Asbury Park Press ( Neptune , NJ )

April 3, 2005

`Wheeling' decried in '04 Ocean campaign Hudson donation matched same day


TRENTON - Given the Republicans' lock on Ocean County politics, Democrats knew they faced an uphill battle during last year's freeholder race.

But with more than $100,000 in contributions pouring in from powerful Democrats around the state, the party had a chance to build a countywide message and energize voters for local races in more than a dozen Ocean County municipalities.

Campaign finance records show that three weeks before the Nov. 2 election, Ocean County Democrats also received $14,400 from Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, who was busy fighting a tough battle to get Jerramiah Healy elected as Jersey City mayor. DeGise had earlier given Healy, as well as his City Council allies, the maximum contributions.

But the same day DeGise's contributions were logged in Ocean County - as two $7,200 checks to separate accounts - Ocean County Democratic leaders also gave $14,400, in two checks, to Healy's mayoral campaign.

! "It's either illegal or it's wheeling, which should be illegal," said Assemblyman Bill Baroni Jr., R-Mercer, an election law specialist who has sponsored legislation to eliminate such county-to-county transfers. "If someone makes a contribution and is a conduit, that's illegal. Wheeling should also be. You can see why it's corrupting."

Baroni said such transfers let party leaders funnel contributions that exceed the legal limit to key players, with little oversight.   "It's like the Cayman Islands of campaign finance," Baroni said. "There is no explanation other than Ocean County Democrats  being used as a middle ground for these contributions."

Former state Sen. John F. Russo, a Democrat who represented Ocean County from 1974 to 1992, predicted rank-and-file party  members "will be in an uproar" when they learn the money was received, then quickly sent back out.

"To me, it's utterly shocking. I think it will be utterly shocking to all Ocean County Democrat! s, especially those who were trying to get a decent campaign going," R usso said. "It's mind-boggling, these kinds of things."

Beach Haven Mayor Deborah C. Whitcraft, a 2004 freeholder candidate, was angry but not surprised. "That's outrageous,"  she said. "We went into it knowing it was a long shot. But it was made so much worse by the fact there was so little support by our own party."

Both DeGise and Ocean County Democratic chairman Fred Potter defended their contributions, which they said are part of  Democrats' efforts to strengthen the party statewide.

DeGise insisted there were no requirements when he made contributions to Ocean County , and Potter declined to elaborate on his choice to support Healy while also running a campaign at home.

"We file an election report. We comply with election regulations," Potter said.

"It is what it is. We made a contribution and it's there," Potter said, adding that the Ocean County Democrats spent  generously on the freeholder race.

"I'm not going to apologize for d! oing something that turned out very good," DeGise said, adding that Healy won and the party is stronger as a result. "Those of us who are in these positions don't make the rules, we play by them."

DeGise also defended contributing $7,200 each to four Jersey City councilmen. On the same day the four - Junior Maldonado, Peter Brennan, Mariano Vega, and William Gaughan - got DeGise's donation, they each cut a check of the same value to Healy's campaign.

"There was an understanding they were supporting Jerry Healy there," DeGise said, adding that he never told the councilmen how to use the funds. "There were no strings attached."

Prompted in part by a growing number of government corruption scandals, state lawmakers have begun changing the state's campaign-finance rules. Acting Gov. Codey signed a law last month that bans some contributions by state contractors.

Wheeling is some lawmakers' next target. Codey spokeswoman Kelley Heck said the governor,! who also serves as Senate president, is studying several options and working with Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, on a proposal.

"The governor thinks there is some legitimate function to the transfer of funds in the general elections, but perhaps there should be some restrictions in the primary," Heck said.

By next year, there will be. A law signed in June 2004 by then-Gov. James E. McGreevey includes a provision that will outlaw transfers between county committee accounts between Jan. 1 and June 30, starting in 2006. The law would not apply to municipal or statewide election accounts, and therefore would not have impacted the transfers from Ocean County to Healy,
for example.

" Wheeling is not illegal" under existing law, said Frederick Hermann, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission. "Generally speaking, you have to prove that there was some sort of deal or agreement that this was going to happen. Just the fact that somebody made a contribution on one day and they gave it to some! one else the same day doesn't make it illegal. It's a question of: Can you prove it?"

The practice is common among both parties, campaign records show. A Gannett New Jersey analysis last fall showed Democrats in Bergen , Camden and Middlesex counties contributed over $5.7 million to out-of-county causes between 1998
and 2003. Republicans in
Burlington County exported more than $680,000 during those years.

In 2003, Ocean County was on the receiving end of the cycle. Campaign reports show Democrats there got $50,000 from the
Hunterdon County Democratic Committee that summer. Hunterdon Democrats took in $54,000 from companies run by

developer Jack Morris during July 2003.

This financial gimmick is frustrating to some, like Whitcraft, the former Ocean County freeholder candidate. In early October
she complained publicly about the lack of funding and organizational support for their campaign.

Potter and Patrick Sheehan, the treasurer f! or the county Democrats , note that county officials poured more than $ 135,000
into media for the freeholder campaign while also funding local contests in some 15 municipalities.

"If we had more money, we would have done more in September," Potter said. "People don't realize what it costs to run a
freeholder race."

Whitcraft, meanwhile, has left the Democrats and become an independent."If I had known we were not going to get the support
that you obviously have to have from your own party, I wouldn't have run," Whitcraft said. "We were sold down the river."

Lilo H. Stainton:

Copyright (c) Asbury Park Press. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Record Number: asb20050403017

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