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N.J. pay-to-play limits chafe on some

A sweeping pay-to-play ban that curtails the ability of candidates to raise money - effectively handing an advantage to wealthy politicians who can fund their campaigns - will be tested for the first time in this year's governor's race.

A sweeping pay-to-play ban that curtails the ability of candidates to raise money - effectively handing an advantage to wealthy politicians who can fund their campaigns - will be tested for the first time in this year's governor's race.

Campaign cash is especially important in New Jersey because candidates buy television ads in New York and Philadelphia, two of the highest-priced media markets in the country.

But because of a history of corruption, state laws limit who can contribute money to finance those expensive campaigns.

The untested campaign-finance law was written by former Gov. Jim McGreevey in 2004 just before he stepped down. At the time, McGreevey's administration was awash in a series of scandals.

McGreevey's executive order banned the state from awarding contracts of more than $17,500 to companies in which high-ranking officials contributed more than $300 to a gubernatorial candidate or state or county party organization.

Until now, the rule didn't matter much to gubernatorial candidates. In the 2005 race, primary candidates who may have been affected weren't raising much money from state vendors. And both general-election candidates were self-funders.

Neither Democratic Gov. Corzine nor Republican Doug Forrester had to run through a list of state vendors to raise money for their campaigns. They spent a combined $75.5 million, mostly of their own.

In November, Corzine significantly increased the number of people who would be discouraged from giving more than $300 to gubernatorial candidates.

McGreevey's order covered contributors who controlled 10 percent or more of companies getting state contracts. Corzine included any partner, officer, or principal of a vendor firm, further limiting the number of people who would be willing to contribute to gubernatorial campaigns.

Because Corzine is funding his own campaign, he won't have to worry much about that law. But independent candidate Chris Daggett and the survivor of the increasingly heated Republican primary will.

And that has Republican gubernatorial candidate Christopher J. Christie in a lather.

"This governor is a hypocrite. He signs this executive order which he doesn't live by, yet he forces everybody else in the race to live by it," he said. Christie also said the executive order became effective Nov. 15, just as the gubernatorial season opened, and exempts labor unions, which are likely to support the governor.

He said Corzine tried to go around the law by asking donors to contribute to a federal campaign fund that is controlled by the state Democratic Party and subject to federal campaign laws, not state laws. Corzine has said he was not seeking to evade the law and promised that no state vendors would contribute to the federal Democratic Party fund.

Democratic Party chairman Joseph Cryan who is also a Union County assemblyman said flatly that Corzine's motives in toughening the state campaign law were not hypocritical.

The law, he said, "is in response to the public's need for confidence and ethics in the process." He added that "if his [Christie's] defense is that he's mad because he has to play by the rules that are set and he doesn't like the way others don't, I would find that an unacceptable defense even if it were from someone he indicted."

In a way, Christie is partly responsible for what he faces.

While U.S. attorney, Christie secured guilty pleas or convictions from 130 corrupt politicians. Over the years, Trenton lawmakers have responded to the headline-making prosecutions by writing reams of bills to curtail the practice of campaign donors' getting lucrative state contracts, known as pay-to-play.

The other leading Republican in the June 2 primary, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, said most of his money was coming from small donors and few, if any, state vendors. Like Christie, Lonegan is relying on taxpayers to help fund his campaign, which subjects candidates to spending limits.

By funding his own campaign, Corzine, a multimillionaire, is released from many of the state's campaign-finance restrictions, including the one requiring donors to choose between giving a lot of money to a gubernatorial candidate and accepting state contracts.

The law establishes a tricky playing field for candidates in this governor's race, and there is little guidance available from the state bureaucracy on how to navigate it.

Only two people at the state Department of the Treasury are assigned to monitor the law's implementation, according to spokesman Thomas Vincz. Individual state offices ask vendors to fill out paperwork listing contributions and government contracts when seeking state work but it is unclear who checks up on them.

The state Election Law Enforcement Commission, which files and distributes information about the rules as well as disclosures, has no jurisdiction to enforce the rules stemming from the governor's executive orders, executive director Fred Herrmann said.

And the state Attorney General's Office was unable to answer whether the rules applied to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a state entity that has a contract with gubernatorial-campaign donors.

"It is not clear whether NJIT is considered a state agency as described in the executive order, but this matter is being reviewed since this question has just been brought to our attention," said David Wald, spokesman for the attorney general.

Four days later, Corzine spokesman Robert Corrales sent an e-mail saying the law covered NJIT, but he declined to give an explanation.

The McGreevey law grandfathers contracts awarded before Oct. 15, 2004, when it went into effect. At least that's the thinking of three partners at the Princeton Public Affairs Group who have contributed a combined $6,600 to Christie.

The firm has a $90,000 contract with NJIT that was initiated in 2003, before the McGreevey ban. But that raises another problem, according to William Pascrell, a Princeton firm member acting as its spokesman. He said that means the contract can't be altered, for example, to give the firm more money.

Then there's the employee loophole. Employees who want to make contributions don't have to worry that their companies will lose contracts.

Longtime Trenton lobbyist and frequent campaign donor Hazel Gluck also gave money to Christie - $3,400 - but she is an employee of the firm that bears her name, MBI Gluck/Shaw. "That's why I gave," she said.

A partner in the firm gave Christie $250. That's $50 under the limit that could disqualify the firm from getting state contracts.

"We need to do something about pay-to-play, but this is, I think, very restrictive, and it favors any incumbent, not just this incumbent," Gluck said.

One campaign-finance reform advocate said the best way to keep money from influencing government would be to simplify the system: ban any vendor from giving any money to any government entity.

"Ban it on all levels of government: If you make a campaign contribution, you cannot get a contract. Close the loopholes. End the system," said State Sen. Bill Baroni (R., Mercer).