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Financial Transparency Almost Unknown Among NJ Gubernatorial Hopefuls

ELEC personal disclosure forms require almost no detailed financial data, and most candidates seem content to leave it at that

Phil Murphy
Phil Murphy, Democratic hopeful for his party's gubernatorial nomination

Financial transparency among candidates has become a key issue after Donald Trump refused to release his tax returns during his candidacy or even after he was elected. But despite the New Jersey Legislature’s calls to force online posting of future presidential candidates’ tax returns, the state’s own requirements for gubernatorial candidates reveal little.

Only one candidate for governor, Republican Kim Guadagno, has officially released her 2015 returns, as she does every year as Lt. Governor. While there is no law requiring this, governors, and now their lieutenants, traditionally release their income tax returns.

Two Democratic candidates – Phil Murphy and Assemblyman John Wisniewski – have shown their 2015 returns to reporters but would not allow them to be copied or posted online.

This week the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission released the personal financial disclosure forms required of all candidates for governor. But unlike members of Congress and forms filed by high-level New Jersey state employees — department heads and managers and their assistants and members of numerous boards and commissions — the state’s candidate-disclosure forms provide little detail. The only thing that must be disclosed is whether a candidate’s income and assets exceed $100.

Open government advocates have long called for personal financial disclosure forms to include exact amounts of income and assets to provide full transparency among government officials and help watchdogs ensure they are not taking actions that might enrich themselves.

Calls for additional disclosure

The lack of specificity in the candidate financial forms has brought periodic calls for additional disclosure, which some of the current crop of candidates — Guadagno included — support. It’s also why calls for the release of personal income tax forms, which is not required by law, continue to be loud and at times contentious.

For instance, in commemoration of tax day, yesterday the campaign of Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, emailed notices critical of primary opponent Murphy, saying, “While many of you will or already have paid your taxes, Donald Trump and Phil Murphy most likely haven’t. Or at least that’s what we’re left to assume since neither will release their tax returns to the public.” The email, which ended with a request for a financial donation to the campaign, stated that Wisniewski “wasn’t afraid to release his tax returns months ago and will do so again.”

However, both Wisniewski and Murphy provided reporters with an opportunity to see their returns months ago, but fell short of actually releasing them for a detailed look. In Wisniewski’s case, according to press reports, the candidate let reporters spend four hours looking at 14 years worth of his returns three months ago. In 2015, according to nj.com, Wisniewski had about $462,000 in income and paid $135,000 in federal income taxes. A month earlier, Murphy reportedly gave reporters two hours to look over his 2015 return; he had let reporters see his returns for the years 2010 through 2014 earlier last year.

The “release” of this tax data did not sit well at the time with Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican gubernatorial primary contender from Central Jersey’s 16th District. And it prompted sneers from the campaign spokesman for Guadagno

“Every year she (Guadagno) releases her tax returns, usually in conjunction with the governor,” said Ricky Diaz. “You can Google Kim Guadagno and tax return and there it is. That’s a clear contrast to someone like Phil Murphy. We think he should post them publicly so everyone can see them and look at them.”

Guadagno’s 2015 tax returns show an adjusted gross income of $339,686 for her; her husband made a total federal tax payment of $77,322.

No comment

Murphy’s spokesman Derek Roseman said the campaign would not specifically comment on Guadagno’s charge as she is not an opponent in the primary. He said Murphy did release six years of returns by making them available to reporters, and that they are “complex” and more than 300 pages long. In 2015, he made a little less than $7.3 million in income and paid $2.4 million in federal and state taxes, Politico reported.

Because he did make public prior tax return information, it is likely Murphy will do so again, but it’s unclear when this will happen, as he may have filed for an extension.

Several other candidates said they would make their returns public in some form when they become available.

“I expect to post 2012-2016 returns by week’s end,” wrote Ciattarelli in an email, adding that his accountant had just finished his 2016 return.

Diaz said Guadagno would release her return again, as well, through the governor’s office, as has been done in the past.

Of the three other Republican candidates, Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers said he would release his return. On the other hand, Joseph “Rudy” Rullo, a Little Egg Harbor man who has a landscaping business and also earns some income from acting, said, “I’m not releasing my tax returns as a private citizen.” Hirsh Singh did not answer a question about his taxes.

Open to the public?

Speaking for Wisniewski, Greg Minchak said the Assemblyman would provide his 2016 taxes “once they have been completed” and may give reporters additional access to the forms he already showed them. But it remains a question whether he will distribute them for public viewing since he has not provided copies of the earlier forms in that manner.

Wisniewski was among the majority who voted last month for a bill (S-3048/A4520) that would require candidates for president and vice president to disclose their income tax returns in order to appear on the ballot in New Jersey. The bill, meant to prevent a repeat of Trump’s refusal to release his income tax returns as has been customary among past presidential hopefuls, would require a candidate to provide the tax returns to the state Division of Elections, which would then post them on its website after making any redactions it deems necessary. The measure is on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk, and while he has not indicated a preference, he is not expected to sign it. Ciattarelli did not support that bill.

Outlook unclear

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and another Democratic gubernatorial contender, did back it. But his position on releasing his own income tax returns is unclear, as he did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

Two other Democratic candidates, Jim Johnson and Bill Brennan, also did not reply to requests for their views on the release of their income tax returns.

Mark Zinna, a Tenafly councilman and another Democratic hopeful, said he plans to release the first two pages of his tax returns by next Monday. “I believe all gubernatorial candidates should be required to do the same as part of the PFD,” he added, saying that is one way he would boost the current disclosure process.

Assets unknown

The current ELEC disclosure forms do not even require the reporting of ranges of income, and in many cases, the information doesn’t reveal much in the way of conflicts.

For instance, Murphy, a former ambassador and Goldman Sachs executive, filed a 30-page form listing hundreds of investments ranging from 3M Co. to Yum Brands Inc., as well as a number of trusts, bonds — dozens for New Jersey governmental entities — and residences in Germany and Italy. But there is no indication, because it is not required, of how much any of the assets is worth.

That’s in direct contrast to the disclosure forms completed by congressional representatives, New Jersey legislators, and high-ranking state employees.

The two forms filled out by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, Republican candidate for governor, demonstrate the difference.

As a candidate, Guadagno’s seven-page ELEC form indicates both she and her husband received salaries from the state of New Jersey last year. It also shows her husband got rent from a Sea Bright property, as well as dividends from National Financial Services and Ameritrade, while she got interest and dividends from a Virginia Beach limited liability company. In all cases, the amounts exceeded $1,000.

It’s not until one looks at the 11-page public employee financial disclosure form that the size of those assets, and others, becomes clear. Both Guadagnos receive salaries of between $100,000 and $250,000. She also receives compensation of between $5,000 and $25,000 as a partner of that Virginia Beach LLC, Steamboat Springs, which is a family trust established by her parents. The amount of rent husband Michael Guadagno gets from a Monmouth County property is between $5,000 and $25,000 and he also receives Social Security payments in the same range. It also names the jobs she and her husband, an appellate judge, hold and notes that she has a law license.

Running the numbers

Other details from the state employee form:

The Guadagnos have between $5,000 and $25,000 in the bank.

She has between $5,000 and $25,000 in stocks and bonds, while he holds between $50,000 and $100,000. They are invested in Range Resources, EATS, Microsoft, Fidelity, and Pfizer.

Her total pension and IRA funds are worth between $50,000 and $100,000, while his are valued at between $100,000 and $250,000.

The cash value of their life insurance is between $100,000 and $250,000.

She does not have a car, while his is worth between $50,000 and $100,000.

They own real estate worth more than $500,000. The have a mortgage of between $100,000 and $250,000 with Valley National Bank.

Income and assets

Even the four-page forms that Lesniak, Wisniewski, and Ciattarelli have to fill out as legislators give more detail than the seven-page ELEC candidate-disclosure forms because the legislative forms also include ranges of income and assets.

While Wisniewski’s candidate form lists numerous investments by name, his legislator’s form indicates that he received less than $10,000 in income from all of them in 2015. Ciattarelli’s candidate form shows he had income from three sources, while his legislative form shows he earned more than $50,000 from The Healthcare Media Group and Galen Publishing, and between $25,000 and $49,999 as a legislator.

Guadagno, Ciattarelli, and Wisniewski all said they support strengthening the financial disclosure requirements for candidates, with the Democrats’ campaign using that stance as a way to attack opponent Murphy.

“A candidate's income and investments provide a window into their priorities and how they will conduct themselves as governor,” said Minchak, speaking for Wisniewski. “Without greater information provided about the candidate's financial holdings, voters are at a loss to the type of person they are electing. Phil Murphy has not answered basic questions about his times at Goldman Sachs and how he made his money. A more stringent form would force him to come clean about his current holdings and tell the voters of New Jersey what his real values are.”

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