Archive

More ICE

A version of my Tuesday post on the loopholes in Trenton’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance has been published as an opinion piece in this morning’s Trenton Times. Thanks to the editors of The Times for recognizing the importance of this issue, and for giving me space in their print edition today.

The opinion piece was written and submitted before last night’s news that the proposed legal services contract with the Long Marmero & Associates law firm, as well as another proposal from the firm of Eric M. Bernstein & Associates, have been withdrawn from consideration at tonight’s City Council meeting, at the request of the NJ Department of Community Services (DCA). DCA asked to review the two contracts, likely as a result of the questions that have been raised about the relationship between Long Marmero and the ICE PAC Political Action Committee.

ICE PAC earlier this year made a donation to the Eric Jackson campaign on  February 20 this year, Check #1056 in the amount of $8,200, the maximum allowable under state law. The Treasurer of ICE PAC is Albert Marmero, a name partner of the firm. The PAC’s address is the same as the Long Marmero firm. Eric Bernstein has been a contributor to ICE PAC for the last three years, according to records filed by the Committee with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Mr. Marmero and David Minchello, Trenton’s Law Director, deny that these matters violate Trenton’s city ordinance, and are perfectly legal due to provisions in the city’s law that are effectively loopholes.

Still, DCA asked to review the situation, suspending these two proposed legal contracts, while allowing others tonight to be considered by Council. Director Minchello doesn’t see this move as a roadblock. In today’s Trenton Times article by Jenna Pizzi, Mr. Minchello is quoted as saying, “‘We hope to receive the approval of the DCA’… The additional review, he said, is ‘just in an abundance of caution.’”

Mr. Minchello should be prepared to wait a while for the result of that review. It’s likely to involve some investigation by ELEC on a couple of other ICE PAC-related transactions involving the Jackson campaign.

Back in April, in a piece discussing what I considered to be several puzzling items in Mr. Jackson’s campaign finances, I noticed a contribution from the “Bridgeton Democratic Organization” to Jackson’s campaign, in the amount of $2,600, on February 25 of this year, as can be seen on the Jackson ELEC report for the first three months of this year, filed on April 14 and available here.

I didn’t have a clue then, and still don’t, about what interest a municipal Democratic Committee in Cumberland County would possibly have in Trenton’s non-partisan mayoral election that would lead them to make such a large donation.

At the time I wrote that, I couldn’t look any further into that transaction, both because ICE PAC had not filed any of the legally-required reports with ELEC since 2012, and the Bridgeton Democratic Organization had not filed any ELEC reports since 2008.

One June 3, though, ICE PAC filed all their late reports with ELEC, one day after I wrote another column about the connections between the PAC and Long Marmero. On the report for the first quarter of 2014, which can be seen here, the $8,200 contribution to Eric Jackson on February 20is disclosed on Page 14.

As is, remarkably, a February 20 contribution, Check # 1057 in the amount of $2,600 to… the Bridgeton Democratic Organization.

The notation for that contribution, appearing right next to that to Jackson, is “Primary, Cumberland.” It’s impossible to cross-check that with the financial records of the Bridgeton Organization because, as I have mentioned, they haven’t filed any reports with the state since 2008.

Can it be  coincidental that on the very same day that ICE PAC writes Check #1056for the maximum legal amount – to Jackson for Mayor, ICE PAC writes another check – #1057 – to the Bridgeton Democrats for $2600; and that organization sends a donation – in the exact same amount - to the Jackson campaign, five days later?

Sure, it might be a coincidence.

But this kind of “coincidence”  payment from a contributor to a Trenton Mayoral campaign using a PAC as the conduit is what got Cooper Levenson in trouble in 2010, when that law firm – up for a legal contract with the Mack Administration – donated $7,200 to the “Partners for Progress” PAC, and that PAC made a contribution in the identical amount to Tony Mack’s campaign.

Since the Bridgeton group hasn’t filed any reports in a half dozen years, this will not be easily or quickly resolved.

With the records that are publicly available as of today,  a picture is being drawn which strongly suggests that, apart from whatever the determination is made about ICE PAC and Long Marmero’s compliance with Trenton’s Pay-to-Play law, ICE PAC may have wheeled a separate contribution to the Jackson campaign that would have illegally exceeded the maximum amount allowable under New Jersey election law.

Zero Tolerance *

Cronyism and corruption. These are not words that should ever be associated with public service and yet, too often, they are.

Politicians elected by their fellow citizens to improve the quality of life for their constituents too often end up taking advantage of their office for personal gain.

Taxpayers who believe their hard-earned money is going toward improving schools, roads and public safety instead learn that it is being spent to line the pockets of the connected few.

It does not have to be this way.

As New Jersey’s capital city, Trenton must be a beacon to the rest of the state based on our diversity, the strength of our residents and the industry of our neighbors.

The next mayor of Trenton will not only have to clean up the mess left to him or her, but will have to restore the faith and trust Trentonians have rightly lost in their municipal government…

Ooops!!!!

I should have written all of the above in quotes. By not doing so, you might have imagined that I wrote this.

Sorry about any misunderstanding!

These words are actually from Candidate Eric Jackson, published as an op-ed in the Trenton Times, waaaaaay back in March when he was telling voters that this city needed a leader with “zero tolerance for corruption,” and that he was that leader.

Re-reading the op-ed, I keep looking for an asterisk after “zero tolerance,” but I can’t find it. Because this morning, it sure does look like the intent of Mr. Jackson’s bold declaration is that “zero tolerance” sure means “zero tolerance, *(unless there is a legal loophole the size of Texas available).”

Yesterday, I pointed out that the folks who run a Political Action Committee (PAC) that wrote a check for $8200 to Eric Jackson’s mayoral campaign in February – including the same guy who probably signed the check – were in line to get a $20,000 legal services contract from the City of Trenton, through their law firm. To me, this seemed like a pretty clear-cut violation of the City’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance (P2P), posing  a conflict of interest that to me would require under the terms of that law refusal of the contract by our City Council.

Actually, in a way the guy who signed the check agrees with me. “I think it is a perceived conflict,” Albert Marmero told Jenna Pizzi of the Times in today’s article. Mr. Marmero is the Treasurer of the “Initiate Civic Empowerment” PAC (ICE PAC), as well as a name partner of the law firm Long Marmero & Associates, up for a new $20,000 contract with the City.

But, according to Marmero, it’s only the perception of a conflict or violation, not a real one. Since none of the law firm’s actual funds went into the PAC during a time period that would fall under our city’s P2P law, it is entirely legal for his law firm to be eligible for this new contract.

Trenton’s new Law Director, David Minchello, himself a personal contributor to Mr. Jackson’s campaign, agrees. As does Heather Taylor, a spokesperson for the Citizens Campaign, the organization who provided the language for the P2P ordinance that was presented to, and approved by, Trenton’s voters in 2006. In the Times article today, Ms. Taylor characterizes the circumstance under which this kind of arrangement can be considered legal a “loophole” in the law. A loophole attributable to the fact that “Since the ordinance was passed in 2006, the scope and range of PACs in the state’s political landscape has changed,” according to Ms. Taylor as reported in the Times.

Taylor and Citizens Campaign hold out a “solution” to this situation, offering “new legislation is available to citizens or elected officials who want to propose an update to the law.”

Closing this loophole would be a good thing. Because it is madness to me that individuals who wear one hat to operate a PAC, and who select recipients for what can be sizable contributions – $8,200 in the case of Eric Jackson, the maximum permitted by NJ state law – and who sign checks for those sizable contributions can also be eligible for contracts from those recipients when wearing another corporate hat, at the same address no less!

That’s not the situation that I foresaw when I voted for this law in 2006. I can’t imagine other voters had the same situation in mind, either.

So where do we go from here? With everyone acknowledging this situation is due to a loophole, we can seek to tighten it up. Trenton’s City Council can take this up and easily amend the law, using Citizens Campaign’s new model language as a starting point. If Council fails to do so, citizens can do what we did in 2006, and get a new, tighter law on the books.

In fact, it might be better if we as citizens do it ourselves, and not rely on Council or the Administration to do what’s right. Because, as citizens, we must take ownership of our government and not leave it up to others to do.

Dang!

I forgot to use quotations again!! That part about “as citizens, we must take ownership of our government and not leave it up to others to do?” That was Eric Jackson again, from his March op-ed.

Oh. By the way, elsewhere in that same op-ed, he described “some immediate steps Trenton’s next mayor can take on Day One to help restore the public trust;” namely, “I believe the first act of business must be to create the position of independent inspector general.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

I didn’t think much of the idea at the time (still don’t;), but hey! it was Mr. Jackson’s idea. We are now on Day 36, not Day One. Still no Inspector General, hmmm??

Candidate Jackson also favored “preserving strong anti-pay-to-play regulations.”

Here’s the perfect opportunity to strengthen them, Mayor Jackson!

What do you say? Up for it?

Running With Baggage

Mayor Eric Jackson is quoted in yesterday’s Trenton Times article by Jenna Pizzi saying that his Administration has “hit the ground running” during its first thirty days in office. Several new department directors have been hired; town hall meetings have been held around each of the wards, beginning what should be a regular dialog between citizens and City; and expressions of good will and support have poured in from around the state as everyone pulls for Trenton to climb out of the deep hole it is in.

There haven’t been a great deal of concrete actions taken, nor expressions of any new policies the Administration will pursue. But no one minds that for now. The Mayor says “We are laying the groundwork for a lot of things to come soon.” He is, quite appropriately, somewhat cautious in his approach during his first weeks in office. Trenton’s government is pretty much at rock bottom after four years of absolute hell.

One of the voices raised to support the new mayor and his team, quoted ion Ms. Pizzi’s article, is William Guhl, whose long and distinguished career in NJ municipal and state government lends his words a lot of credibility. He thinks that the new administration has already achieved a great success: “Certainly what the new mayor has done with his appointments and his demeanor and his commitment is restore confidence in the city administration.”

Confidence in the city’s administration. We need that desperately in Trenton, and I am heartily glad that we are making progress in earning that confidence back.

In the context of this sense of initial accomplishment, and in the atmosphere of all this good will and good wishes, that I have to say I find it unfortunate that there is still some baggage from the mayor’s campaign that threatens to dull some of the luster of the mayor’s new administration.

Last week, in another Times article by Jenna Pizzi, she reported a couple of questionable new campaign finance items revealed in the mayor’s post-election reporting filed with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). These items include what was noticed by Ms. Pizzi as contributions apparently exceeding the legal limit from a Newark law firm to Mr. Jackson; and what appeared to be either a duplicate contribution from the NJ Education Association, which would also exceed the legal limit, or what may have been a clerical error on the part of the Jackson campaign treasurer in recording a duplicate entry for the same legal contribution. As of the date of Ms. Pizzi’s article, it was not entirely clear which was the case. Upon being notified by The Times of these problems, a campaign spokesperson told Ms. Pizzi it would “amend the report” to ELEC if necessary.

The Jackson campaign had a number of reporting problems with ELEC throughout the entire 2014 election, some of these problems extending back to the mayor’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign. As Ms. Pizzi’s article reports, these new items indicate that these problems are not yet over for the Jackson campaign. The Times article did not discuss a few other matters that are unresolved in Mr. Jackson’s campaign financing that at the very least will cause additional embarrassment to his campaign. One of these unresolved matters is likely to impact official City business.

Back in April, I wrote about a number of contributions to Mr. Jackson’s campaign from former US Senator turned real estate investor Robert Torricelli, in his own name as well as his Woodrose Properties LLC that in the aggregate exceeded the legal maximum for such contributions by $1000. Since none of the Jackson campaign’s recent ELEC reporting, nor Ms. Pizzi’s article last week, indicate that this excess contribution was returned to Mr. Torricelli, one can only assume that this still needs to be addressed by the Jackson campaign.

The other matter involves the Woodbury law firm of Long Marmero & Associates LLP, and a Political Action Committee (PAC) closely associated with the firm, Initiate Civic Empowerment, a/k/a “ICE PAC.”

ICE PAC first drew my attention in April, when I noted a contribution from the PAC to Mr. Jackson of $8200, the legal maximum. At the time, I could find no ELEC report from this PAC stating the source of their funding and contributions, which I found troubling. I discussed the PAC again in early June, during the Trenton mayoral runoff, when I saw that the Long Marmero firm was under contract to the City of Trenton as one of many outside law firms working for the City. I suggested that the contribution from ICE PAC, whose Treasurer is Albert Marmero one of the name partners of Long Marmero, might represent a violation of Trenton’s municipal Pay-to-Play Ordinance. As it turned out, the work done for Trenton by the law firm was completed prior to the donation made to Mr. Jackson’s campaign. So there was no apparent pay-t0-play violation, at that time.

As it turns out, on June 3 – one day after I wrote my column questioning that contract – ICE PAC Treasurer/Long Marmero Treasurer Albert Marmero filed several financial reports with ELEC, including this one for the first quarter of 2014 which reports their contribution to Mr. Jackson’s campaign.

As of this week, it looks like we have a new situation. On the Docket for City Council’s scheduled session this Thursday August 7, proposed Council Resolution 14-490 calls for a new contract in the amount of $20,000 to be awarded to Long Marmero for “professional legal services regarding general municipal and defense litigation matters” on behalf of the City of Trenton.

By the fact that the closely-associated ICE PAC contributed $8200 to Mayor Jackson’s campaign only six months ago, I believe it is clearly the case that Long Marmero cannot be considered currently eligible to provide professional services to the City of Trenton under the terms of its Pay-to-Play Ordinance. Accordingly, Council must decline to grant this contract.

At $20,000, this is not a huge contract by any means. However, the City made a professional judgment on the merits of the firm’s professional qualifications that Long Marmero was best suited to provide the specific legal services for which the City would like to hire them, and it may be impossible to do so because of their PAC’s support of the mayor’s campaign. Remember, it was on these same grounds that Trenton’s City Attorney Marc McKithen canceled the Cooper Levenson law firm’s contract in 2011.

This puts us now into a situation where the internal conduct of the mayor’s campaign is now impacting the conduct of the City’s affairs. I expect Council to address this during Thursday’s meeting.

One can only hope that this will be an isolated instance as the new administration continues to establish itself, and that there will be no further instances of campaign business complicating city business. Otherwise, the Jackson Administration may find it difficult to continue its “running” pace if it is weighed down by campaign baggage.

Good Luck!

Today begins the effort to heal Trenton. I wish Mayor Eric Jackson, members of City Council, and all of the current and future municipal employees and appointees of the new Administration nothing but good will and good luck as they begin today to – hopefully – reverse not just four years of mendacity and disaster, but several decades of drift and decay. Their success will be our success, and their failure will be our failure. How, then, can we hope for anything but good fortune? We would be fools.

At least one voice has been raised to suggest that there are such fools in this city, describing the presence of “detractors [who] hope for monumental or minuscule missteps. Or even failure.” Where there is one person saying these things, there are likely others with the same thoughts unspoken.

What a sad, angry and confused sentiment! “Hope for failure?” What could possibly be the benefit of that? Nothing but infinitely more grief, that’s what.

No one living in this city today, who has lived through the last several years, could sanely want to see anything but improvement in the city. Neither the Mayor nor Council may be the people we preferred, but that’s how elections work. The voters have spoken, at least the ones who showed up to vote.

The new Administration and Council have the support and best wishes of every Trentonian who truly wants the city to prosper. That includes me.

Future successes will surely be acknowledged and applauded, in the hope that they increase in number. However, be certain that problems, too, will surely be acknowledged, in the hope that they be few in number, and quickly contained with minimal damage.

We have the sad example of the last four years to show us the folly of failing to appreciate that, as circumstance warrants, both support and criticism of their government – from Day One – are essential for engaged citizens.  Our public officials deserve no less.

Today does represent a new act for Trenton, of a play already well under way. Mayor Jackson and our Council members will hear both cheers and jeers for their actions, as each are earned. I wish them, and all of Us, Good Luck.

NJ's Long Con - A Peril to Trenton's New Administration

The Trenton Times has a good editorial today. Titled “N.J. $82M[illion] incentive to bring 76er practice facility to Camden is purely for show,” the piece uses the specific example of the aforementioned incentive granted to the Philadelphia 76er basketball team over the next 10 years to make a larger point about the worrisome trend over the last several years of massively increased subsidies and incentives paid to NJ companies in order to keep them in New Jersey:

[C]oaxing the team across the Ben Franklin Bridge showed New Jersey has what it takes to do attract a marquee sports name and its billionaire owner.

What it takes is simply money, and the state has spent far too much placating businesses that threaten to leave the state. Since 2010, New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority has awarded 252 companies more than $4 billion in subsidies — tax breaks and credits. That’s more than triple the amount awarded over the previous 13 years.

That expensive and preferential treatment extended to approximately 1 percent of corporations in the state is not paying off as well as it should. A study by the think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) finds the policy to be largely unsuccessful in boosting the state’s economy with the value of a job tied to a subsidy award rising to $48,000, “leaving companies on the hook for far fewer jobs on a per-dollar basis than ever before.”

The report to which the Times refers, prepared by New Jersey Policy Perspective, provides a great deal of information about the explosive growth of the state’s tax incentives and subsidies over the last several years under the Christie Administration. In the decade of the 2000s, the value of incentives granted to corporations totaled about $1.2 Billion. In the current decade, that figure is up to $4 Billion so far, and that’s for barely more than 4 years!

This total represents tax revenue lost to the state, contributing greatly to the budget crisis the state is experiencing. To make up, in great measure, for the tax giveaways to a mere 1% of the state’s companies, the Christie Administration has resorted to deep cuts in the state’s budget such as the huge reduction announced last month in the state’s pension payments for public employees.

As bad as the budget squeeze has been, this massive tax giveaway isn’t even benefiting NJ. According to NJPP, the state’s economy is still a basket case:

The unprecedented growth in subsidies, however, has so far done little to significantly improve the state’s economy. Four and a half years into the surge, New Jersey’s economic recovery remains far behind that of its neighboring states and the nation. Just 40 percent of the jobs New Jersey lost in the recession have been recovered (including only 48 percent of private-sector jobs); the state has the highest share of workers who have been unemployed for more than six months; and New Jersey continues to lead the nation in the percentage of homeowners (one in twelve) who are in foreclosure.

The NJPP paper points an accusatory finger at the “Economic Opportunity Act of 2013,” passed by the Legislature last year and signed by the Governor, as a major culprit  in its words of  ”opening the floodgates” of NJ subsidies:

[T]he law dramatically expanded the reach of New Jersey’s subsidy programs, increased the total subsidy amount any one company could receive, created more generous award amounts than the old programs provided for comparable projects and removed most caps on the subsidies (a $600 million cap is in place on residential redevelopment projects, but none exists for jobs-related subsidies or commercial redevelopment projects).

This major critique of the state’s incentives is bad news, then. What’s the Trenton angle?

First off, historically when New Jersey gets a cold, Trenton catches pneumonia. Anything which negatively impacts the state as a whole will hurt Trenton even more. The City’s economy is much more fragile than the state as a whole, and dependent on state aid to balance its books and provide needed services. When NJPP says “the state has the highest share of workers who have been unemployed for more than six months,” you know that the percentage of Trenton’s citizens is much, much higher than the rest of Jersey.

Even harsher, though, is the direct impact of the “Economic Opportunity Act of 2013.” The proponents of this legislation made a lot of claims about the great benefits of this law, claims that now look more than a little hollow. However, for Trenton and a handful of other towns around the state, the law was guaranteed to have a negative impact on the finances of this town.

Readers of this space will recall that I talked about this impact a few times several months ago. I quoted the official analysis prepared for the Legislature by the NJ Office of Legislative Services that explicitly stated the program “will result in significantly reduced property tax revenues” [Emphasis mine - KM] for Trenton and a handful of other towns, as the City will lose the benefit of local tax revenue from major new commercial development financed from these programs for most of 20 years!

So, to recap. A policy of massive tax gifts and subsidies to corporations that was supposed to boost the fortunes of the state is not helping, as New Jersey badly lags behind the rest of the country in economic recovery.

And this policy is also designed to lose Trenton money. for years to come.

I mention this because our City Council unanimously signed on to this program in December of 2013. Several members of Council expressed serious misgivings then on participating in a program that even at the time looked to be of dubious value to the people and fortunes of this City. This needs to be close to the top of the City’s agenda going forward for the next several years. Unless there are revisions to the terms of the City’s participation in the programs established in the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013, we could be victimized yet again.

In the 1990’s and 2000’s Trenton saw a number of big programs and property developments that were supposed to boost the City. But after decades of things like Regional Contribution Agreements, Arenas, Hotels and Stadiums, we can see how all those turned out.

Many of the same individuals who at the time promised many great things for Trenton from these very things – including Doug Palmer, Robert Prunetti and Brian Hughes – are reported to be advising the incoming Jackson Administration during its transition into office next month. Their counsel frankly might not be the best to warn us away from the perils facing Trenton from this new program, based on past experience.

And with corporate beneficiaries of this program such as Robert Torricelli’s Woodrose Associates on board as campaign contributors and supporters of Mayor-elect Eric Jackson, there are more than enough players involved who might distract distract the City and its leaders from the best interests of Trenton’s citizens and taxpayers.

The Trenton Times and NJPP tell us today that the State is spending Billions of Taxpayer dollars on corporate giveaways of dubious economic value to the State as a whole. For Trenton, these giveaways might be little more than a long confidence game from the State, offering us more of the same snake oil we’ve been sold for decades, contributing to the City’s ongoing misery.

Paul Perez Interview, Part 3 of 3

Here is the final installment of my interview on June 4 with Paul Perez.

In this segment, Mr. Perez talks about his campaign, including the endorsement given to him by former Trenton School Board President Toby Sanders, about which I wrote on April 6, who is married to Paul Perez’s niece. That, and other family connections, are discussed.

Part 2, Paul Perez Interview

Here is Part 2, of 3.

Paul Perez Interview, Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, after the May 13 election, I extended an invitation to both Eric Jackson and Paul Perez to each sit with me for an interview about the state of their campaigns and some of the issues facing the City of Trenton.

Through a campaign spokesperson, Mr. Jackson declined the opportunity for an interview, much as he has also declined any opportunity to meet with Mr. Perez for any joint debates before next Tuesday’s election.

Mr. Perrez accepted, and last night he met me at my house for an interview. Part 1 is below. I anticipate there will be two more segments, which will be available over the next couple of days.

Chilling About ICE

The full text of Trenton City Council Resolution #14-300, authorizing final payment in the amount of $52,918.49 to the Long Marmero and Associates LLP law firm is available. Council is scheduled to consider the matter at its meeting this evening.

According to the text of the resolution, the legal services provided to Trenton by Long Marmero covers a period from July 1, 2013 through December 12, 2013. According to those dates, there seems to be no obvious conflict with Trenton’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance involving a contribution of $8,200 made by a Political Action Committee (PAC) closely associated with the firm to the mayoral campaign of Eric Jackson on February 25 of this year, as I discussed a few days ago.

However, without knowing more about the Initiate Civic Empowerment PAC (also known as “ICE PAC”), it’s difficult to make any more authoritative statements about this PAC and its contributions. The sources of funding for the Committee are still unknown as of this morning, as are the recipients of any contributions from ICE PAC other than Mr. Jackson’s campaign. ICE PAC has failed to file any quarterly financial reports to the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) since the Committee first filed a Registration Statement with the Commission in July 2012. So a clear picture of the scope and range of the activities of “Initiate Civic Empowerment” is not available for examination in the way that other, similar groups who comply with NJ law are.

By the act of its February contribution to Mr. Jackson, Long Marmero may not be able to accept new business with the City of Trenton for some time to come. But it appears based on the language of the Resolution that Council will consider this evening, if there is to be any fallout from its donation 4 months ago it will likely be ICE PAC and its officers, a name partner and an employee of Long Marmero who will have to deal with it, not Mr. Jackson.

Campaign financing in New Jersey is often a very murky and messy affair.  It gets even murkier when participants in some of the more colorful and vivid events attempt to rewrite history, as a column in today’s Trentonian by LA Parker reminds us.

Cooper Levenson is the Atlantic City law firm that had a $50,000 contract for legal services with the city from 2010 to 2011. Prior to that contract, the firm had made a $7,200 donation on behalf of Tony Mack’s 2010 campaign to another local PAC, Partners for Progress. That PAC forwarded the money directly to Mack’s campaign, which became an issue with Trenton’s Pay-to-Play law.

According to a conversation between Mr. Parker and Lloyd Levenson, a name partner of the firm who also served as the Chairman of Mack’s inaugural ball committee, the firm sensed that “Circumstances pointed toward a mess and Levenson, chairman of his firm’s casino department, knew a not so promising hand had flopped. His firm checked out.” And later in Parker’s tale, “Cooper Levenson rescinded the contract as Mack moved on to criminal complications.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

I suppose it is nice for a guy like Mr. Levenson to tell the tale in a way that allows a little luster for his firm. As it happened, back in 2011, the Cooper Levenson firm did indeed withdraw from its contract with the City, on February 8. But that was a full week after the City of Trenton’s then-City Attorney MarcMcKithen voided the contract, first, on February 1.

It’s pretty well accepted to say that you broke up with your girlfriend a week after she dumped you. It’s ok to try and save face and retain a little dignity, I suppose. As long as everyone remembers what actually happened.

Was I perhaps a little hasty to suggest that the ICE PAC contribution to Mr. Jackson’s campaign, which I had first written about in April, might have violated the city’s law? Perhaps. As discussed above, there are still a lot of questions about the PAC and its activities, but they are not likely to affect Jackson.  Mr. Jackson’s campaign had a demonstrated series of other finance and reporting missteps in this campaign and his 2010 effort that put the ICE PAC donation in a suspect light, for me.

I’m not entirely convinced to put a Good Housekeeping seal on this transaction, but I don’t think any unanswered questions should hold up any Council action tonight to authorize the final payment to Long Marmero, nor do I think Mr. Jackson should return the ICE PAC contribution.

More Pay-to-Play Woes for Eric Jackson

This morning, the Trenton Times has once more given its opinion page to mayoral candidate Eric Jackson, who tells us that “Our city deserves better than the rampant crime, corruption and ethical mismanagement we have seen over the last several years.”

I could not agree more, but I question whether Mr. Jackson is the right person to deliver that message, and the right person to be Trenton’s next mayor. Mr. Jackson’s campaign has over the last several months through several actions and inactions raised several questions about the sources and accounting of his contributions and expenses. Unfortunately for him, one week from the runoff election there is strong indication that he may be involved in yet another violation of Trenton’s municipal “Pay-to-Play” ordinance.

In February of this year, Jackson’s campaign came under scrutiny after the local press reported that   it had accepted several donations that were in violation of both New Jersey regulations as well as Trenton’s municipal Pay-to-Play ordinance, which forbids current and prospective vendors of professional services from contributing to municipal candidates. As a result of those reports, in early March campaign attorney “[David] Minchello said the Jackson campaign has returned two contributions totaling $850 from city contractor McManimon, Scotland and Bauman, as a result of a dispute whether the donation was in violation of the city’s pay to play law. The contractor maintains that the donation was legitimate, but Minchello said the check was sent back to the city’s bond counsel today to ‘alleviate even the appearance of impropriety.’”

Mr. Jackson’s campaign now has another apparent problem with Trenton’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance. This time it is a much larger problem concerning a donation of $8,200 from an entity that is closely associated with a South Jersey law firm under current contract to provide legal services to the City of Trenton.

This space reported on April 23 that among contributors to Eric Jackson’s campaign is a Political Action Committee (PAC) called “Initiate  Civic Empowerment,” also known as “ICE PAC.” In a document filed with the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) in 2012, two individuals are listed as the Chair and Treasurer for this group. As their address on the ELEC form, both individuals use the location of the law firm Long Marmero & Associates LLP.  The ICE PAC Treasurer is a name partner of the firm, Albert Marmero.

In a report filed with the State Election Law Enforcement Commission covering activity in the first quarter of 2014, the Jackson campaign reported a contribution from ICE PAC on February 25 of this year in the amount of $8,200, the maximum amount allowed under State law from a PAC.

Long Marmero is currently under contract with the City of Trenton as one of the several law firms the City hires for its legal work. A resolution on the Agenda for this Thursday’s City Council session, Number 14-300, will authorize a final payment on their existing contract with the City for “providing professional legal services regarding general municipal and defense litigation matters.”

It seems to me that we have a situation here in violation of the City’s Pay-to-Play Ordinance, which forbids any business entity, or principal associated with that entity providing services to  the City from making campaign contributions to candidates for elected office in Trenton. That includes Mr. Jackson.

ICE PAC also seems to be in violation of ELEC rules. Since 2012, the PAC has failed to file any of the mandatory quarterly reports of its activities to the Commission. It is impossible, therefore,  to know what the source of the PAC’s funds might be, other than the Long Marmero law firm itself and/or its partners.

As of today, then, we are left knowing only that the Treasurer of a group that contributed $8,200 to Eric Jackson’s campaign is a name partner of a law firm under contract to the City of Trenton, and that the group’s Chair is also an employee of the firm.

Remember, back in 2011 then-City Attorney Marc McKithen canceled a contract that the Cooper Levenson law firm had with the City for legal services, after it was determined that a $7500 payment from a local PAC to former mayor Tony Mack’s campaign had in fact come from the law firm. In that case, there were no personal connections that Cooper Levenson had with the management of the “Partners for Progress” PAC of the sort that we see with ICE PAC.

As City Attorney McKithen found Cooper Levenson in violation of our Pay-to-Play law in 2011, Long Marmeo is also likely to so found.  Until the relationship between Long Marmero and ICE PAC is clarified, and the roles of Albert Marmero in both entities explained, City Council should pull the final contract payment to the law firm from its Thursday agenda, and Mr. Jackson should immediately return the $8,200 ICE PAC donation.

This is only the latest instance of a long series of questions raised about Mr. Jackson’s campaign and personal financial history that he has not yet managed to satisfactorily put to rest.

Over the last few months, I have raised several questions about Mr. Jackson’s less-than-full compliance with City and State campaign finance rules and regulations. I noted in March that Jackson had failed, up to that time, to properly and legally close out his prior 2010 campaign, nearly four years earlier. This observation was picked up by then-candidate Jim Golden in a press conference, as well as being reported on PolitickerNJ, and resulted in Jackson filing all of his overdue 2010 reports just one day after Golden’s press conference and the Politicker article.

Jackson didn’t really give any reason for the extreme delay in filing the reports, other than telling The Trentonian, “My mind was other places losing. You’re despondent… We did file the amended report and they got filed to ELEC late. I take full responsibility for that.”

It’s not as if Mr. Jackson wasn’t aware of his ELEC obligations. In an email sent to me in April 2013, Jim Carlucci wrote of a meeting he had with the candidate in which the subject of the tardy reports came up. Mr. Jackson acknowledged the problem, and said he and his campaign-treasurer sister were working on catching up on the reports. From April 2013 to April 2014, there was no activity, no filings, until the matter was brought up as a campaign issue by a rival. Why? We don’t know.

In my April 22 post I described other transactions of interest, including contributions to Jackson from former US Senator and local Trenton developer Robert Torricelli that exceed the maximum dollar amount allowable, another ELEC violation.

And last month another former mayoral candidate, Walker Worthy, introduced Jackson’s personal financial history as a campaign issue. In a press conference on April 20, Mr. Worthy recited a Jackson history that included “a bankruptcy filing, a foreclosure, state tax liens and a judgment for a debt to his college alma mater.”

Raising these issues apparently didn’t hurt Mr. Jackson’s campaign for the May election very much, since he finished first in a field of six, earning 30% of the vote. And raising these questions about Mr. Jackson didn’t do enough to boost Worthy and Golden, who finished third and fourth, respectively. Eric Jackson may very well be on his way to becoming Trenton’s next Mayor.

But for me, and surely for many other voters as well, it is very disturbing that this close to the run off – in the final week of this campaign – new and serious questions are still popping up about Eric Jackson’s campaign finances.

It’s troubling to me that it took him four years to close his 2010 campaign, and it’s a concern that his only explanation for that lapse was being “despondent” over losing.

It’s troubling to me that Mr. Jackson failed to voluntarily disclose his personal financial history. Especially during an election to replace a man whose desperate personal finances seriously compromised his entire term in office even before it began, and whose end we know all too well!

It’s troubling to me that his campaign finances this year are so shoddy and careless as to accept contributions in excess of the maximum allowable under state rules, as well as accept contributions that now represent multiple violations of Trenton’s Pay-to-Play law.

What I said a month ago is more valid than when it was written:

These latest campaign finance slip-ups come right after several weeks during which Mr. Jackson’s campaign has had to play catch-up ball with its reporting lapses for the 2010 campaign as well as this year’s pay-to-play problem. It appears that Jackson’s campaign is not getting its act together as the campaign has proceeded.

When viewed along with the disclosures made by Mr. Worthy about the candidate’s personal financial history, this portrait of Mr. Jackson as perhaps not the most buttoned-up person to take on Trenton’s money troubles has to be seen by voters as very troubling.

We went down this road four years ago with the last guy. Do we really want to do this again?

Me, I sure as hell don’t want to go down this road again!

I strongly agree with Mr. Jackson’s call to action this morning, when he says “we must clean up city hall by rooting out all vestiges of corruption from municipal government, restoring ethics and challenging residents to take more responsibility for our community.”

I simply do not believe, due to his many mistakes, lapses of judgment and unanswered questions  that Eric Jackson is the man to do that. However, barring any truly calamitous turn of events in the last week, Mr. Jackson is likely to be elected Trenton’s next mayor.

“Down this road again” seems to be where surely we are bound. Unfortunately.