September 20, 2011; Source: Newark Star-Ledger | Recently, politicians in northern New Jersey have experienced first-hand the experience of learning that they had spoken to an associate who had been wearing a wire for the feds. But seeing Newark Mayor Cory Booker in court testifying against his former deputy mayor, Ronald Salahuddin, regarding his alleged role in fixing city contracts for favored businesses is a bit of a shock. Booker was elected in part as the clean alternative to his long-time predecessor, Sharpe James, who himself got to experience time in the slammer as a reward for his public service. By most accounts, Booker has been a breath of fresh air, not only installing probity and ethics in the management of New Jersey’s largest city, but in many areas making local government work, especially compared to previous decades of dysfunction.

In this case, it doesn’t look like Salahuddin pocketed any money or slid any into the mayor’s pockets. Rather, in exchange for city contracts, he apparently solicited money for a nonprofit called Newark Now that was closely associated with Booker. 

It is so odd: a pay-to-play scheme connected not with personal inurement or illegal political contributions but rather donations to a politically connected nonprofit. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, contributors attending Newark Now fundraising events included many putative city contractors. For example, at a 2010 charity golf outing, nine contractors donated a total of $19,500 and then, within a year, had pulled in $21 million in city contracts. Well-known to be associated with Booker and his associates, Newark Now raised $310,356 in contributions in 2005, the year before Booker’s election, and $1.4 million the year after Booker became mayor. The charity raised $3.2 million in 2008 per the most recent 990s cited by the Star-Ledger.  

How closely is Newark Now connected to the mayor? On Newark Now’s home page, just above the executive director’s name, Mayor Booker is prominently identified as the organization’s founder, and his face shows up in pictures on the website. Newark Now appears to be an all-purpose, multi-function nonprofit (the Star-Ledgercalls it a “charitable clearinghouse, matching city residents with government services such as free financial counseling, mentoring programs for fathers, and food, clothing and toy drives.”)

The most recent available 990 for Newark Now is for calendar year 2008, but we pulled it up to take a closer look at its finances and governance (which, given the time lag, may be quite different today). The Newark Now 990 doesn’t list its board members (they were absent or at least very well-hidden on its website as well). But of the organization’s $3.3 million in expenditures that year, there were $208,875 in grants and contributions it made to other organizations, $243,799 in “subcontract labor,” $80,000 in legal fees, $78,461 in accounting fees, and $378,055 in unspecified other non-employee fee-for-service arrangements. That makes Cory Booker’s favored nonprofit a player both in the money intake and the money outflow of this troubled city.

NPQhas long railed against politicians being too closely aligned with certain nonprofits because of the almost-guaranteed potential for scandal. Our New Jersey political nose tells us that this imbroglio will not end with this trial of former Deputy Mayor Salahuddin. We didn’t expect this of Cory Booker.—Rick Cohen