Newsday

NJ Lawmaker Takes Gifts From Utilities He Oversees

Newsday — Tuesday, March 11, 2008

By TOM HESTER Jr.
Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — The chairman of the Assembly committee overseeing telecommunications and utilities accepted more gifts from lobbyists last year than any state lawmaker, and much of it came from the industries he oversees.

According to reports released Tuesday, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula accepted $1,126 in gifts last year from lobbyists, with all but $280 coming from industries he oversees as Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee chairman.

"It's very troubling when we have a system that allows special interests and their money to dominate the legislative process and to get the kind of access to legislators, particularly powerful legislators, that's simply not available to rate payers, those of us who pay the bills," said Ev Liebman, of watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action.

But Chivukula, a Democrat from Somerset County, said the gifts haven't affected his decisions.

"All the legislation, all the hearings I've held are open," said the six-year lawmaker. "All the supporters and opponents have equal opportunity to speak on the legislation. No legislation has been rushed through."

In all, lobbyists gave New Jersey lawmakers and state officials nearly $32,000 in gifts last year, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission reports released Tuesday. That's down from about $45,500 last year and $115,500 in 2001.

Gifts can include meals, entertainment, gifts, travel and lodging.

Chivukula accepted:

_ $60 in unspecified gifts courtesy of the New Jersey Cable Telecommunications Association at an April World Affairs Council program in Philadelphia.

_ $125 in food from AT&T at a May New Jersey Press Association event in Trenton. His wife also accepted $125 in food courtesy of AT&T at this event.

_ $126 in food at a Marriott in Galloway courtesy of the New Jersey Utilities Association. Chivukula reported reimbursing this gift.

_ $293 in lodging in June at the Peabody hotel in Orlando courtesy of CTIA.

_ $183 in US Airways travel expenses for that same June date courtesy of CTIA.

_ $60 in food at a Woodbridge restaurant in September courtesy of Elizabethtown Gas.

His other $280 in gifts came from the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce on the group's yearly train trip to Washington, D.C.

Chivukula said he only accepted gifts at events in which he was invited.

"It's an opportunity to share and interact with the industry in New Jersey as well as outside New Jersey," he said. "I engage them to have a dialogue."

But Heather Taylor of government reform group The Citizens' Campaign raised concern.

"Gifts from lobbyists, at a minimum, create an appearance of undue influence," Taylor said.

Overall, lobbyists spent $53.5 million to try to sway lawmakers in 2007, a slight decrease from the year before.

Trenton lobbying firm Princeton Public Affairs Group spent the most money, about $2.2 million. It represents various companies, including insurance and biotechnology firms.

An attempt last year by some lawmakers to make it illegal for lawmakers to accept any gifts from lobbyists failed to pass the Legislature.

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On the Net:

New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission: http://www.elec.state.nj.us/index.htm

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