Assembly campaign donations to Union County official expose pay-to-play loophole

Bizar Male




Dollar bills have been dropped into a tip jar. | Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

Several months after the Union County Improvement Authority awarded a no-bid contract to design a new $100 million county government complex in Elizabeth, top members of the architecture firm that received it opened their checkbooks and donated to the nascent Assembly campaign of a high-ranking authority official.

Bibi Taylor, the UCIA’s project manager who also serves as Union County’s finance director, raised $15,600 from six members of the firm or their spouses for her Democratic primary campaign for Assembly, according to newly disclosed campaign finance reports. The donations account for about a fifth of everything Taylor raised before dropping her candidacy in March.

The donations, which POLITICO is the first to report on, do not appear to violate New Jersey’s pay-to-play law, which bars contractors who receive no-bid contracts from giving to officials and political parties that can influence them. However, they do expose one of many loopholes in the 16-year-old law.

The pay-to-play law was signed in 2005 with the intention of curbing the influence of donations in the awarding of public contracts. It bars public contractors, their principal members and their spouses from donating more than $300 to political parties and candidates in the jurisdictions where the contract was awarded. There are also executive orders that expand the law, as well more than 100 different pay-to-play laws at the county or municipal level.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, the agency that oversees the pay-to-play law, has long called for the state to streamline the law and close its myriad loopholes.

“You have the state law, which applies in certain situations. Then you have a total of about 156 or so local ordinances, which then apply in a particular municipality or county. And then you have the fair and open loophole,” Brindle said in an interview, referring to a provision of the law that allows political donations if a contract was bid in a “fair and open” process.

“We really need to have one law that applies across the board,” he said.

According to the Sept. 11, 2020, resolution awarding the design contract for up to $1.8 million and $10.5 million in reimbursable expenses to the New Brunswick-based design firm DIGroup Architecture, the company “has not made any reportable contributions to a political or candidate committee as prohibited by the law in the previous year, and that the contract will prohibit DIGroup Architecture from making any reportable contribution through the term of the contract.”

Public documents and news articles show Taylor was involved in the contracting process. When Vincent Myers, founder of DIGroup Architecture and one of Taylor’s donors, wrote a letter presenting his proposal to the UCIA, he addressed it to Taylor. In her role as Union County finance director, Taylor explained during a meeting last month how the money was appropriated for the project.

Had Taylor been running for county office, DIGroup Architecture would have been barred from donating to her. But even though she played a non-voting role in the contracting process, the law does not apply because she was running for Assembly — a state office.

“All contributions to my Assembly campaign account were made in conformance with applicable campaign contribution rules and regulations. Principals with DIGroup have known me for over 20 years,” Taylor said in a statement Wednesday. “Selection of DIGroup as bridging architect at the UCIA was made in consultation with the County of Union and made in accordance with local purchasing laws. As one of the largest minority owned architectural firms in NJ, DIGroup was qualified to perform necessary services to the UCIA and did so within budget and on time.”

A message left with DIGroup Architecture was not returned.

In late February and early March, as Taylor launched a campaign for Assembly in the District 21, she received donations of $2,600 each — the maximum contribution allowed — from three of the architecture firm’s five principal members as well as from the wives of two of them. The wife of another principal also donated $2,600. The six checks totaling $15,600 made up more than one-fifth of the $74,200 Taylor raised.

Another firm involved in the complex, Mast Construction Services of Little Falls, also donated $2,600 to Taylor’s campaign in late February. The firm was awarded a $1 million contract in late March for “owner’s representative services.“

Taylor’s campaign turned out to be short-lived. Taylor, who’s married to former East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor, dropped her candidacy in early March after failing to win the endorsement of the Union County Democratic Committee. Her campaign spent just $16,345 — almost entirely through an $8,000 donation to the Democratic Governors Association, where Gov. Phil Murphy serves as finance chair, and an $8,000 donation to state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), who chairs the Union County Democratic Committee.

Taylor‘s campaign account still has nearly $58,000 in the bank, money she can use for future candidacies or donate to other political campaigns or parties.

The awarding of contracts for the new Union County government complex through the county improvement authority has already proved controversial. A construction firm, Dobco Inc. of Wayne, filed a lawsuit in February against Union County and the improvement authority alleging they ignored the state’s Local Public Contracts Law and selected vendors “without any intent on awarding the contract to the lowest responsible bidder.” The lawsuit, which is pending, states the projects should have been publicly bid.

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