Soft Corruption: DeCotiis Chapter

One of the remaining enjoyable aspects of the Enrolled Actuaries conference I attend in Washington, DC at this very inconvenient time of year is the shopping for specialty gifts that do not seem to be available in New Jersey. On Sundays it’s the Spy Museum gift shop and tonight it was the Politics and Prose Bookstore where I picked up:

Airforkone,
Chill, Baby False Teether,
Lilypad Silicone Lid, and
Soft Corruption by William E. Schluter

That last item you would think could be found closer to home since the blurb reads:

New Jersey has long been a breeding ground for political corruption, and most of it is perfectly legal. Public officials accept favors from lobbyists, give paid positions to relatives, and rig the electoral process to favor their cronies in a system where campaign money is used to influence government action. Such unethical behavior is known as “soft corruption,” and former New Jersey legislator William E. Schluter has been fighting it for the past fifty years.

Pages 40 through 43 is all about DeCotiis:

LAW FIRMS AND BUNDLING

The Kushner bundling model illustrates two important points: a single source with vast wealth can deliver immense sums of money, and limits on the amounts individuals may donate are easily circumvented through partnership attribution.

The most prolific practitioners of bundling are large law firms, most of which have a substantial number of government entities as clients. Probably the most lucrative of these clients are the independent authorities, which generally have large, stable revenue flows and considerable legal work for outside attorneys. Although the primary reason for a government body to establish an authorities to separate its specific operational purposes from the normal functions of government, the ties between the two remain strong. Elected officials generally appoint political allies to the authority board, and they in turn pick the outside attorneys. Law firms contribute heavily to the campaigns of elected officials who have jurisdiction over the authorities, and these officials, or their political patrons, are in a position to suggest to authority board members which law firms would be best to retain.

Campaign finance records are replete with examples of law firm campaign contributions. At the top of the New Jersey list for years has been the Bergen county firm of DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick, Cole and Wisler, which, according to a series of reports by the Record, “billed 128 government entities” almost $26.6 million between January 2001 and June, 2003, apparently in no-bid contracts. In roughly the same period, the deceits lawyers donated almost $500,000 yearly to campaigns across the state.

The clout attributed to senior partner M. Robert DeCotiis and his partners in securing government business was not solely related to campaign contributions. In fact, firm members vigorously argued that the awards they received from government agencies were made because of the experience and abilities of the eight-lawyer staff, not political contributions. There is good reason for this view, because the principal partners have occupied positions of considerable influence in New Jersey:

In 1992-93, M. Robert DeCotiis, senior partner, was chief counsel to democratic governor Jim Florio.
From 1986 to 1989, Michael Cole, managing partner, was chief counsel to Republican governor Tom Kean, after serving as first assistant attorney general of New Jersey. Cole also did a stint as attorney for the New Jersey State Democratic Committee and was married to Jaynee LaVecchia, a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. (He died in 2011.)
In 2003–04, Michael R. DeCotiis, son of M. Robert DeCotiis and former managing partner, served as chief counsel to Democratic governor Jim McGreevey.
The extent of bundling by the DeCotiis lawyers is shown by the following. Among the contributions by the DeCotiis lawyers was $997,000 donated to various officials and political parties in New Jersey’s five most populous counties: Essex, Middlesex, Bergen, Union, and Hudson. During this time, the firm received more than $12 million in fees from the government agencies with which these officials were affiliated.

Campaign finance finance reports showed that from April, 2000 to June 2000, Edward Fitzpatrick, a partner in the firm, made eight contributions totaling $8,250 to three different campaign funds in Hudson County. However, Fitzpatrick had died the previous January. The error in making these contributions was generally dismissed as inadvertent. The head of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., wryly observed: “One of the basic principles of any campaign finance system is whether the contributions are made voluntarily….It’s a question of how voluntary a contribution from a dead man can be.”

Mauro Tucci, a commissioner of Nutley Township in Essex County, received $14,500 from DeCotiis attorneys for his 2004 reelection bid. This had triple implications for the law firm, because Tucci held two other public offices. He chaired the Essex County Utilities Authority when it awarded a $2.3 million no-bid contract to DeCotiis. Tucci also had a full-time job as township administrator for Bloomfield, which paid the law firm $350,000 for services from 2001 to 2003. And Nutley Township, where Tucci served as an elected commissioner, gave the Decotiis firm a $25,000 retainer to provide legal advice in connection with a local project. When a reporter asked Tucci about his relationship with the DeCotiis firm, he said, “I needed to solicit funds for my campaign and my friend (a DeCotiis partner) stepped in and helped me raise money. What happened afterward – one contract for $25,000 (the Nutley contract). Is that pay to play? In life when you’ve got to get something done, you go to your friends….Just because Decotiis contributes money, does that make him a bad guy?”

Late in 2000 fifteen DeCotiis partners contributed $7,500 to the campaign of Mayor George Spadoro of Edison Township, who expected to face a challenger in the June 2001 primary. One month before the primary, these same partners kicked in another $10,000 to Spadoro’s Edison Township Democratic organization. The Decotiis firm was municipal attorney for Edison, whose annual budget for legal costs was more than $203,000.

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