Sweeney calls on both parties to forego donations from state cleanup contractors

Senate President Steve Sweeney is asking lawmakers, candidates and committees on both sides of the aisle to forego any campaign contributions from firms involved in the clean-up of Superstorm Sandy.

Sweeney believes that between questions that have arisen over the contracting for the clean-up and the nature of the storm itself, nobody involved in government should be profiting, Sweeney said today.

“This was a tragedy in this state and nobody should be profiting,” Sweeney said in an interview.  “My objection is there are a whole lot of questions about how these contracts were issued and how the connections (to local governments) were made, so I feel strongly that nobody should be accepting donations from these companies.”

Sweeney’s proposal comes after several stories in the Star Ledger and elsewhere about the contract awarded to the Florida-based AshBritt for debris removal after the storm.  The state piggy-backed on a contract AshBritt had with the state of Connecticut.  AshBritt in turn hired subcontractors – including both in-state and out of state firms – to do the cleanup.

Among the firms hired by AshBritt to oversee the work was Conti Enterprises, a New Jersey-based construction firm.

Conti has given heavily to Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. and Sweeney had initially called on Kean to pledge that he would not accept donations from the group.  But after a story on PolitickerNJ detailed Conti’s contributions to lawmakers and committees on both sides of the aisle, Sweeney doubled down, calling on all involved in the political process to avoid donations from AshBritt or any contractor.

“As representatives, we have to set the example.  We have to provide assurance to those we serve that at the end of the day, this is about rebuilding New Jersey better and stronger, not filling campaign coffers,” Sweeney said.

But though Sweeney pledged that the Senate leadership PAC wouldn’t accept donations from the cleanup firms, those in his own party were a little less enthusiastic.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono said she would abide by state campaign finance laws, however, the state statute banning pay to play was waived because of the state of emergency and it’s unclear if it covers donations going forward.  Subcontractors such as Conti are not covered by the law.

“Too many questions still surround the selection process that awarded AshBritt a contract to clean up the Hurricane Sandy debris. Our campaign always has followed New Jersey’s election laws and will continue to decline any donations from individuals or companies prohibited from contributing to state campaigns,” said David Turner, a spokesman for the Buono campaign

Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski said he would seek more information and call back.  He didn’t.  

Republicans also had a difficult time with it.

The state Republican Party did not return a call or email for comment.

Reached by phone for comment, Senate Republican spokesman Adam Bauer called Sweeney’s demands a “temper tantrum that does not warrant a response.”

“It strains credulity that Senator (Paul) Sarlo is going to sit on the sidelines this year after bankrolling the Bergen campaigns in 2011, and he’s an AshBritt subcontractor.  It is simply laughable that Senator Buono will forgo (Democratic Governors Association) assistance this year in her gubernatorial campaign, and the DGA gets truckloads of AshBritt cash.”

Sarlo works for Sanzari Inc., one of the subcontractors hied by AshBritt. AshBritt has given heavily to both the DGA and the Republican Governors Association and both groups are expected to play heavily in this year’s contest.

Called for comment on whether Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign would forego donations from the subcontractors, a spokesman said the governor also would abide by all state pay to play laws, but also did not address donations from the subcontractors.

“The governor’s campaign has always and will always comply with all of New Jersey’s election laws, and we expect all other campaigns and committees will do the same,” said spokesman Mike DuHaime.

"He’s obviously working very, very hard at it. I mean he’s traveling all over the country as chairman of the [Republican Governors Association] and I think at this point he has as good a chance or better than anybody else. His name is household word all across the country, and I think he would make a great president."
—former U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton (R-3), on Gov. Chris Christie