Political contributions may present hurdle to Monmouth Park operation
Political contributions are becoming a key point of contention as a losing bidder challenges the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority's process for selecting the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to privately operate the Monmouth Park Racetrack, according to an April 12 letter obtained by NJBIZ.
The sports authority contended in a letter earlier this week that political donations by John Brunetti — a developer and owner of the Hialeah Park racetrack, in Florida — disqualified his bid to operate the racetrack. But Brunetti's lawyer fired back in the April 12 letter obtained by NJBIZ, saying political contributions by the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association should disqualify its winning bid.
"The THA itself or its two political committees have given over $50,000 in disqualified contributions in the relevant period," said Paul Josephson, the Hill Wallack attorney representing Brunetti. "The lease and other agreements with the THA must be canceled immediately,"
The dispute centers on the state's pay-to-play laws that prohibit certain political contributions within the 18 months immediately preceding the commencement of negotiations for a contract or agreement with the state, including its authorities. The 18-month look-back period would begin in March 2011, when bids were submitted to operate the track, and stretch back to September 2009.
Attorneys from both sides will be fighting over which donations, if any, disqualify the two bidders. Another issue that will be disputed is whether the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association — a nonprofit — is even covered by the pay-to-play laws.
Jerry Zaro, a Sills, Cummis & Gross attorney representing the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the association is "clearly" not subject to those laws.
"In sort of a death-throes response, he's throwing this Hail Mary response," Zaro said of the April 12 letter. "They ought to know better."
The sports authority is scheduled to hold a hearing Monday that will allow Brunetti's attorney to make the case that bidding should be reopened. Authority spokesman John Samerjan had no comment on the April 12 letter, only saying that "in these situations, there's a hearing process that we follow, and we're going to follow the process and move forward from there.
Here is a breakdown of what was contributed by the bidders or related entities during the 18-month look-back period before the original bid.
According to today's letter to the sports authority, some of the political contributions that Josephson believes disqualifies the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association include:
– A $25,000 donation on Nov. 4, 2009, to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee PAC.
– A $5,000 donation on March 29, 2010, to the Senate Republican Majority PAC.
– A $10,000 donation on May 7, 2010, to the Senate Democratic Majority PAC.
Josephson's list also includes contributions that he said would disqualify the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association based on a series of executive orders that have expanded the pay-to-play law in recent years. NJBIZ verified the donation amounts using state Election Law Enforcement Commission records and IRS documents.
For Brunetti, ELEC records show the following contributions for him and his related entities:
– Brunetti Organization contributed $800 to the Middlesex County Republican Organization Political Action Committee.
– The Joseph J. Brunetti Construction Co. gave even more, and looked beyond the borders of Middlesex County. The Old Bridge company gave $2,000 to the Middlesex Democrats' PAC during the during the 18-month window for the original bid, and $4,000 to the Camden County Democratic Committee PAC, according to ELEC records.
ELEC records also show Brunetti, as an individual, made two contributions of $1,000 each to the Middlesex County Democratic Organization PAC last year, one in April and one in May — which would raise eligibility questions for any second bid he tried to submit in January 2012, when the sports authority reopened the process after Morris Bailey pulled out. In September 2011, the Joseph J. Brunetti Construction Co. donated $1,000 to the Camden County Democrats' PAC and $100 to Middlesex County's.