Dark money debate focuses on donor disclosures

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

It says a lot about the atmosphere in Trenton nowadays that a seemingly benign TV ad promoting a minimum wage hike in New Jersey has ballooned into a political controversy that is dogging Gov. Phil Murphy just as he tries to push his agenda through the Legislature. The ads are produced by New Direction New Jersey, a so-called social welfare organization, known as 501(c)4’s after the IRS code. They can collect unlimited amounts of money to promote issues and don’t have to disclose their donors. They’re supposed to function independently of elected officials but — as is the case with New Direction — they’re often created and managed by people with close political ties.

“How do you say you’re separate from the 501(c)4 when you are appearing in the ads, when the ads solely are there for your agenda?” asked Assembly member Holly Schepisi.

Schepisi is calling on New Direction to release the list of its donors. She says with major legislation being debated, the Governor’s Office needs to be seen as above reproach.

“Under no circumstances should there be any perception, in one of the most corrupt states in the entire country, that people are being able to buy influence within the Governor’s Office,” she said.

The governor is forbidden by law from coordinating with New Direction and has no control over what they do, despite what it may look like. Adding to the uproar is New Direction’s promise to divulge its donor list by the end of 2018, a promise broken seven days ago. New Direction spokesperson Phil Swibinski says exposing the organization’s donors to the toxic political environment of the state is a disservice to them and to residents.

“When the organization was founded well over a year ago it was under the desire to get out there and fight for some of these progressive policy items,” he said. “That’s really all the organization has done, and it’s done so in a positive manner, and yet still it’s created all this acrimony.”

“I don’t think anybody’s buying that,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick. “When you’re the governor, if you want something disclosed in terms of who’s giving you money, I suspect that you can get it disclosed.”

The governor issued a statement on Friday calling on New Direction to divulge its donors, but he also called on other, similar groups to do the same.

Read that to mean Senate President Steve Sweeney, who railed against New Direction’s secret donor list last year, but this week finds himself in a similar sticky wicket after Politico reported that the parent company of PSE&G tried to donate money to a 501(c)4 with close ties to Sweeney friend and political power broker George Norcross. This after PSEG won a big state subsidy for its nuclear operations.

Sweeney had no comment Monday but the news highlights how the murky relationship between dark money donors and elected officials in Trenton hurts everyone’s credibility and leaves the public to wonder who to believe, much less trust.