Although it has been a long winter, we have recently had a taste of spring (or maybe even summer) here in New Jersey. The warmer weather means that golf outing season is upon us. In the political world, this means that your company may soon be receiving invitations to sponsor a hole, beverage cart or foursome at a golf outing. Before you register for the golf outing, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is hosting the event? Is it a political party committee, candidate committee, political action committee or not-for-profit entity?
- If the host is a political recipient, does your company currently hold or are you seeking contracts in the jurisdiction where the political recipient is located?
- Have you evaluated all applicable campaign finance and pay-to-play limits? Do they apply on a calendar year, per election or per election cycle basis?
- Are you inviting anyone outside of your company to attend as your guest? If so, are they an elected official or government employee? If they are, is your invitation in compliance with relevant gift rules?
To assist compliance with campaign finance pay-to-play and gift rules, these questions should be a part of your company’s internal review process for each and every political event you are asked to attend. The bottom line is that your company should not write a check without knowing the exact name of the recipient committee, how it is organized and whether the sponsorship will jeopardize your eligibility for current or future government contracts.
Genova Burns LLC can help your company comply with campaign finance pay-to-play and gift rules. Contact Rebecca Moll Freed, Esq., Chair of the Corporate Political Activity Law Group, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973-230-2075 or Avi D. Kelin, Esq. at email@example.com or 973-646-3267.
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.
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.