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By: MELISSA HAYES and DAVID LEVINSKY
A Medford-based political action committee that donated to a Hoboken politician accused in a public corruption scandal is folding.
Dean Buono, a Hainesport attorney and chairman of the New Frontier Committee, announced in an e-mail late Wednesday night that he was shutting down the PAC.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Buono said he wanted to set the record straight and that he was being made a scapegoat by Republicans and Democrats after revelations that the committee made campaign donations to Peter Cammarano III, who resigned as Hoboken's mayor amid allegations that he accepted $25,000 in bribes - through a middleman - from an FBI informant.
Buono said he signed on as chairman of the PAC in 2006 because he agreed with its mission of promoting ethical and progressive leadership in Burlington County. However, Buono said he never was actively involved in fundraising or deciding to whom the committee donated. His name was merely on the paperwork, he said.
"Unfortunately, I took my eye off the ball," Buono said of his lack of involvement. "The PAC, according to media reports, drifted from its core mission and from the values that I believe in. It lost the public's trust. I am deeply disappointed."
He said he couldn't say who was behind the contributions made by the PAC.
"I was not the decision maker. I was not involved," he said. "I don't know."
Burlington County Democratic Committee Chairman Rick Perr also has denied involvement with the committee.
Jeff Meyer resigned as Democratic Committee treasurer earlier this month after news of the PAC's connections to Cammarano became public. He also has claimed no involvement with the PAC.
Burlington County Republican Party spokesman Chris Russell said although the PAC is dissolving there are still several unanswered questions.
"The Burlington County Democrats need to explain what compelling interest they had in bankrolling the campaigns of corrupt North Jersey politicians, why they knowingly used the New Frontier PAC to help Peter Cammarano skirt Hoboken's local pay-to-play laws, why the campaign finance reports filed by the PAC with the state are inconsistent with the ones filed by the disgraced Hoboken mayor and what is the real reason they cut ties with county Democratic treasurer Jeff Meyer so hastily in the wake of this scandal. The taxpayers of Burlington County deserve answers and they deserve them now."
Called for a final audit
According to campaign finance reports filed with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission by the New Frontier Committee, the PAC donated $15,400 to Cammarano's campaign.
The committee also donated $3,500 to Michael Novak, who ran for Hoboken City Council and filed a joint campaign finance report with Cammarano and two other Democrats.
But according to reports filed with the state by the Cammarano slate, the New Frontier Committee donated $21,100 to the Democrats, a discrepancy of $2,200.
Buono said he personally reviewed the finances and that the PAC's reports are accurate. However, he said he has called for a final audit to close out the books and assure people it did nothing wrong.
He said he thought about whether or not to dissolve the committee, which has been inactive since the Cammarano contributions. He noted that at the time the contributions were made, there were no allegations against the young Hoboken Democrat.
"The PAC is just nonfunctional and there's no purpose to it," he said.
In addition to the Cammarano connection, the New Frontier PAC has been accused of being a vehicle for "wheeling," a process that allows donors to circumvent individual campaign contribution limitations.
Under New Jersey campaign finance laws, individuals can donate only $2,600 per election directly to a political candidate's campaign. However, an individual can donate as much as $8,200 to a political action committee such as New Frontier, which can send up to $8,200 to an individual candidate.
In addition to bypassing donation limits, wheeling provides a loophole for most pay-to-play laws, restricting businesses and firms from receiving lucrative contracts from officials whose elections they helped finance.
The state's pay-to-play law restricts businesses that contribute more than $300 to state or county candidates from receiving contracts of more than $17,500. Many municipalities have their own laws, including Hoboken and Evesham, which disqualify businesses from receiving work if they have donated more than $300 to a local candidate or candidate committee.The laws don't restrict those businesses from donating to political action committees, which then can donate the money to candidates.
Contracts from Hoboken
In New Frontier's three years of operations, it raised about $119,000 and donated about $115,000 to Democratic candidates, mostly in Burlington County and South Jersey.
Among the donors that contributed to the New Frontier PAC were engineering firms CMX Inc. and Remington & Vernick, as well as the law firm Gluck Walrath. All three have received contracts from Hoboken, according to public records.
CMX Inc. donated $2,500 and received a $65,185 contract last year to perform environmental engineering at a public works garage the city is interested in selling. That contract was increased to $98,445 in June. The firm donated $2,500 to New Frontier in May, according to campaign finance records.
Remington & Vernick received an engineering contract that could not exceed $50,000 from Hoboken in 2007. The firm donated $4,000 to the New Frontier Committee in February 2008.
Gluck Walrath received a $104,606 contract from Hoboken and a $171,187 contract from the Hoboken Municipal Authority. Records show five attorneys from the firm donated $275 each to the New Frontier PAC in February 2007.
Gluck Walrath and CMX Inc. long have held contracts with Hoboken, according to public records.
Democratic Freeholder candidate Kim Kersey is an attorney who represents CMX Inc. Perr's wife, Cindy, is an attorney at Gluck Walrath. Neither Cindy Perr nor Kersey made donations to the New Frontier PAC or Cammarano, according to records.
New Frontier also received contributions from the engineering firm Adams, Rehmann & Heggan Associates and from engineers employed by CME Associates. Neither of those firms was awarded contracts in Hoboken during the last five years, according to a Hoboken response to an Open Public Records Act request.
Democrats also have been critical of wheeling by Republican committees. Earlier this year, former Evesham Councilman Michael Schmidt, who was among a Democratic slate defeated in the township's May nonpartisan election, filed a complaint with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission accusing the victorious GOP candidates of using wheeling to circumvent contribution limits because they received thousands in donations from Republican political action committees such as the Evesham Young Republicans, the Evesham Republican Club and the Evesham Federation of Republican Women.
The individuals or entities that donated to those GOP committees have not been made public because all the contributions to those groups were below $300.
The executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission would not confirm or deny that an investigation into Schmidt's complaint has been launched.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine has called for a new state law banning the practice as well as an extension of the state's pay-to-play ban to all municipalities. So far, the Legislature has taken no action on either of his requests.
Heather Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Citizens Campaign advocacy group, said the dissolution of the New Frontier Committee was an example of the impact public scrutiny can have. The group also has campaigned for a ban on wheeling.
"We've often said that it's going to require public scrutiny to end pay-to-play," Taylor said.
Buono said he has been wrongly accused of being a criminal because the committee donated to Cammarano.
"Everyone is accusing me of being a crook because he was indicted, and that's unfair," he said. "To make that epic leap is unfathomable to me."
Buono said he is donating the remaining funds in the account to the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington County, an organization that does good things for area residents.
"That has always been my goal as a public servant - ethical service to the people of Burlington County," he said.
Note: Dave and I won first place in "Responsible Journalism, First Amendment (The Art Weissman Memorial Award)" in the 2009 New Jersey Press Association's Better Newspaper Contest for a series of articles including this one.