Board of Ed. raises concerns about Super PACs in local elections

ELIZABETH — The Elizabeth board of Education has taken on the behemoth political action committees by attempting to put a lid on their fund raising for local political races.

The board passed a resolution in order to “shine a light on the intrusion of outside money interests,” which in many cases, the board said is funneled from out-of-state into the local electoral process.

“The last thing the citizens of New Jersey want is to have online betting companies influence our local board of education elections. Allowing this to go unanswered will leave our school districts vulnerable to influence peddlers,” said board president Tony Monteiro about Super PAC money.

The board pointed out in a statement that the issue of Super PAC money received national exposure in a USA Today article in February titled “Federal Super PACS spend big on local elections,” where a local state senator made reference to the Elizabeth school board election and how he will use the money to “finish the job.”

According to one school board insider, the reference was to Democrat State Sen. Ray Lesniak, who they said received money from a Super PAC that obtained money from bail bondsmen, NY City’s International Longshoreman’s Union, online betting companies and alcoholic beverage companies.

The school board has petitioned U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Sen. Corey Booker to support federal legislation such as the Disclose Act and a constitutional amendment, if necessary.

Board members strongly suggested that this could curb the ability of corporations, industry groups and labor unions to secretly provide unlimited funds to candidates through Super PACS without broad and specific disclosure of the source and amount. The petition also calls for a comprehensive system of criminal and civil enforcement designed to prevent donations to these entities “in exchange for legislative favors.”

Monteiro said the school board never expected that outside interest groups would come in and invest this type of money in a local school board race.

Super PACS first came on the political scene in 2010 after two federal court rulings that allowed unlimited corporate and union donations to independent political groups. As a result, Super PACS can funnel any amount of money into these political groups as long as they do not align with favored candidates.

However, candidates still face strictly enforced caps on how much they can accept as a donation. But Super PACS can and do contribute millions under the guise of not giving this money to a favored candidate.
In New Jersey, outside Super PACS spent a record $41 million, according to the USA Today article cited above. This money was used to influence state level races and ballot initiatives last year, nearly three times what independent organizations spent in the garden state four years before.

In the past, Lesniak has said he wants to clean up the Elizabeth School Board and he has used Super PAC funding to get the job done. Donors contributing high dollars included development companies and Lesniak’s own law firm.

In late May 2013, New Jersey quickly reversed a decision made at the end of March that would have restricted the amount of money Super PACS could contribute to a campaign. The abrupt change came after they were sued in federal district court for a temporary injunction by the same group who requested an advisory opinion.

At this point the Election Law Enforcement Commission changed course and on April 25 consented to a preliminary injunction prohibiting any agency from enforcing contribution limits against Super PACS in New Jersey, according to a political law briefing on campaign finance, lobbying and ethics law by Larry Norton and Ron Jacobs.
On July 17, 2013 ,the New Jersey ELEC commission announced an agreement was reached and approved by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Under the agreement, the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security was granted a permanent injunction that permits unrestricted fundraising by political committees that only plan to make independent expenditures.