity (just as we described in our recent post on political activity for corporations). A 501(c)(3) must simply be careful to avoid allowing organization resources (from mailing lists to letterhead) to be used for political activity or permitting individuals to engage in political activity that suggests the support or endorsement of the organization.

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