Questionable fundraising tactics bleed into gubernatorial race

Emails with deceptive claims can ensnare elderly voters, critics say

By: - August 2, 2021 7:04 am

Gov. Phil Murphy announced a $40 million fund for workers excluded from federal aid back in May, but the funds are still not available. (Getty Images)

Questionable fundraising tactics have found a home in the race for New Jersey’s governorship.

Candidates on both sides of the aisle have sent emails with urgent, personal pleas from the candidates that warn of arbitrary deadlines. Though the campaigns have steered clear from some of the more pernicious fundraising tactics, their email entreaties sometimes veer toward deception.

“A lot of campaigns are using the same types of tricks, so it’s a growing problem,” said Christine Hines, legislative director for the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign toes closer to the line than his opponent. On July 25, the Republican’s team sent out a fundraising email offering donors membership in the “One and Done Club,” a play on his campaign trail call to make Murphy a one-term governor.

The solicitation promised to waive an initiation fee for donors who gave in the next 30 minutes. The 30-minute deadline did not actually exist. A donation page linked in the fundraising pitch still displayed a 30-minute timer days after the email was sent. Contributions could still be made after it ticked down to zero.

It’s not clear whether there is an initiation fee to the One and Done Club. A spokesperson for the Ciattarelli campaign did not return repeated requests for comment.

Murphy’s campaign also touted an arbitrary deadline in an email pitch for cash it made on behalf of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee.

“We are just two days away from our July fundraising deadline, and it looks like we are not on track to reach our goal before the deadline passes,” the email reads.

A spokesperson for the governor’s campaign declined to comment for this article.

The deadlines are a means of creating urgency for donors and are rarely tied to state-mandated deadlines for campaign finance disclosures or submission dates for the state’s fund matching program, though they are sometimes linked to campaigns’ internal fundraising goals. The practice is a source of growing concern for advocates.

“I think it might be time for regulators to step in to implement some minimum safeguards to help people be ethical and transparent and warn them against the harmful tricks, because a lot of these tricks harm the elderly a lot of the time,” Hines said.

Elderly voters tend to be less technologically adept and thus more susceptible to questionable fundraising tactics propagated by email, Hines said, and those practices have grown increasingly common as campaigns have put more focus on their digital operations.

Arbitrary deadlines and personal pitches are now widespread and still largely unregulated. State law does impose checks on political giving; those controls focus on enforcing contribution limits and shielding New Jersey from public corruption.

Some lawmakers are prepared to acknowledge the need for more oversight.

“It’s important to make sure no one in any field or profession is soliciting funding in a dishonest way,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), who chairs the State and Local Government Committee. “It’s worth looking at truth-in-advertising types of guidelines to ensure that donors aren’t being misled by an over-the-top appeal.”

But with the Legislature expected to stay on break until after November’s election, it’s unlikely new restrictions on how campaigns drum up cash will be imposed during the current cycle.

That leaves some questionable donation calls — like the Ciattarelli team’s promise to waive an initiation fee that may or may not exist — in gray areas.

“I’m calling it tricks and deception, but it can get pretty close to fraud,” Hines said. “The more this goes on, it will become fraud.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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