2nd of 7 parts (links to all parts of this series in sidebar to right)
"Sculptor" would not normally rank high on the list of occupations of major campaign contributors.
But "heir" just might.
Sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr. of Princeton is world-renowned for his life-size cast bronze works of people in everyday positions. His depiction of a businessman looking in a briefcase was installed on the plaza of the World Trade Center and survived the Sept. 11 attacks. Local residents may be familiar with the man dozing in the wingback chair in the lobby of Hackensack University Medical Center.
Johnson's work also can be found in and around state buildings in Trenton, but in the capital he's known as much for his checkbook: He and his wife have given more than $280,000 to state candidates and party committees since 2001.
That was the same year that Johnson, now 74, lost a court battle to force 43-year-old Jenia "Cookie" Johnson to submit to a DNA test to prove whether she's his daughter, and critics say he's now trying to get the Legislature to do what the courts would not.
He contends she's not his daughter, and therefore should not share in a $350 million trust set up by his father, the late J. Seward Johnson Sr., son of one of the founders of the global health care product maker Johnson & Johnson.
J. Seward Johnson Jr. is listed as Jenia Johnson's father on her birth certificate, but he contended in his divorce filings in 1962 that his first wife conceived the child with another man. At the end of the divorce proceedings in 1965, however, Johnson signed a formal acknowledgement of paternity.
He tried to reopen the case in 1996, a year before the trust fund was to be distributed, but the state Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that the old paternity acknowledgement could not be reopened. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case later that year.
The state Election Law Enforcement Commission's database shows that in the five years preceding the courts' rulings, J. Seward Johnson Jr. and his current wife, Joyce Johnson, made just nine contributions: two $1,800 checks to state Sen. Peter Inverso, R-Mercer, and seven checks to the Republican State Committee worth a combined $160,000.
After the ruling, however, the number of donations multiplied and the funds were earmarked for legislative candidates and committees rather than one state party. From March to December in 2001, the Johnsons made 20 donations worth nearly $119,000 to 14 recipients. Both parties shared in the bonanza, with $17,500 each going to the four leadership committees controlled by Assembly and Senate Republicans and Democrats, ELEC records show.
Pattern of donations
Thirteen days after the 2001 election, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill by Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, to change the state's Parentage Act to allow the kind of paternity challenge Johnson was seeking.
But the bill went no further after Singer, who had received $4,400 from the Johnsons in his reelection campaign, complained publicly that he had been misled by a lobbyist and an attorney working for Johnson. Singer said he believed the bill would simply correct an inequity in the law, and would never have sponsored it if he knew it was designed to help a single family.
The Johnsons continued their new pattern of contributing in the 2002-03 legislative session: They made 70 donations worth $161,850 to legislative candidates, with 92 percent going to those who would win the 2003 elections.
Again, the money spanned the political spectrum. Statewide political action committees controlled by Democrats got $47,000, while Republican PACs got $36,750. Among the individual candidates, $32,600 went to Democrats and $45,500 to Republicans.
During that period, a bill similar to Singer's was reintroduced. It, too, made it out of one committee, then died at the end of the session.
But the third time could be the charm: A bill revising the Parentage Act zipped through the Senate Judiciary Committee in June and won full Senate approval on a 24-8 vote. It's now pending in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which approved the similar measure in the last session.
"It looks like it's wired to pass, and that's just unfortunate," Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, said. "It speaks of what is wrong with legislative process."
The bill's two primary sponsors each have benefited from Johnson's largesse: Assemblyman Neil Cohen, D-Union, received $6,900 in campaign contributions, and Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto, D-Secaucus, received $4,400.
'One particular case'
Since Singer's original bill faltered, the measure has been revised several times, and supporters now say its primary purpose is to address issues raised by the "paternity fraud" movement - men who contend they are wrongfully ordered to pay child support for children who are not theirs.
Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, said he co-sponsored the bill because he believes DNA testing should be used to retroactively confirm paternity, just as it is used retroactively to challenge criminal convictions. Lance, who received $3,000 from Johnson, is a potential candidate for governor next year.
But Robert Del Tufo, a former attorney general who represents Jenia Johnson, said whole sections of the bill, including one temporarily lifting the statute of limitations, are written solely to help J. Seward Johnson Jr.
"We're dealing with one particular case where parentage was adjudicated 40 years ago and has been upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court," Del Tufo said. "The Legislature is meddling in those decisions, and this is not a proper role for the Legislature. They're overstepping their bounds."
Donald Sico, a consultant who works for Johnson, denied that the contributions were designed to buy special legislation. Sico, a former executive director of the Assembly Republican staff who is now president of Capital City Solutions, said Johnson definitely wants the parentage law changed but that he has other interests as well.
"Mr. Johnson has deeply held views on a number of social issues," Sico said. "He has supported candidates in New Jersey who both support his view on paternity fraud as well as those who disagree with him."
The state Department of Human Services opposes the bill, arguing that finality in determining paternity issues is in the best interest of children. Alisha Griffin, an assistant director in the Division of Family Development, testified that allowing challenges to paternity after it has been established could conflict with federal child support laws and result in "a substantial loss of funding" for the state's child support and welfare programs.
Lance countered that he's seen a legal opinion that federal funding would not be affected. The opinion was written by Pelletieri, Rabstein & Altman - the law firm representing J. Seward Johnson Jr. in the paternity suit.
Copyright 2004 North Jersey Media Group Inc.