When AshBritt Inc. swooped into New Jersey and cornered the market for debris removal after Hurricane Sandy, the Florida company wasn’t shy about making its skills or political connections known.
It’s now becoming clear how deep those connections run.
AshBritt is bulldozing competitors by stuffing its roster with an all-star lineup of New Jersey’s political muscle, The Star-Ledger has found.
The roster of those paid by AshBritt has swelled to include George Gilmore, the powerful Republican chairman of hard-hit Ocean County; Maggie Moran, a former top aide to Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine whose husband is the mayor of Belmar; and Kris Kolluri, a New Jersey lobbyist sources say was recruited by a company associated with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a friend of Gov. Chris Christie.
The newspaper’s review of hundreds of public records and dozens of interviews also reveal how former government officials were able to connect AshBritt with local leaders on the ground in New Jersey — and how the process was sped up by state actions allowing it to bypass regulations on business, the environment and pay-to-play.
Competing contractors say this gave AshBritt — which has been criticized for charging high prices and praised by local officials for its swift work — a big advantage.
“If this isn’t a classic example of how everything is connected in New Jersey politics, I don’t know what is,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who was Corzine’s running mate in 2009 when Moran managed his re-election campaign.
Reached by phone Wednesday, AshBritt general counsel Jared Moskowitz declined comment and requested questions be sent by e-mail. He did not reply to the e-mailed questions sent to him that day.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak declined to comment on the firm’s aggressive marketing strategy, but stressed that towns have the option of hiring whomever they want.
“Towns were not required to use AshBritt, and many didn’t,” Drewniak said. “It was their choice, and we just wanted to give them a quick option.”
ON THE PAYROLL
Gilmore, the Ocean County GOP chairman and one of the most powerful players in state Republican politics, confirmed yesterday that he was hired by AshBritt.
He declined to say what his role is or address whether he avoided conflicts of interest due to his other role as attorney for towns, including Seaside Heights and Jackson Township, that used the firm.
“Due to a confidentiality clause, I cannot comment,” Gilmore said. AshBritt’s Moskowitz declined to answer a question about Gilmore.
In Ocean County, the Republican-controlled freeholder board agreed to pay the cleanup costs up front for towns if they went with AshBritt, an attractive deal for mayors that also freed them of having to deal with red tape to get reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Of the county’s 33 towns, 17 have accepted the offer. The county would then get reinbursement from FEMA.
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Financial records show AshBritt has already billed the county for $6.1 million. Local officials expect the price tag to reach $110 million.
“I can tell you that we went with AshBritt before they hired George,” said Ocean County administrator Carl Block, a Gilmore friend. “We went with them because of the state contract, and we needed things done quickly.”
Block was the one who made the pitch to local mayors about the county’s offer, and said Gilmore did not talk to him about using that approach. He did say Gilmore has contacted him in recent weeks on behalf of AshBritt to ask how the company could be of more help.
He said he’s unsure what, if any, influence Gilmore had on helping secure contracts.
“Some Democratic towns used AshBritt, some Republicans towns didn’t,” Block said. “How many were influenced by George or not, I don’t know.”
AshBritt is not the only debris removal firm linked to Gilmore. State records show Gilmore registered as a lobbyist and lobbied the governor’s office for the DRC Group, a debris removal firm from Alabama that was looking to secure a state contract.
“That wouldn’t be a surprise me,” Drewniak said. “We hear from so many registered lobbyists from New Jersey, so I couldn’t immediately say what the discussion was about.”
Calls to the DRC Group were not returned.
Point Pleasant Borough Mayor William Schroeder said he just learned Friday that AshBritt had hired Gilmore. “It makes me concerned … it really muddies the water for everybody,” said Schroeder, a Democrat who has previously butted heads with Gilmore.
Instead of using AshBritt, Schroeder said he hired 15 temporary workers and hauled away 50,000 tons of debris at a cost of $1.3 million, or about $26 per ton, records show.
In nearby Long Beach Township, AshBritt was paid $719,309 to collect and haul 7,149 tons of debris — a rate of about $100 a ton, local finance records show.
Moran, who worked for Corzine when he was a U.S. senator and later governor and was a senior adviser to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign, developed an elaborate campaign-like strategy to market AshBritt to local mayors, according to numerous interviews with officials across the state. She helped deploy salespeople to the hardest-hit areas and used her extensive political network to set up meetings between company brass and local decision-makers, they said.
Her company, M. Public Affairs, which she created in January 2012, is an affiliate of the national firm founded by David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief campaign adviser.
AshBritt does little to no debris removal itself. Instead, it hires local and out-of-state contractors and pays them a portion on the state’s contracted rate.
Days after getting the state contract on Oct. 30, AshBritt hired Conti Group of Edison, a construction firm, to help manage its efforts and identify local subcontractors. Conti then hired Moran to help develop a marketing campaign. Moran said her firm “handled marketing and educated stakeholders about what the state contract offered in terms of debris removal and cleanup.”
Moran’s role in the marketing blitz has drawn attention to her personal ties in Belmar — where AshBritt landed one of its biggest contracts and her husband serves as mayor.
Like dozens of others, the Belmar contract was awarded without a bid. AshBritt is estimated to collect $2.67 million, a good portion of which will go to a team of subcontractors, according to the borough’s filing for reimbursement with FEMA obtained under the state Open Public Records Act.
Ferreira Construction of Branchburg so far has gotten the bulk of the subcontracting work in Belmar, receiving $749,191 of the first $1.1 million the town has spent on debris removal thus far, according to the federal filing.
In addition to working for AshBritt and its New Jersey partner Conti, Moran confirmed she is a longtime consultant for Ferriera Construction.
In separate interviews, Moran and her husband, Matt Doherty, said they were aware of potential conflicts and made sure they had nothing to do with the selection of AshBritt or Ferriera.
“My firm does not lobby and I do no business in Belmar, period,” Moran said. She said she went to upstate New York with her children before the storm hit and “did not communicate with my husband or anyone in the borough about how they chose to manage the cleanup.”
After Conti hired her, Moran said she recused herself from any dealings the company had with Belmar “to avoid even an appearance of impropriety.”
Doherty said his priority was helping a town recover from a historic storm that demolished homes and ripped apart its popular boardwalk. He said he left the hiring decisions to his business administrator and public works director and recused himself from votes on the contracts.
“It wouldn’t make sense to dictate who they could choose, then hold them accountable for making those decision,” Doherty said. “I couldn’t worry about politics; I had a town to clean up.”
However, Moran and Doherty were included in a Nov. 7 e-mail from Belmar administrator Colleen Connolly advising them the borough was moving forward with AshBritt. Connolly worked with Moran in the Corzine administration before moving to the Schools Development Authority, according to her résumé.
“Have been in touch with reps from AshBritt and Conti — 1 p.m. Thursday meeting at Boro Hall on the AshBritt contract. Dupont (Michael Dupont, the borough attorney) has reviewed and 100% comfortable with. Good dudes — eager to help. Copying Laura and Maggie as an FYI and cause I’m not sure who has Matt’s Blackberry,” Connolly wrote in the e-mail obtained by The Star-Ledger.
Feirrera Construction does not have a state license to collect or haul solid waste commercially, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, but that stringent requirement — which includes extensive background checks — was waived by the state in its contract with AshBritt as a way to widen the eligible contractor base and speed up the recovery efforts.
Also, the construction company donated the maximum $2,600 to Doherty’s 2010 mayoral campaign, records show. The contribution would have barred the firm from doing work in Belmar under the borough’s pay-to-play laws designed to limit business influence on politics, but that restriction is lifted in emergencies, according the state Department of Treasury.
“This sounds like cronyism, there’s just too many coincidences,” said Ted Ehmann, a 63-year old former teacher and Belmar resident who began researching the issue after he became concerned about how swiftly Belmar officials signed contracts. “Everything may be legal, but it surely gives the appearance of impropriety. Sounds like we are getting short-changed and people are getting jobs for the wrong reasons.”
In the last two decades, Conti donated $129,350 to Republicans in the state and $3,850 to Democrats, according to state Election Law Enforcement Commission records.
Company executives have personally contributed an additional $55,250 to Republicans. Officials from Ferriera and Conti did not return requests for comment.
Christie has used Belmar as the stage for several public events, including announcing the beginning of the reconstruction of the boardwalk. Doherty and Moran greeted the governor that day.
AshBritt also hired two other politically connected people — former Schools Development Authority director Kris Kolluri and former Assembly Republican director Jon Bombardieri — to help market the firm to local elected officials, the Star-Ledger review found.
“I was hired to educate local officials about the contract and let them know the advantages and let them make up their own mind,” Kolluri said. “We certainly made phone calls to encourage officials to review the state contract and encouraged them to meet with AshBritt.”
Kolluri was contacted by a lobbyist with the BGR Group — whose founding partner is Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Christie friend — to work for AshBritt, according to two sources familiar with the situation who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to talk publicly about internal decisions.
BGR Group is AshBritt’s lobbyist in Washington, according to federal disclosure records, but it’s unclear to what extent the firm helped in New Jersey. BGR Group declined to comment.
When contacted on Jan. 24 by The Star-Ledger, Bombardieri denied working for AshBritt but later acknowedged he did when confronted with e-mails discussing “marketing opportunities” in hard-hit areas in Somerest County. In a Nov. 23 response to AshBritt’s Moskowitz, Bombardieri said: “Meeting with Somerset County Chairman today.”
Weinberg wondered whether taxpayers will ultimately pay for the firm’s marketing efforts.
“I would question whether it was necessary to hire a firm to tell municipalities what is in a contract that the state negotiated,” she said. “I would question whether that is a necessary expenditure, taking money from direct aid to people.”
None of the marketing for AshBritt to local officials is considered lobbying under state law — which means the firms don’t have to publicly show what work they’ve done, and how much they were paid.
“The state’s lobbying law only extends to state elected officials,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC executive director. “That’s something we’d like to change. We know a lot of lobbying takes place at the local level.”