Burlington County Democratic Chairman Rick Perr, who aggressively targeted local Republicans with corruption complaints while promoting government reforms, will step down amid a controversy over the distribution of campaign funds.
The Medford lawyer notified the party late Monday of his intent to resign effective Sept. 1, following a daylong stream of calls for him to leave.
Perr's departure follows published reports that he and former Democratic County Treasurer Jeff Meyer - who resigned three weeks ago - used a political-action committee that typically contributes to Democrats in and around Burlington County to further the political career of a Hoboken official caught in a federal corruption sting.
The Medford-based New Frontier Committee contributed more than $15,000 to election funds for candidates that included Peter Cammarano III - who resigned last month as mayor of Hoboken following bribery charges - and more than $26,000 total to Hudson County candidates in recent months.
The disclosure in the Burlington County Times of e-mails revealing that Perr and Meyer directed some activities by the PAC - contrary to their previous denials, and a potential violation of state election law - set off a furor among local Democrats this week. They charged that Perr's actions were unethical and that he had sought to advance his own agenda ahead of the county party's.
Calls for Perr's resignation came from as high as U.S. Rep. John Adler (D., N.J.). Joining in the chorus were Seventh District Assemblymen Herb Conaway and Jack Conners, Evesham Mayor Randy Brown, Freeholder Chris Brown, freeholder candidates Kim Kersey and Jim Bernard, Eighth District Assembly candidates Debbie Sarcone and Bill Brown, and a host of others.
Perr did not respond to phone and e-mail messages. Following talk behind the scenes this month that he would resign, Perr said in an Aug. 3 interview that he had no intention of doing so.
"People are rumor-mongering," he said.
The PAC money at issue flowed this spring across the state to one of New Jersey's most powerful Democratic machines while Democrats in Evesham - Burlington County's largest town - lost political control of the Township Council in May.
"We were told we didn't have money for a poll, we didn't have money for BlackBerries on Election Day [to get out the vote], so there was a definite impact to our race and helping us get our vote out," said Democrat Michael Schmidt, who lost his bid for reelection to the Township Council.
New Frontier's first substantial contributions went toward Evesham Democrats in the 2007 race. The committee, established in late 2006, contributed $20,000 to winning candidates John McKenna, Chris Brown, and Randy Brown (no relation).
The Township Council adopted an ordinance shortly thereafter restricting the amount of campaign donations that entities with municipal contracts could give to local candidates or PACs affiliated with them. Democrats described it as an advance for ethics reform, though critics of such measures generally counter that they can lead to less transparent means of fund-raising - such as using PACs.
A report in The Inquirer last year that recipients of Evesham contracts subsequently gave thousands of dollars to New Frontier prompted the township solicitor to call for an investigation; nothing came of it.
Even so, Chris Brown - elected a freeholder last year - and Randy Brown were among those who criticized Perr's involvement with the PAC.
"My disappointment was in light of the revelations that both Rick and Jeff were helping to fund an election in Hoboken at the same time there was an election in Evesham. . . . That just shows their efforts and their heads were not in Burlington County at the time," said Randy Brown.
Alice Furia, the county Democratic committee's vice chairwoman, will assume the position of acting chairwoman. She called the future of the party "bright" in a statement yesterday.
"In an unprecedented display of unity, county Democrats at every level and in every region stood up and rebelled against corruption in our own house," Furia wrote. "It is this dedication to clean and open government that separates us from the Republicans and is a testament to the fortitude of our party."
Perr, a partner at a Philadelphia law firm, also teaches election law at Rutgers University.
He began hammering away at alleged corruption and waste by the Burlington County GOP in 2004, after moving to Medford from Camden County. He did so as the leader of a newly formed organization called the Burlington County Taxpayers Association.
Among other things, he publicly alleged that Robert Stears, a lobbyist for the Burlington County Bridge Commission with Republican ties, was doing little work under his contract.
His instincts were correct. In 2006, Stears pleaded guilty to overbilling the commission.
That was the year Perr took over as chairman of the Burlington County Democrats, an organization that had been largely moribund for decades.
"He revived a party that was dead, did not have a heartbeat," said Randy Brown.
In 2006, a Democrat picked up the surrogate's seat for the first time in 40 years. Subsequent gains in Evesham, Mount Laurel, and Delran were followed by major victories last year, when the party picked up the Third Congressional District, two freeholder seats, and the county clerk's office.
Perr also appeared to have higher political ambitions of his own: His name was among those floated as a possible replacement for U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews when Andrews made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate.
The chairman persistently attacked the Burlington County GOP - in particular its former chairman and behind-the-scenes powerbroker, Glenn Paulsen - for a culture of pay-to-play.
Many of his claims about well-connected Republicans receiving contracts and government jobs were true, if couched in politically exaggerated language.
The Republicans filed a state election complaint yesterday against Perr, Meyer, and New Frontier treasurer Jack Senechal and chairman Dean Buono.
Meyer declined to comment, and Senechal and Buono have not responded to repeated messages in recent weeks. Schmidt, the Evesham Democrat, filed a state complaint against the GOP last month that also alleged questionable use of PACs to dodge campaign finance rules.