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NJ attorney general's probe seeks records connected to Democratic power broker

The Record, Bergen County logo The Record, Bergen County 11/23/2020 Terrence T. McDonald, NorthJersey.com
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An investigation by New Jersey’s attorney general into public health brokerage contracts and potential pay-to-play violations appears to go beyond Bergen County, with investigators now probing Plainfield’s work with a firm run by a Democratic power broker out of Middlesex County.

Plainfield received a subpoena from Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office on Aug. 5 seeking contracts and related documents to be reviewed by a state grand jury, five days after the office subpoenaed Bergen County for similar records. The subpoena, a copy of which was obtained by The Record and NorthJersey.com, demands that the Union County city hand over a host of documents going back to 2015 related to its employee health insurance broker.

The subpoena does not name the firm, but Plainfield’s broker is Acrisure. The Michigan-based company owns a number of New Jersey agencies, including Reliance Insurance Group, which handles Plainfield’s contract. Reliance is linked to Gary Taffet, a strong force in Middlesex County and state Democratic politics who ran Reliance before it was bought by Acrisure and he became one of the firm's employees.

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It’s not clear how many contracts the attorney general’s investigation is reviewing, and a spokesman for Grewal declined to comment.

Plainfield began working with Acrisure in 2015, waiving a provision barring the city from paying insurance consultant fees to get the deal done. It is just one of the towns that do business with Acrisure, a company that, along with partner agencies, has contracts all over North Jersey, with public entities hiring them to find the best deals on insurance.

Those entities include:

  • Edison, which last approved its contract with Acrisure/Financial Insurance Consultants in January.
  • Middlesex and Union counties, which have worked with Acrisure since 2015.
  • Paramus, whose contract with Acrisure/Reliance dates to 2014 and was last approved in January.
  • East Orange’s school district, which hired Acrisure in 2015, though it's not clear whether it still works with the company. The school district did not respond to a records request.

“We have not been contacted regarding this issue," Acrisure spokesman Elliott Bundy said Monday.

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Taffet  was just named to a commission overseeing legislative redistricting in 2021. Two aides to Gov. Phil Murphy — chief of staff George Helmy and adviser Bill Castner — last week defended Taffet on Twitter against someone who criticized Democrats for putting someone with Taffet’s history on the commission.

A longtime ally of former Gov. Jim McGreevey, Taffet resigned as McGreevey's chief of staff in 2003 amid accusations that he used his position to improperly inflate the value of his billboard business. Two years later he agreed to pay $725,000 in restitution, fines and interest to end a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation that accused him of passing along insider information.

Taffet did not respond to a request for comment.

Plainfield officials, like those in Bergen County, do not appear to know the target of the investigation.

Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp, a Democrat first elected in 2013, said: “My administration does not comment on any ongoing investigation and we do not comment on subpoenas.”

The subpoena demands records going back to January 2015. It seeks records on “all health insurance broker service contracts, health insurance administrator service contracts, and risk management consultant service contracts, including, but not limited to requests for proposals, requests for quotes, requests for bids, business entity disclosure forms, proposals, quotes, bids, contracts, professional services contracts, ‘Fair and Open’ contracts, resolutions or ordinances, pay to play resolutions, pay to play ordinances, pay to play policies, and/or any political contribution disclosure statements or representations made or submitted in connection with the awarding of such contracts.”

Grewal's office has made political corruption a mainstay of its investigations. 

In August, when Grewal’s office announced more charges in an unrelated investigation into an alleged straw donor scheme involving a Morristown law firm, the attorney general said in a statement that he is “determined to hold individuals accountable if they seek to distort the political process and public contracting."

How they got hired 

Reliance has worked for Plainfield since at least 2010, according to business documents filed with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Acrisure bought Reliance near the end of 2013, and it appears Plainfield first hired Acrisure in 2015. The City Council voted that year to withdraw from the New Jersey State Health Benefits Program, meaning the city had to find a health broker. It hired Acrisure for that role in November 2015, after waiving a provision in Plainfield’s municipal code that bars the city from paying insurance consultant fees, according to a copy of the resolution hiring Acrisure.

The resolution doesn’t specify the contract amount, but that’s not uncommon. Companies like Acrisure get paid with commissions from the deals they broker.

The city reauthorized the Acrisure contract multiple times, most recently in April 2020. The resolution approved by the council then refers to the company as “Acrisure/Reliance.”

During this time, Acrisure employees poured political donations into Plainfield, campaign finance documents show. Three donors listed in the reports as employees of Acrisure, plus Taffet's wife, gave a total of $15,450 to Mapp between 2015 and 2019, plus another $900 to Plainfield school board candidates backed by Mapp.

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Plainfield has no pay-to-play ordinance restricting city vendors from contributing to local politicians. It used to have a law that capped political donations from some vendors at $300, but the council repealed it in 2017, arguing that the change would increase transparency by discouraging donors from contributing via dark-money groups. A Plainfield councilwoman also said the local limit was too low. New Jersey caps individual campaign donations at $2,600.

In a statement, Plainfield spokeswoman Jazz Clayton-Hunt referred to the subpoena as a "records request" and said the city complied, adding that the city holds its vendors "to the highest compliance and ethical standards."

Asked to comment, Plainfield council President Steve Hockaday said in an email, “This proceeded my time on the council and further, I do not know the facts to provide any additional context. Will be interesting to read your article.”

Terrence T. McDonald is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: mcdonaldt@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @terrencemcd 

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ attorney general's probe seeks records connected to Democratic power broker

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