A dark-money group favorable to Gov. Phil Murphy has released a list of its donors that it had previously refused to make public — a refusal that ultimately led to Murphy’s being forced to sign a controversial law mandating transparency by politically active nonprofits.
New Direction New Jersey on Thursday reported that 25 donors have given nearly $6.8 million to the organization, which has spent more than $1.5 million so far promoting Murphy’s agenda via ads and its website.
There were few surprises on the list, which shows unions responsible for about 89 percent of all contributions. It did indicate, though, that the New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) politically active nonprofit — Garden State Forward — gave more than was previously known: $4.5 million, or 66 cents of every dollar collected.
It’s unclear why New Direction, registered in early 2018 as a 501(c)(4) organization that is considered a dark-money group, decided to release a list of donors now. Initially, the organization said it would voluntarily disclose its funders despite the lack of a state law requiring it to do so.
But late last year, a spokesman reneged, citing the tense political atmosphere — Murphy and state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) have been engaged in a feud. That prompted Sweeney to fast-track a previously stalled bill requiring transparency of politically active nonprofit groups in the state.
Murphy first conditionally vetoed the bill, then signed it into law rather than face the embarrassment of having his veto overridden by a Legislature controlled by his own party. Calling the bill overly broad, Murphy said at the time that he expected legislators to correct problems with the new law. They haven’t, and now it faces two lawsuits arguing it is unconstitutional.
A call for disclosure by all such groups
“We are clear-eyed to the fact that disclosing our donors will expose our organization to attacks from entrenched Trenton special interests,” said Phil Swibinski, a New Direction spokesman. “But we have concluded that setting a high standard for transparency is far more important to the broader fight for New Jersey’s future. All similarly-situated organizations should disclose their donors, and we will work to hold these organizations accountable to the public if they do not live up to this standard.”
That could be a reference to dark-money organizations associated with Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex). Coughlin recently formed a group called NJ United and Sweeney had received backing from a SuperPAC associated with a dark-money organization called General Growth Fund, which reportedly has closed.
The new law requires politically active nonprofits like 501(c)(4) groups to disclose their big contributors — those giving at least $10,000 — when they spend at least $3,000 to influence an election, legislation, or regulations.
For years, the state’s election watchdog has been calling for some disclosure by dark-money groups. The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission reported that such groups spent close to $50 million to influence the state’s gubernatorial and legislative races in 2017.
New Direction noted that its disclosure comes even as the state’s new transparency law faces its first legal challenge next week. A federal judge is slated Tuesday to hear a request by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), an influential conservative nonprofit, for an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect until its contention that it violates the First Amendment is heard.
Earlier this week, the state and national ACLUs filed a similar challenge from the left, arguing the new law violates both the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Their suit, filed in federal District Court on Tuesday claims the law “burdens speech and expressive and associational conduct” and its “ill-defined terms and poor drafting render the law — which includes criminal penalties — unconstitutionally vague.”
“This law discourages people from donating to non-profit organizations that advocate for causes that they believe make people’s lives better,” said Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of ACLU-NJ. “The law sweeps up hundreds of advocacy organizations, including those that don’t take sides in elections, and even some that don’t directly engage in lobbying the government.”
Dispute over law at heart of endorsement spat
The opposition from a host of nonprofits made other news this week when the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters (LCV) withheld its election endorsement from Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), a main sponsor of the dark-money legislation but otherwise a liberal candidate facing a potentially difficult primary. This prompted Zwicker’s district mate Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Somerset) to decline the league’s endorsement of his candidacy.
“By failing to endorse my running mate Andrew Zwicker, LCV acted in a vindictive manner when they were unable to persuade him to abandon his principles on Dark Money, even though he has an impeccable environmental record,” Freiman said in a statement after the league released its endorsements Monday.
“To be clear, this has nothing to do with environmental protection,” Zwicker said of the LCV’s snub. “I am one of the few legislators to receive an early endorsement from the Sierra Club of New Jersey for the 2019 election.”
“The leadership of the LCV has made it clear that their strong opposition to this new law is the reason I will not receive the endorsement in 2019,” he added. “Or, to put it another way, it is my work on dark money and not my environmental record that is motivating this decision. It is a shame that the Board of the LCV has decided that protecting their own self-interest is more important than supporting someone with a strong environmental record.”
The league issued a statement in response.
“Andrew Zwicker is flat out wrong; there are many factors we consider in an endorsement,” said Julia Somers, chair of the LCV board. “Unfortunately, Mr. Zwicker did not earn our endorsement because of a number of factors, including missing the mark on environmental leadership because he fails to admit how reckless and flawed his disclosure bill was — it stands in opposition to New Jersey LCV’s goals of safeguarding our state’s precious natural resources.”
Governor is ‘thrilled’
Murphy had been sympathetic to the complaints of groups like the LCV and ACLU, which contend the new law will discourage some people who seek anonymity from contributing to their efforts.
At the same time, though, the state Attorney General’s Office filed a robust defense of the law in the suit by the right-leaning AFP, asserting that its “transparency requirements are substantially related to the important state interests in providing the New Jersey electorate with information, deterring actual corruption and avoiding any appearance of corruption, and facilitating the enforcement of other laws regarding the political process.”
Murphy praised New Direction’s decision to release its donor list.
“I’m thrilled they finally released it,” Murphy said Thursday after an unrelated press conference.
The governor has admitted to coordinating with New Direction and raising money for the group and previously had urged the organization to publicize its contributors, but said he had not seen the list, which was released shortly before the press conference.
New Direction’s two largest donors — the NJEA and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) —- also said they supported the release of the information about their contributions.
“New Direction NJ has played a valuable role in presenting a progressive vision to people throughout our state and showing a better way forward for New Jersey,” said NJEA president Marie Blistan. “We will continue to work closely with this organization and others that share our members’ values to advocate for policies that benefit our members and all middle-class workers.”
“CWA has supported a progressive vision for thirty years that includes economic fairness for workers, a fair tax policy, health care and retirement security for all, responsible gun safety, and good and honest government,” said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the CWA, which gave $560,000 to New Direction. “We are proud to support Governor Murphy’s vision and New Direction NJ and we look forward to supporting it in the future.”
In addition to unions, New Direction received money from high-powered law firms —- DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick, Cole & Giblin; McManimon, Scotland & Bauman; and Sills Cummis & Gross. It also got funds from construction companies and an organization representing the industry and a few individuals —- one woman was listed as having given $25, the smallest recorded donation.
Also listed is a $25,000 contribution from Ameream LLC, the entity behind the American Dream Meadowlands development.