Two engineering firms this year contributed $7,800 each, or the maximum amount allowed under state election law, to a primary election slate of two Burlington County freeholders and a county clerk candidate.
Pennoni Associates and Taylor, Wiseman & Taylor each also gave the maximum amount allowed - $7,200 - to a political action committee. The PAC, known as Burlington County Republican Women, then gave $18,900 combined to members of the slate, state election records show.
The companies were the most generous campaign donors to the slate and the PAC in the June 3 GOP primary, in which the candidates won more than 60 percent of the vote. And like many of the other contributors, the firms do business with the county.
Nearly seven of every $10 the slate's individual and joint candidate accounts, as well as the major PAC contributor, took in from individuals or companies this year came from donors that held contracts with Burlington County or the county bridge commission, an analysis of state election records shows.
Freeholders Stacey Jordan and Aubrey Fenton, along with the Burlington County Republican Women PAC that gave to them, have raised close to $110,000 this year from donors that held contracts with the county or the county bridge commission. County clerk candidate Gary Woodend raised more than $25,000 from such contractors.
The campaign also took in more than $2,000 in contributions that were over state election law limits from contractors CDM and Consulting Engineer Services, without issuing refunds in the legally required 48-hour time frame, records show.
Burlington County Republican Committee Chairman Bill Layton said yesterday the committee had filed amended reports with the state and sent refund checks by overnight mail to the companies, after The Inquirer pointed out the over-contributions to the committee last week.
"There was no malice on our part," Layton said. "These are minor mistakes on our part, as a result of thousands and thousands of transactions we're making every year. We fixed these quickly."
CDM provided copies of all three contribution checks it made, showing that a $2,600 contribution recorded to the joint candidates' committee in March - a $1,000 contribution was made around the same time to Fenton's individual fund - was written out to the county Republicans' general election fund. A spokeswoman said CDM had not known that the money was transferred and recorded to the freeholders' joint candidate fund when it wrote another $1,000 to the joint candidates committee in June.
Consulting Engineer Services did not return phone messages. The company gave an additional $2,500 to the Burlington County Republican Women PAC this year.
All 10 of the most generous individual or corporate donors to all of the election funds and the PAC held a contract with the county or the bridge commission, the analysis shows.
"Why people specifically contribute to candidates, I don't know," said Layton. "But I will say that I'm hopeful that the reason they do contribute to the organization and our candidates is because they support what we've done and our efforts to cut taxes and spending."
The freeholders' joint candidate committee reported raising and spending $178,700 in the primary. Woodend reported raising and spending $61,649.
An analysis of money raised through all three individual election funds, the freeholders' joint candidate committee, and donations made in 2008 to the Burlington County Republican Women offers a more complete picture of the campaign contributions.
Reports from multiple election funds and the Burlington County Republican Women PAC showed individuals and corporations donated more than $200,000 to all of the funds. Other contributions came from other election funds or a PAC called Burlington County Young Republicans, which in the past has accepted money from some of the same sources but reported just over $300 in reportable contributions for 2008, mostly from individuals.
The practice of companies giving political contributions and receiving contracts spans both political parties at all levels of government, but Republicans in Burlington County are frequently charged with espousing "pay to play" by opponents because they dominate elected positions there.
Fenton was out of town and not available for comment, Layton said. Jordan did not return a cell phone message yesterday. The freeholders have said in the past - along with Layton - that the committee, not the candidates, deals with campaign fund-raising.
"We contribute to both parties," said Peter Coote, general counsel for Pennoni. "We contribute to candidates that we know support infrastructure funding and folks that understand the importance of infrastructure on the safety and growth and development of the community."
Shamong Mayor Jon Shevelew, who lost his bid for a freeholder seat in the GOP primary, said the election records show why the system was broken.
"When you have the ability to control millions of dollars in outside contracts, then you also have the ability to hold a whole lot of fund-raising," said Shevelew.
Shevelew, freeholder candidate Debbie Sarcone and county clerk candidate Lauri Sheppard raised and spent about one-fifth the amount of the incumbents. Almost all of the money came from themselves, records show.
The Burlington County Republican Committee received more than $18,000 this year in other donations from firms that do business with the county and the Burlington County Bridge Commission.
That allowed some contractors to give a lot more than they would have been able to contribute to the freeholders alone. The committee gave only $1,500 to the election slate it endorsed for the primary; it will need money in the general election for the freeholder and other races.
Jordan and Fenton will face off against Democrats Chris Brown, an Evesham councilman, and Mary Anne Reinhart, a committeewoman in Shamong. Timothy Tyler is the Democrats' candidate for county clerk.
One top committee contributor that holds contracts with the bridge commission and the county is Bowman & Co. The committee received five $1,000 checks on Jan. 30 from employees of the auditing firm, and on May 14 received five $2,000 checks from its employees.
Bowman, whose employees have contributed thousands of dollars before this year, did not return a message.
Some contributions to the freeholders happened around the same time the companies had contracts with the county granted or extended.
The president of Election Graphics, for instance, gave its first county Republican contribution of the year - $5,200 - to the freeholders two weeks before the Board of Freeholders voted to extend the company's contract. Adam Perna, the president, did not return a message.
Layton said it was "just coincidence" and there was no connection or conflict of interest because freeholders do not raise money for their campaigns. Vendors contribute throughout the year, he said.
Taylor, Wiseman & Taylor gave $5,200 to the freeholders two weeks after the board approved a new contract to design a retaining wall behind Rancocas Road. Though it has contributed in the past, it was the company's first campaign check to county Republicans this year.
"We've supported the Burlington County Republican organization through their candidates for a number of years," said Tom Howell, a principal of the Mount Laurel firm. "We're located in Burlington County, and we appreciate the way the Burlington County government and their officials conduct business for the county."