Like most people running for office, Ward E City Councilman and 2013 mayoral candidate Steven Fulop has a web site that he uses to connect voters to his campaign. Prominent on the site is a page of local policies Fulop has sponsored since joining the council in 2005. These policies fall under the heading “Future Policy Based on Past Accomplishments” and include such achievements as opening closed government meetings to the public and making efforts to cut municipal spending.
The list of accomplishments runs alongside several news clippings that tout Fulop’s credentials as an advocate of “good government” practices and government reform. Paramount on the web page is discussion of Jersey City’s pay-to-play law, the signature piece of legislation most closely tied to Fulop. The site accurately notes that Fulop “sponsored and [with the City Council] passed a resolution that severely restricts special interest contributions to politicians in Jersey City, better known as the ‘pay to play’ reform.”
Passed in 2008, Jersey City’s Contractor Pay to Play law prohibits individuals or companies that make political contributions of more than $300 to city or county politicians from receiving city contracts. A contribution threshold of $500 applies to contributions made to political action committees or political parties.
‘Steve Fulop is not doing anything any different than anybody else.’
A friend in deed
Recently, Fulop, the current frontrunner in the 2013 race for Jersey City mayor, flatly denied that he was receiving campaign fundraising help from a partner at a law firm that has a city contract.
It was at the Aug. 22 City Council meeting that activist Esther Wintner asked Fulop whether attorney Ramon Rivera, a partner at the Lyndhurst-based law firm of Scarinci Hollenbeck, was acting as a “bundler” for his campaign.
In response to Wintner’s question, Fulop stated, “No. He’s a personal friend of mine. He has raised money for another friend of mine. But he has not raised money for me.”
Scarinci Hollenbeck currently represents Jersey City in defending a wrongful death case that stems from a 2005 incident. Rivera, who specializes in labor law, is not the Scarinci attorney representing the city in this case; another Scarinci attorney, Robert E. Levy, is doing the legal work in this lawsuit. Still, the city’s pay to play law would bar Rivera from raising money for Fulop, despite the friendship, since the firm has a contract with the city in the 2005 matter.
Ironically, the City Council voted to reauthorize the Scarinci contract for $21,000 on Aug. 22, the same night Wintner asked about Rivera. Fulop has previously voted in favor of the contract in this case, but voted against it on the 22nd – after Wintner inquired about Rivera’s involvement in his campaign.
Since then, several Fulop and Rivera associates have come forward to claim that Rivera has, indeed, contacted them to help raise money for the 2013 mayoral race.
“A little while back I did get something from him. It was at least a couple weeks back I was contacted by him for a donation for a fundraiser for Steve,” said one politically active New Jersey attorney when asked whether Rivera had asked him to help the Fulop campaign. “I frankly didn’t pay an awful lot of attention to it ’cause I’ve been, frankly, kind of staying out of it this year.”
A $300/person Fulop fundraiser was held Sept. 13 at Trattoria Venezia Ristorante in Woodbridge. This attorney believes he may have been contacted in connection with this fundraiser.
“Ramon has told me he is raising money for Steve,” said another attorney who said he has been contacted by Rivera. “I can’t imagine that he can deny he is.”
When asked whether Rivera’s alleged involvement in the Fulop campaign is a violation of Jersey City law, the city’s corporation counsel, William Matsikoudis, said, “The contractor play to play ordinance strictly prohibits a partner at a law firm that has a contract with the city from soliciting contributions for a mayoral candidate. However, such conduct is hard to prove and I have seen no evidence in this case. The Scarinci firm has provided excellent top notch legal services to Jersey City in defending serious lawsuits that have saved the taxpayers money, including a $20 million case before the New Jersey Supreme Court. It would be a major loss if overzealous fundraising would ever prevent us from utilizing such a firm.”
When asked again by the Reporter whether his friend was raising money for his campaign, Fulop said, “I have no comment,” explaining he didn’t want to engage in a “back and forth” with anonymous sources who may either have an ax to grind, or who may be politically connected to his opponent, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy.
The election will be held next May.
When asked why they wished to remain anonymous, several people noted they did not want to alienate the powerful Fulop, who may well become mayor of the second largest city in New Jersey next year.
Rivera, who also serves as a special counsel to the Jersey City Board of Education, declined to comment when reached by e-mail.
This isn’t the first time that Fulop has bumped into his own law.
Last year he had to return a $1,500 donation from IMPACT Political Action Committee after a daily newspaper noticed that the company’s redevelopment arm, Impact LLC, had been given a city contract to develop a piece of land off Skinner Memorial Drive. IMPACT PAC made the donation to Fulop’s 2013 mayoral campaign during an April 2011 fundraiser at Puccini’s in Jersey City.
Fulop told the newspaper in June that the donation had already been returned. His report to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission indicates the donation was returned on June 2, 2011, the same date the newspaper article was printed.
Fulop goes to school
Fulop may have also had a role in a legal services contract awarded by the Jersey City Board of Education.
Last fall, the Jersey City school board awarded a $50,000 contract to the law firm of Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader. The one-year contract went into effect Oct. 1, 2011 and is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2012.
According to a document posted to the school board web site, the contract “authorizes… Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader LLC…to serve as special counsel…for the purpose of providing legal services limited to those matters assigned by the district’s in-house legal counsel.”
Since the contract was originally awarded, it has been increased twice. In April of this year it was increased to $100,000, and then in August it was increased again to $125,000.
Following the school board election of April 2011, a majority of the nine trustees on the Board of Education were elected with Fulop’s endorsement.
According to one source familiar with the Florio contract, Fulop allegedly introduced Florio staff to some board members and allegedly “pushed” for Florio to get this contract.
Paul Fader, a partner with Florio Perrucci, has allegedly also shaken the trees for money for Fulop.
“Paul Fader has called me. I’ve gotten calls from him, too,” volunteered one attorney who regularly gives to political campaigns. When asked whether these calls were made in the first half of 2011 – before the school board awarded the Florio contract – or more recently, he said, “They’ve definitely all been this year.”
One of the attorneys quoted earlier said, “I have gotten a call from Paul Fader to ask me to consider meeting with Steve, talking to him. And he made it clear to me that he is supporting Steve. They want me to bring my network of people to the table – that means financial and political. I’ve raised a lot of money for a lot of people, and that’s what they’re asking me to do.”
Yet another attorney explained that, in the state of New Jersey, there are a handful of large law firms and other companies that primarily do work for municipalities and other government entities. Through their work, the attorneys and staff at these firms get to know the many political players in the Garden State, in both political parties. These people, he said, ultimately become “conduits” for money and access – money for candidates, and access for those seeking government contracts.
To be clear, the school board does not currently have a pay to play policy; thus Fader’s contract and alleged assistance to the campaign is neither a violation of law or policy. But some people have argued that it goes against the spirit of pay to play reform.
Most recently, Daniel Levin, a candidate for Fulop’s Ward E council seat, said, “I am committed on working to expand Jersey City’s pay-to-play reform laws to cover the Board of Education…and to adopt locally the state’s strict ethics code, which will reduce conflicts of interest.”
Don’t hate the player; hate the game.
Several people interviewed for this story did not fault Fulop, Rivera, or Fader for their fundraising tactics. They argue that campaigns are expensive and pay to play laws have become so stringent that candidates are forced to go underground to raise enough money to win.
Political observes speculate that it could take $700,000 to $1 million or more to run an election for Jersey City mayor next year. In the past, serious mayoral candidates have spent as much as $2 million on their campaigns.
While Fulop has held several $20/person fundraisers for his supporters in the community, it takes deeper pockets to win.
“All of these law firms you’re talking about – Florio Perrucci, Scarinci Hollenbeck – are among the top 15 or 20 law firms in the state,” said one source. “The attorneys at these firms have, like, 20, 30 years of experience, at least. The problem is there’s a really fine line between, ‘I’m raising you money to get a contract,’ and, ‘I’m raising you money because you’re my friend and you’re going to need somebody to do certain kinds of work, and it might as well be me.’ The sad irony is a lot of these people are friends. At the end of the day, we’ve passed legislation that makes it impossible for your friends in the business to help you.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.