As a business owner, you might take for granted that you can support and donate money to any political candidate you wish. But not everyone in business has that freedom.
For example, if you’re in banking, you might not be allowed to take part in an election process. Banking is one of those regulated industries in New Jersey (along with casinos, cable, and telephone) that comes with a thicket of rules covering what can happen regarding political candidates. That thicket is composed of longstanding federal laws and a hefty number of municipal and county pay-to-play rules that became law about 10 years ago.
To help explain the many rules and aspects of campaign finance laws for financial institutions, Rebecca Moll Freed, an attorney at Genova Burns Giantomasi & Webster in Newark, will speak at the NJ Bankers campaign finance seminar on Tuesday, March 4, at 8:30 a.m. at the Crowne Plaza in Monroe. Freed will give three presentations, one on state and local pay-to-play restrictions; one on individual political activity, gifts and entertainment, and recommendations for compliance; and one on the bans regulated industries face.
Joining her will be Alexandra Hill, also of Genova Burns Giantomasi & Webster, who will discuss independent expenditures and annual disclosures. Cost: $299. Visit www.njbankers.com.
Federal regulations covering what regulated industries can do in national elections first appeared in 1911. At their simplest, these regulations state that industries such as banking cannot use federal treasury funds to finance contributions to political candidates.
For the most part, banks and their officers understood and obeyed the rules, Freed says. But things got a little more complicated statewide in the early 2000s, when New Jersey’s municipal governments adopted several versions of similar pay-to-play laws. Things got more complicated again in 2008 when Governor Jon Corzine signed an executive order that forbade certain executive officers in banks from contributing.
In general, majority shareholders and executive officers who own 10 percent or more in a bank are not allowed to contribute to candidates in areas where the bank does business. Bank officers can contribute to political candidates as individuals, yes, they just may hurt their institutions’ chances to do business where politics and business overlap.
This has less to do with federal or state laws than with local pay-to-play laws. Let’s say, for example, you’re the CEO of a bank based in Trenton and you want to bid to become the depository agency for municipal agencies in the city. As an individual, your contribution to a mayoral candidate in, say, Newark (which could be up to $2,600), should not affect your ability to do business with the City of Trenton. But that contribution almost certainly would negate your ability to become the depository institution for Newark city agencies.
Where it gets more tangled, Freed says, is when banks want to do business in counties where municipalities share services or do business together. You may not be directly tied to a candidate in one town, but that candidate or official is closely tied to the town your bank does business with.
“It’s very convoluted,” admits Freed. “A lot of people just want to throw their hands in the air.”
Tripwires. And that’s just the overt stuff. Most people can follow the idea of not donating to a candidate from a town in which you want to do business. But the state’s many pay-to-play laws come with what Freed calls “a lot of additional tripwires” — rules that people violate without realizing they have violated any rules.
Banking employees, for example, are allowed to contribute to political candidates as individuals. They are also allowed to form what are essentially employee political action committees, in which a group of employees can raise funds for a particular candidate. Together, they raise and donate the aggregate maximum.
Then someone gets invited to a golf outing. She accepts. And oh, look, the mayor is here. Is that a problem? Could be, Freed says. “A lot of people don’t realize that if they get a ticket to that outing, it may count as a political contribution,” she says. If that outing is in any way a political fundraiser, the price of that ticket could put your bank’s total contribution over the line. And even if it’s only over by a dollar, a violation will kill your bank’s chances of doing business with a government entity.
Also be aware that unlike charitable contributions “nobody can be reimbursed for political donations” come tax time, Freed says. In other words, you can’t write them off, and if you try, it may become a problem for your institution.
The penalties can last a year or up to four in most cases, she says. Local ordinances can come with fines. Contracts can be forfeited. If the violation is egregious, there could be jail time, but Freed says imprisonment isn’t the usual response.
Keeping up appearances. Professionally, Freed advocates that business owners of all kinds check with an attorney before contributing to anything political. But she also cautions businesses to use basic common sense when approaching the political realm.
“The law aside, there’s the appearances aspect,” Freed says. For banks, standing up behind a particular candidate may give the impression that the bank is financing that candidate, even if not a cent is donated. And even beyond that, a business that is tied to one particular candidate runs the risk of alienating a sizable chunk of its existing and potential customers who disagree with that candidate. “Tolerance to risk plays a big part for companies,” she says.
Freed grew up in Montville, where she lives again with her own family after a few years away. Her mother was a school teacher and later a real estate agent. Her father was a hospital CEO, which Freed says exposed her to the inner workings of hospitals as an industry. It also gave her many contacts. Many of the clients she has now know a lot of the people she met through her father’s business dealings, she says.
Originally, Freed wanted to become a pediatrician, but the debate team and mock trial in high school changed her mind. She earned her bachelor’s in English and political science at Tufts in 1998. During her junior year, she did a semester in Washington, D.C., and served as a White House intern for President Bill Clinton. She stayed in the capital to earn her J.D. from Georgetown in 2001.
She began her law career as an associate at Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross. She met Angelo Genova in 2001 and joined Genova Burns & Vernoia in 2004. She became a general counselor at Genova Burns Giantomasi & Webster in 2008, specializing in political activity and procurement laws.
Looking back, Freed says she owes as much to her grandmother’s wisdom as to her father’s business acumen. It was she who most impressed upon Freed the value of college. “My grandmother was a woman ahead of her time,” Freed says. “She always told me ‘education is forever, it’s important to get as much education as possible because no one can take that away from you.’”