Parties spar on Lynch money GOP demands Dems give cash to charity

Parties spar on Lynch money
GOP demands Dems give cash to charity
Thursday, September 21, 2006 Star Ledger

HAMILTON -- Local GOP officials are demanding that county Democrats donate to charity thousands of dollars in campaign contributions they received from former state Sen. John Lynch, who pleaded guilty last week to corruption charges.

The contributions to various Mercer County Democrats and the party organization total more than $50,000 between 2002 and 2005, campaign spending records indicate.

Hamilton Republican Municipal Chairman John Bencivengo called on the county party, as well as Hamilton Mayor Glen Gilmore, to give away the campaign money.

"The entire $12,700 received personally by Mayor Glen Gilmore's campaign fund, Friends of Glen Gilmore, should be donated to a worthy nonprofit organization who serves the people of Hamilton, such as the local YMCA, and should not be used to gain in public office," Bencivengo said in a statement.

County Republican Chairwoman Cathy Tramontana yesterday echoed those sentiments about all Mercer County Democrats who had received money through Lynch, saying they should help make a stand against pay-to-play politics.

Gilmore received the money from a political action committee founded by Lynch called New Directions for Responsible Leadership.

The PAC has donated thousands to Democratic candidates throughout the state, including at least $22,000 to the Mercer County Democratic Party, $9,200 to the campaign of Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes and $1,000 to the campaign of Ewing Mayor Wendell Pribila.

Several Hamilton school candidates, an ex-township council member and legislative candidates also received donations.

Last week, Lynch admitted that he accepted tens of thousands of dollars from a contractor who wanted to develop state parkland. He pleaded guilty to defrauding the public and to tax evasion after a four-year probe by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie. As part of his plea, Lynch, a state senator for more than two decades and a former mayor of New Brunswick, agreed to serve from 33 to 41 months in prison.

Reached Monday, Mercer County Democratic Party Chairman Rich McClellan was defiant, saying the Democrats would be happy to consider donating Lynch's money, right after the Republicans do the same with money donated in the past by five men who were either convicted or pleaded guilty as part of a three-year probe of Mercer County corruption.

"When the Republican Party gives back money from convicted felon Harry Parkin we would be delighted to consider doing the same with John Lynch's money," McClellan said.

During last year's hotly contested race for county clerk, McClellan called on the GOP to donate some $36,000 in contributions from former county employee Parkin, business partners Alex Abdalla and John Ruddy, businessman Michael Maurio and former Mercer County Improvement Authority Director James Lambert, all of whom supported county Republicans before pleading guilty or being convicted.

The GOP responded by accusing the Democrats of a desperate political move and demanded the party return all donations from Charles Kushner, the top donor to former Gov. James McGreevey and a major donor to the state Democratic Party. Kushner pleaded guilty in 2004 to tax fraud and campaign finance violations.

County Executive Brian Hughes also declined to return the contributions, calling the GOP demand "hypocrisy." Hughes cited anti-pay-to-play laws passed by his administration and his efforts to bring "transparency" to county government.

"This call is nothing but the height of political hypocrisy. We did more in the first 12 months of my administration to create strict ethical standards than in the previous 24 years," Hughes said.

Lynch, who was long perched atop the Middlesex County Democratic machine, was known as one of the most powerful party bosses in the state. He was considered a "kingmaker" to McGreevey and his money has been spread statewide from local to federal elections.

But despite his power and influence, state political watchers said the furor over his guilty plea will make only a slight ripple.

Seton Hall University political science professor Joseph Marbach said the fallout will have little impact on the public at large, but could have deeper reverberations in Trenton political circles.

"It's a tough question to get a handle on because it has two components," Marbach said. "First, is the public perception aspect. To be honest, most people in New Jersey have no idea who Lynch is. He is another corrupt politician as far as they are concerned. But, it can have a certain amount of damage on those Lynch-sponsored Democratic candidates."

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said the GOP will do its best to capitalize on Lynch's downfall and paint all Democrats with the same brush.

"The idea is that if you are using negative advertising, you want to make every association sinister and every political contribution questionable," Baker said.

But the reality is, Lynch is not that infamous a character to bring down other politicians with him, Baker said.

"If these Democrats had received money from some notorious terrorist, or the people that clubbed baby seals to death, I think it would be worse," he said. "It's the profile of the donor and the degree of notoriety."

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