HOBOKEN -- Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla was under fire again last week after the Newark Star-Ledger reported that Bhalla gave $2,500 in political contributions to a political action committee (PAC) linked with Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Bhalla along with nine other vendors in the city of Newark contributed to the PAC “Empower Newark” before accepting millions of dollars in city contracts.
The day after Bhalla contributed to the PAC, he was given a $60,000 no-bid legal contract by the city that was eventually renewed for an additional $60,000, according to the story.
Although the PAC did not contribute to Booker directly, it did support school board candidates whom Booker was backing.
While the contribution and subsequent contract do not legally violate “pay-to-play” regulations in Newark, they do violate the spirit of the law, according to several citizen groups.
A representative for the Hoboken-based People for Open Government calls the situation “extremely distressing” in a letter to the editor this weekend.
Pay-to-play regulations are adopted locally to restrict government officials from trading campaign donations for lucrative city contracts. Both Hoboken and Newark have pay-to-play regulations. There is also a vaguer state law.
One community group in Newark is calling for Booker to tighten the law to restrict this type of circumvention.
Bhalla said last week that he did not violate the law, nor did he do anything to violate the spirit of the law, in his opinion. He said his relationship with Booker has been strong for years and that he contributed to Booker’s campaign directly within the limits of the pay-to-play regulations. Bhalla maintained that neither his contribution to the PAC, nor his direct contributions to Booker, had anything to do with his being awarded the legal contract.
Earlier this year, in Hoboken, Bhalla was accused of ignoring a conflict of interest when he voted to approve a city legal contract for attorney Paul Condon, who shares an office and a secretary with Bhalla. The city’s lawyer has deemed that the situation did not constitute a legal conflict.