Monday, June 20, 2005


PACs' actions get N.J. scrutiny

Monday, June 20, 2005

Contributions in Winslow spark probe
By ERIK SCHWARTZ Courier-Post Staff


State officials are investigating a series of alleged campaign-finance violations involving Deputy Mayor Barbara Holcomb, the township's top elected Democrat and the No. 3 official in the Camden County Democratic Party.
The state Election Law Enforcement Commission wants to know if the Winslow Democrats accepted more money than the law allows from their biggest political donor - township engineer Robert L. Churchill - in the 2003 elections, according to documents obtained by the Courier-Post.
Churchill personally, through his firm and through two political-action committees he controlled, gave $77,349 to the campaign of Holcomb, who was running for mayor, and four candidates for the Winslow Township Committee, more than triple the amount permitted, according to allegations now under review by ELEC staff.
Neither Holcomb nor Churchill returned calls seeking comment.
ELEC chief Frederick M. Herrmann could not comment on specific cases.
In general, he said, "You cannot create other entities for purposes of getting around the contribution limits . . . The red flag goes up when you have more than one PAC representing the company."
In such cases, the challenge for regulators is to "demonstrate that these other entities are really controlled by a single entity."
The maximum penalty for a first-time ELEC violation is $6,000.
The Winslow allegations originally were made by Mayor Sue Ann Metzner and Township Committeewoman Karen D. Gibison, Republicans who were winners in 2003. They asked ELEC to investigate Holcomb and her Democratic slate of Victoria Frasier, Daniel F. DiFabio Jr., Norman F. Tomasello and Harry Gatto. Only DiFabio and Frasier won their races.
"I believe this is an illustration of the tail wagging the dog, where Churchill is the tail and the township is the dog," said Metzner, who noted that Winslow paid his firm, which is based on Route 73 in the township, about $1 million last year.
After the general election in 2003, the Democratic majority on Township Committee voted to allow three-year contracts for its municipal engineers instead of the one-year terms traditionally used by this town and others, which Metzner said was a reward for Churchill's campaign support.
But the Democrats did not employ the new policy when the committee made its professional appointments for 2004 or 2005.
Holcomb is the vice chairwoman of the Camden County Democratic Committee and deputy director of the county juvenile detention center.
Holcomb lost the 2003 mayoral race but returned to Township Committee in a special election to replace Frasier, a state worker prohibited from serving. Both the mayor and deputy mayor sit on the committee.
Tomasello, a former mayor, said he was unaware of the 2003 campaign's finances.
"All I signed was the paper they sent in to the ELEC office," he said. "But I never really checked who was giving the money, or where it was coming from, or where it was going . . . Honestly, I don't know a thing."
DiFabio, first elected to Township Committee in 2000 and re-elected in 2003, said he had no involvement in campaign fundraising, which was led by Holcomb's husband, Larry, chairman of the Winslow Democratic Party.
"I don't know the rules," he said. "I was their Ward 4 candidate and all I did was go out and campaign."
DiFabio said the campaign treasurer had replied to ELEC's request for bank records, which were due last month.
He added: "The whole thing's sour grapes" by the Republicans.
Neither Larry Holcomb nor campaign treasurer Maryann A. Frye returned calls for comment.
The first Churchill-connected PAC cited by ELEC in the Winslow case is the firm's business PAC, Friends of Good Government. "We make every attempt to be completely in compliance with ELEC guidelines and laws," said James M. Kinney, PAC treasurer and the firm's controller.
The second PAC involved is Citizens for Change, run by property appraiser Jerry McHale, a township contractor. Since 2000, the only donations the PAC has received came during fall 2003, records show: $7,200 from Churchill and $500 from McHale.
McHale did not return calls.
The ELEC probe in Winslow is just the latest to touch on the large sums that engineering companies spend on local elections.
The former Moorestown firm JCA Associates Inc. got into trouble for its efforts backing Democrats in West Deptford, where it earned millions in fees. Last year, three former JCA executives pleaded guilty to tax charges in the case and a township official was convicted at trial of falsifying campaign records.
In 1998, ELEC collected a $16,900 fine from Remington & Vernick Engineers Inc. of Haddonfield after it admitted to illegally funneling money to Democrats in Gloucester Township and Voorhees through two PACs the firm set up to circumvent limits on contributions.
It's unclear if the practice of awarding no-bid public contracts to political donors erodes trust in government, said Quin Monson, political science professor at Brigham Young University.
"When people exploit loopholes or out-and-out break the law, that does tend to damage confidence in our (democratic) process," he said.
Metzner pointed out that ELEC is just now looking at the 2003 election, just as the parties prepare for a new campaign in which control of Township Committee is again at stake.
"All the politicians that are crying about the need to reform pay-to-play need to give ELEC the money and staff they need to perform these obviously needed investigations," she said.
Reach Erik Schwartz at (856) 486-2904 or