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PRESS OF ATLANTIC CITY: ‘Another end-run around campaign laws / Disclose donors’

The Press of Atlantic City published the following Thursday on Democrats urging Republicans to disclose the donors and expenses of their secretive redistricting group:

Another end-run around campaign laws / Disclose donors
The stakes in New Jersey’s redistricting process are very, very high. The party that comes out ahead gets a huge edge in getting and staying in power for the next decade. And the process is often viewed with cynicism – for some legitimate reasons. Legislative districts are drawn less on the basis of logical boundaries than on the basis of creating districts likely to support a particular party.

Still, the process itself is relatively fair and reasonably open: A 10-member Legislative Apportionment Commission of five Republicans and five Democrats meets and holds public meetings. If it can’t agree on a new map, an 11th member is appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court to break the tie.

But Republicans are now creating a whole new basis for cynicism: a secretly funded organization to finance Republican efforts to redraw the map in their favor. The organization, Center for a Better New Jersey, is known as a 501(c)4 nonprofit – the same kind of nonprofit as Reform Jersey Now, a now-defunct group formed to push Gov. Chris Christie’s agenda.

These innocuous-sounding, 501(c)4 groups are popping up nationwide as a way to circumvent financial-disclosure, campaign-contribution, pay-to-play and other laws regulating political donations. The nonprofits are not legally required to disclose who is donating, and donors can contributed unlimited amounts of cash.

The history of Reform Jersey Now demonstrates why this is such a dangerous road. Under intense public pressure, Reform Jersey Now finally did voluntarily disclose its donors in December. Contributors included firms with hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts. It included lobby and special-interest groups with a financial interest in specific bills in the Statehouse. In short, these donors were looking for something else besides property-tax and civil-service reform. Wealthy companies and lobby groups do not spend tens of thousands of dollars unless they expect a return on their investment.

Democrats are now calling on Republicans to disclose the donors of Center for a Better New Jersey. In response, Sen. Tom Kean, R-Essex, says the nonprofit group will “fully comply with all reporting and disclosure laws” – which, of course, do not apply.

There’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around here. Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine created a similar nonprofit to promote his toll-hike plan – and under pressure, eventually disclosed donors, which included some state contractors. One of the key Republican legislators pressuring him to release that information was … that same Tom Kean.

Still, Christie came to office promising ethics reform and strict pay-to-play laws. He should be among the chorus calling for disclosure on this issue – or risk being labeled the biggest hypocrite.