No Room for Refunds: Pay-to-Play Limits and New Jersey’s Upcoming Gubernatorial Election

With summer vacations over and the New Jersey political world focused on the November gubernatorial election, Friday, September 8, 2017 marks an important milestone under New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws.

Under the law, a business entity can find itself ineligible for New Jersey Executive Branch contracts if the business entity or its covered individuals have made a reportable political contribution (a contribution greater than $300) to a gubernatorial candidate, political party committee, or legislative leadership committee. As previously discussed here, a contribution in excess of pay-to-play limits can have a devastating effect on a company.

The good news is that, generally, if a company or a covered individual makes a contribution in excess of the applicable pay-to-play limit, the contributor can request and receive a refund within 30 days of the contribution without jeopardizing eligibility for New Jersey Executive Branch contracts. The bad news is that, for contributions made within 60 days of a gubernatorial election, a refund will not cure a violation.

As New Jersey draws closer to electing its next Governor and companies and individuals are increasingly engaged in the political process, government contractors (and prospective government contractors) must understand pay-to-play limits. Smart companies know that each contribution must be reviewed and approved in advance and that relying upon obtaining a refund is not a prudent strategy for compliance.

For more information on how you or your company may safely participate in the political process, please contact Rebecca Moll Freed, Esq., Chair of the Corporate Political Activity Law Group, at rfreed@genovaburns.com or 973-230-2075

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.

New Jersey’s 2016 Primary: Potential Pitfalls of Per Election & Pay-to-Play Limits

New Jersey held its 2016 primary election on Tuesday, June 7, 2016. While most of the focus has been on the presidential primary, individuals and entities that contribute in connection with New Jersey state and local elections need to keep the following in mind:

  • New Jersey campaign finance law sets “per election” limits for contributions to candidate committees; however, the limit does not automatically reset the day after the primary election. Rather, the 2016 primary election cycle remains open until Friday, June 24, 2016 (candidates are required to file a 20-day post-election report with ELEC on Monday, June 27, 2016). So, any contribution made between the primary election and June 24, 2016 will count toward the 2016 primary and not the 2016 general. This is an important consideration if a contributor is concerned with pay-to-play compliance and wants to limit contributions to a particular candidate to no more than $300 per election.
    • If a contributor wants a contribution to count toward the 2016 primary, the contributor should make sure that the check arrives before June 24, 2016 and that the recipient committee will report the contribution in connection with the 2016 primary.
    • If a contributor wants a contribution to count toward the 2016 general, the contributor should wait to send the check after the June 24 “cut off” date to avoid any confusion (and the possibility of exceeding a pay-to-play limit).
  • New Jersey campaign finance law sets “per calendar” year limits for contributions to party committees, PACs and legislative leadership committees. So, if a contributor is concerned with pay-to-play compliance and wants to limit contributions to $300 or less, the limit does not re-set now that the primary is over.
  • Some New Jersey pay-to-play ordinances set “per calendar year,” “per contract” or “per election cycle” limits for contributions to candidates. Some even prohibit contributions in any amount during certain periods of time. So, if your company does business with a particular county or municipality or wishes to remain eligible for future contracts with a particular county or municipality, do not assume that because the 2016 primary election is over, it is now safe to write another check.

Explaining Jon Stewart’s Monologue on Campaign Finance

After more than 16 years at the helm of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart hosted his final episode last night. The hour-long show devoted most of its running time to Stewart saying farewell to the correspondents and staffers who have played a part in the show’s history. But Stewart found time to deliver a short monologue on how truth is often obscured in business, policy, and politics. (Because this is a family-friendly Corporate Political Activity Law Blog, we won’t mention the term Stewart repeated throughout the monologue.) One strategy, Stewart explains, is hiding the truth through complexity:

Hey, a handful of billionaires can’t buy our elections, right? Of course not. They can only pour unlimited, anonymous cash into a 501(c)(4) if 50% is devoted to issue education, otherwise they’d have to 501(c)(6) it, or funnel it openly through a non-campaign coordinated Super PAC.

Here’s a quick overview of the campaign-finance concepts that Stewart referenced, which also doubles as a handy primer on the different ways money is raised and spent on political activity.

  • For federal elections, the making of political contributions to a candidate or a political party is subject to both contribution limits and disclosure requirements. The FEC has jurisdiction over these issues.
  • Tax-exempt organizations are not subject to the FEC’s jurisdiction. Instead, the IRS ensures that 501(c) organizations do not engage in prohibited political activity. A 501(c)(3) organization, for example, may not engage in any political activity but may engage in limited lobbying expenditures. In contrast, a 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(6) may carry on partisan political activity so long as political activity is a secondary—and not the primary—activity of the organization. The IRS has expressed an apparent tolerance of political activity by 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s, so long as the political activity is less than 50% of the organization’s total activity. A 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(6) may also engage in unlimited lobbying expenditures. There are no limits on the money that may be donated to 501(c) organizations and the donations are not subject to disclosure.
  • As we’ve discussed here on the blog, a Super PAC is a political organization that may only make independent expenditures, which means that they are not coordinated with candidates. A Super PAC may raise unlimited funds but it is required to disclose its contributors.

Stewart is right. The world of campaign finance can be complicated. Although he will no longer be around to explain the complexities of campaign-finance law, we will!

Pay-to-Play Implications of Governor Chris Christie’s Presidential Run

After today’s announcement, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joins a long list of 2016 presidential candidates, from both parties. But Christie’s position as a sitting governor means that he is subject to different campaign-finance rules than some of his opponents.

In particular, under the Securities and Exchange Commission’s pay-to-play rules, investment advisors are subject to reduced contribution limits when making political contributions to a covered candidate or official—including any official who has authority to appoint members to government funds that select investment advisors. Governor Christie, who appoints members to the New Jersey State Investment Council, is covered by the SEC pay-to-play restrictions, even in a campaign for federal office. Similarly, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board has its own pay-to-play restriction that covers municipal-securities dealers. Under guidance issued by the MSRB, this rule applies to presidential campaigns of covered State officeholders. Covered municipal-securities professionals may therefore be subject to reduced contribution limits for Governor Christie’s presidential run. These pay-to-play restrictions apply not just to Governor Christie but may also apply to such other 2016 presidential candidates as Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, and John Kasich—all sitting governors.

For political prognosticators, it is worth considering how a presidential candidate from the northeast, who may expect extensive support from Wall Street, will fare when political contributions from the financial community are potentially governed by SEC, MSRB, and local pay-to-play rules. But it is equally important for the investment advisors and financial professionals themselves to keep these restrictions in mind, to ensure that their political contributions do not jeopardize their firms’ government contracts. Although there may be understandable excitement over a local presidential candidate, it is crucially important for investment advisors in New Jersey, Wall Street, and beyond to understand these pay-to-play restrictions and to abide by their limits.

What Do The Jersey Shore, The 2015 General Election & Understanding Applicable Contribution Limits Have in Common?

No – this is not a bad joke (although it could have the makings of one) – rather, because this past weekend marked the “official” start to summer and also marked the start of New Jersey’s 2015 general election cycle, we thought we would use this opportunity to discuss one of the most common mistakes in political-contribution compliance.

Although the 2015 primary election was held on June 2nd, the cut-off for receiving primary-election contributions was June 19th. So, contributors that maxed out with respect to the 2015 primary are now starting with a clean slate with respect to the 2015 general. Or are they?

We know that most contributors would rather be spending their summer days at the Jersey Shore than worrying about political-contribution compliance, but contributors can do both if before writing a check in connection with what the contributor believes is the 2015 general election, the contributor checks to make sure:

  • Any contributions made prior to the June 19th primary election deadline were in fact received and reported in connection with the 2015 primary.
    • Compliance tip – contributors often use the date on the check as the date of the contribution and committees often use the date of deposit.
  • No local ordinance is in place with “election cycle” limits that impose a combined limit on the 2015 primary and general election cycles.
    • Compliance tip – the Bergen County Ordinance is one example of this type of ordinance.
  • The candidate was successful in the 2015 primary and will be seeking election in the 2015 general.
    • Compliance tip – this is especially important with joint candidate committees.

Although election cycles seem straightforward, understanding when a new election cycle begins is often a source of confusion for contributors. This confusion can lead to mistakes, which may result in excessive contributions and violations of applicable pay-to-play limits.

So, if you want to maximize your time in the summer sun without the headaches associated with making contributions in violation of applicable limits, consider communicating your intent to the recipient committee by using cover letters and by writing “2015 General” on the memo line of your check. While we cannot guarantee that these simple steps will eliminate all confusion, they may very well help if you learn that the contribution you thought was made in connection with one election was in fact deposited and reported in connection with another!

Contributions by New Jersey Government Contractors Increased Dramatically in 2013: Will Pay-to-Play Reform Follow?

Late last month, ELEC issued its 2013 Annual Report, which includes an analysis of the Pay-to-Play Annual Disclosures (Form BE) filed by New Jersey government contractors. Although New Jersey has stringent pay-to-play restrictions in effect at virtually all levels of government, ELEC reported that contributions by public contractors jumped to $10.1 million in 2013 (up more than $2 million from 2012). Despite this increase, ELEC advised in its May ELEC-Tronic Newsletter that “overall contributions still are down 39 percent from a peak of $16.4 million in 2007.”

Given that contributions by New Jersey government contractors increased significantly in 2013, it raises the question of whether pay-to-play restrictions are working. Although the law has not changed in nearly five (5) years, changes may be taking place on the local level to spur an increase in giving. Perhaps more local government entities are moving to a “fair and open process”, which allows vendors to contribute up to the full limits of New Jersey campaign finance law during the term of a contract. Perhaps more local government entities are adopting less stringent pay-to-play restrictions, which contain higher contribution limits during both the pre-contracting period and during the term of a contract itself. Perhaps the increase is simply due to the fact that contributions to legislative candidates generally fall outside the scope of pay-to-play restrictions and 2013 was a big legislative election year. Or, perhaps the increase is based on the fact that more government contractors have become aware of their filing obligations. No matter the reason, there is still a push for pay-to-play reform in the Garden State. Despite the fact that legislation was introduced in the New Jersey Senate over a year ago, New Jersey’s statewide pay-to-play restrictions have not changed since 2008.

Now that the 2013 legislative elections are over, will 2014 be the year for reform?