Assembly chief led junketeers last year

The Star-Ledger | March 6, 2002



Jack Collins’ last year as Assembly speaker turned into a farewell tour of sorts, sponsored by New Jersey lobbyists and big business.

In February 2001, Collins and his wife, Betsy, traveled to Hawaii and stayed at a luxury resort, at a cost of $6,456.

The bill was paid by food irradiation developer SureBeam, which wanted him to oppose a bill banning its technology in New Jersey.

Collins also traveled to Florida for the Daytona 500, compliments of International Speedway Corp. He played golf in San Antonio, Texas, on Anheuser-Busch’s dime, and in New Hampshire courtesy of Wyeth-Ayerst Labs. He was R.J. Reynolds’ guest in North Carolina, where he played a round of golf Sept. 11 and another round the next day.

The $15,207 in gifts Collins racked up – far more than any of his colleagues – was part of the $19 million that lobbyists spent trying to influence legislation and regulations in Trenton in 2001. That’s up from $18.4 million in 2000, according to reports released yesterday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Lawmakers and their staffs received a record $116,000 worth of dinners, trips and trinkets like CDs and golf shirts. Nearly 13 percent of all gifts went to Collins. He did not return calls for comment.

Princeton Public Affairs, headed by Republicans Dale Florio and Brad Brewster, remained the state’s largest lobbying firm, taking in $5.4 million in receipts. That put Princeton ahead of Public Strategies Impact ($3.6 million) and GluckShaw Group ($2.6 million).

The biggest companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars waging their political battles in Trenton.

Newark Sports and Entertainment, the YankeeNets subsidiary hoping to build an arena in Newark, spent $347,939 seeking state financing, and in October paid Collins’ $125 greens fee at Metedeconk National Golf Course in Jackson. Their arena bill failed, and backers of the measure blame Collins.

Limousine operators from as far away as Kentucky spent more than $213,000 on a lobbying campaign of their own, and it paid off. A new law exempted limousine sales and repairs from the state sales tax, which will save operators up to $3.75 million annually, a nonpartisan analysis showed.

Hackensack University Medical Center spent $544,000 seeking legislation: one measure that would help it avoid being stuck with costly unpaid bills (it passed), and another seeking $1 million in state subsidies for a regional child abuse center (it passed, too, but Gov. James E. McGreevey froze the funds).

“There’s a lot of competition out there,” said Robert Torre, CEO of the medical center’s foundation. “We want to put our case in front of the politicians. We understand we have to compete against hundreds of places like us. We probably spend 15 to 20 cents to raise a buck, which is a real good investment to us.”

Even Enron Corp. spent some money in New Jersey. The now-infamous energy firm paid Courter, Kobert, Laufer & Cohen $70,000 to represent it in matters before the Board of Public Utilities – before Enron plummeted into bankruptcy.

SureBeam may have gone to the greatest lengths for its cause. The San Diego company developed technology to kill food-borne bacteria, but critics have said the process can cause cancer and endanger workers. In New Jersey, one lawmaker introduced legislation that would prohibit food irradiation.

The company paid $36,806 to Princeton Public Affairs to help kill the legislation. In the end, the company won.

SureBeam also took its case to the Assembly speaker, inviting him and his wife to Hawaii in February 2001 to see a plant in Hilo that used its technology. It also flew out a top New Jersey opponent of its product, said spokesman Will Williams. They visited the plant and an orchard, and met company officials.

“We opened our doors to them to see, first-hand, the facility, to talk to the farmers in the area, and to investigate the unfounded charges,” Williams said.

He said the company had to invite Collins to Hawaii because the Hilo facility was one of only two that used SureBeam technology at the time, and it was difficult to see the process at work in the other plant, which was in Sioux City, Iowa.

“It was purely a business trip,” Williams said – even though Collins’ wife joined him and they spent several nights in Honolulu hotels on the company’s tab.

Collins held the food irradiation bill for a year, finally putting it up for a vote on the very last day of his tenure. It passed, but died for lack of action in the Senate.

Another notable Collins junket involved a trip to Winston-Salem, N.C. Collins, who loves golf, flew south with Assemblyman Fran Bodine (R-Burlington), with the bill paid by R.J. Reynolds. Bodine said the legislators went to watch the Vantage Golf Championship, a Senior PGA event, and to compete in a pro-am tournament.

The tobacco company had no major bills before the Legislature, but frequently hosts lawmakers to maintain good relations.

Collins and Bodine arrived Sept. 10 and had dinner at a steak restaurant. When they woke up the morning of Sept. 11, they learned of the terrorist attacks from a TV set in the lobby, Bodine said.

They played a round of golf that day, and another the next, although the Vantage was canceled, with organizers saying “it just wasn’t a proper time to play.”

“We could either sit in our hotel room or do something, so we went and played a round,” Bodine explained. “The airports were closed. I couldn’t get a car.”

They finally rented cars – Reynolds paid – and returned late that week. They took with them $1,000 worth of shirts, sweaters, jackets, balls, travel bags, money clips. Bodine said he didn’t see anything wrong with the trip, even though Reynolds could have important business in Trenton.

“Whatever the value is, it’s not going to influence my decision to vote for this issue or against this issue, and they know that,” he said. “I play golf with these guys when they come up here. I just look at this as a social outing. They’re not going to buy my vote.”

The reports released yesterday also show the workings of the revolving door between lobbying and the Governor’s office.

Two aides to acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco were paid lobbyists in January 2001 before they began working in the Governor’s office.

Tom Wilson, DiFrancesco’s communications director, received $10,000 from The Strategy Group, and Jim Harkness, his chief counsel, got $10,000 from Riker Danzig.

In the waning days of his one-year tenure, DiFrancesco signed a bill giving broad new economic development powers to the Burlington County Bridge Commission – The Strategy Group’s biggest client. In 2001, the commission paid the firm $168,000.

“I never had anything to do with that issue while I was here – or after I left,” Wilson said.