Top New Jersey law firm cutting back political donations to avoid pay-to-play obligations

Bizar Male

Twenty-dollar bills are counted.

Twenty-dollar bills are counted. | AP Photo/Elise Amendola


A powerful New Jersey law firm has sharply curtailed its political contributions in an effort to bypass a legal requirement that it disclose its public contracts.

After years of its partners making direct political contributions to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick, Cole & Giblin’s reportable donations in 2020 would barely cover the rent of a cold water flat.

The firm’s lone reportable contribution in 2020 was $1,000 from DeCotiis partner Bart Mongelli to Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson) in October. Had Mongelli not sent that check, the firm would not have had to detail each of its contracts with New Jersey agencies, municipal governments, public universities and authorities in a lengthy annual pay-to-play statement. That book of business has been worth between $10 million and $17 million in each of the last 13 years, according to its filings.

Private business that hold public contracts must file an annual pay-to-play report with ELEC detailing each contract and any contribution of more than $300.

According to a statement on file with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), the firm made no reportable contributions in 2020. However, after POLITICO requested information about Mongelli’s contribution to Sacco, the Paramus firm said it would amend its filing.

“We’re in the process of doing that,” partner William Harla said in an interview Thursday. “We’re going to fix it because we have to and obviously we’re going to do the right thing. It was a mistake.”

The oversight itself is relatively minor. ELEC filings are amended all the time and, even had DeCotiis been the subject of a complaint, the worst the firm would have faced is a nominal fine. What’s just as important is that DeCotiis — a political powerhouse in New Jersey with deep ties to state and local officials — is backing away from the type of direct giving that allows for public visibility of its reach.

The annual filings do not include some of the high-dollar contributions the firm has made to super PACs or independent expenditure groups. For instance, the firm contributed $200,000 to New Direction New Jersey, an organization launched by former members of Gov. Phil Murphy’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign to support the Democrat’s policy agenda. The firm also donated to Coalition for Progress, a super PAC that had been set up to assist in Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop’s gubernatorial run before he dropped out and backed Murphy.

ELEC records also indicate the firm’s founder, Robert DeCotiis, contributed $1,000 last year to the campaign of Leonard Luciano, a Democrat who sits on the Essex County Board of Commissioners. The firm provided a letter Harla said was sent to Luciano’s campaign along with a check from the firm’s partners to reflect that the $1,000 was actually 19 separate contributions of $52.63 each from members of the group.

The firm has asked Luciano’s campaign to amend its filing, Harla said. Luciano did not respond to a request for comment.

Political contributions from public contractors fell off a cliff in New Jersey during the pandemic. With most fundraising events canceled, the engineering firms, law offices and lobbying shops that usually stuff campaign coffers cut back their giving by around 20 percent.

Harla said his firm’s scaling back of political fundraising also stemmed from a desire to avoid the regulatory minefield that comes with direct contributions.

“The requirements of ELEC can be technical and time consuming,” he said. “It reflects a general reduction of contributions made by the firm.”

That hasn’t always been the case for DeCotiis. The firm reported donating more than $67,000 in 2019, the same year it reported having some $12 million in contracts from state, county or local agencies. In 2007, the firm supported dozens of New Jersey political campaigns — both Democrat and Republican — for more than a quarter of a million dollars.

For DeCotiis, a firm that’s long maintained strong ties to the state’s political leadership including many of its top-elected Democrats, those contracts can range from a $1.2 million deal to serve as the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s legal counsel to a $78 check from the town of Newton’s Housing Authority. Between 2015 and 2019, the law firm reported earning more than $48 million in public entities.

Moving forward, scaling back direct political activity is “just administratively convenient and reflects a general trend, not only in our trend but across the board, to reduce our level of political contributions,” Harla said.

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