Emails reveal prominent law firms were among donors to Caddle’s dark money groups

The emails from 2016, which have not been previously reported, reveal for the first time at least some of the donors to a network of dark money organizations Caddle and another man, Gianni Donates, formed in what appeared to be an effort to hide the source of the money spent on municipal elections around the state — a network that has drawn interest from state and federal investigators.

Some of the firms are among the most prominent and politically connected in New Jersey, including two whose top partners are former governors. The donors are just a peek behind the curtain, as Caddle ran several other dark money organizations in years prior and years after whose donors remain a mystery.

Three of the firms also contributed in 2013 and 2014 to a super PAC tied to former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) that Caddle ran called the Committee for Economic Growth and Social Justice, which also spent money on Elizabeth school board races before the new faction took control of the board. Unlike the dark money groups, those donations were publicly disclosed in campaign finance filings.

Dark money groups have become increasingly common in politics at all levels of government. They’re generally nonprofit 501(c)(4)s that act in many ways similar to political campaigns, though they’re barred from coordinating with candidates. And they do not have to publicly disclose their donors.

Williams, a partner at the law firm DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin and co-general counsel for the Elizabeth Board of Education, collected tens of thousands of dollars in checks in 2016 from the contractors, mostly law firms, according to one of the emails. Another email shows Caddle — who formed the dark money group — made plans to have underlings pick up the checks from Williams.

The following year, Williams helped set up another dark money organization that further solidified the faction’s control over the school board, another email shows, all while playing a role in how the school board assigned legal work.

Williams said it’s all legal.

“The 501(c)(4) that I was involved in, we raised money for it. We gave money to it,” Williams said in a phone interview, referring in to his law firm, which according to one email gave $25,000 to the dark money group. “But once that money goes in, by law we had no further role of any kind in how the money got spent and where it went. And I believe the trustees of the organizations did use Mr. Caddle for some of that work.”

Caddle was one of the trustees for that organization, which is not named in the emails but whose timeline and circumstances match up with a nonprofit he helped found called National Progressive Organization. That nonprofit, according to a Sept. 29, 2016, email sent by one of Caddle’s employees to Williams, raised at least $87,000, mostly from several law firms.

Federal campaign finance records show it then donated $70,000 to a Super PAC called A Better Elizabeth.

A Better Elizabeth spent the money on canvassers and campaign literature in an election for the local school board, propelling three candidates to victory who were backed by the city’s Democratic establishment.

Caddle was closely aligned with Lesniak, who along with Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage made it a top priority to wrest control of the Elizabeth Board of Education from a rival political machine that had run it for years. The board, under the control of the former political machine, had its own corruption scandals and the Lesniak/Bollwage faction succeeded in knocking it out of power — with Caddle’s help.

Reached by phone, Lesniak said he’s never heard of National Progressive Organization but defended Williams’ role in raising money from law firms the school board hired.

“That happens all the time. Where are you supposed to raise money from? People who don’t support you?” Lesniak said. “That’s what politics is all about. There’s no way to deny that. This isn’t an unusual occurrence. This has happened every day for centuries.”

Bollwage did not respond to a request for comment.

Although POLITICO wrote about Caddle’s network of dark money organizations in a series of articles from 2016 to 2018, the groups have come under renewed scrutiny after Caddle pleaded guilty to hiring two men to kill his former associate, Michael Galdieri, in Jersey City in 2014. While there is no reason to believe Caddle’s dark money work had anything to do with the murder, documents that have surfaced in the aftermath of his guilty plea have shown that federal and state investigators were looking into his dark money network.

State investigators as recently as September 2021 were probing the groups as well as payments to Lesniak’s then chief-of-staff, Tony Teixiera, POLITICO reported. And the Record reported that in its 2019 search warrant of Caddle’s home, the FBI sought records for Caddle’s dark money groups.

The firms

According to a Sept. 29, 2016, email to Williams from Tanya Paiz, who worked for Caddle, the following firms donated to the dark money group. The named firms donated a total of $77,000. Paiz, who did not respond to a call seeking comment, wrote in the email that she was missing one check for $10,000:

— DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin gave $25,000 to National Progressive Organization, according to the email. Williams, a partner at the firm, had been hired by the Elizabeth school board in January 2016 at a rate of $155 per hour, immediately after the new board members were sworn in and the Lesniak/Bollwage faction took control. Williams remains co-counsel today, at a rate of $175 an hour.

— Law firm Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt & Fader, as it was then called, gave $17,500. The firm was named special counsel by the board in January 2016, but had also worked for the board before the new faction took control, a 2013 board meeting agenda shows. Former East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor, a partner at the firm, represented the board in some legal matters. The first-named partner of the firm is former Democratic Gov. Jim Florio. The third-named partner is the former Republican State Chair Doug Steinhardt.

— 15 Mountain BLVD Associates LLC gave $25,000. The LLC’s name is the address of the law firm DiFrancesco, Bateman, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum, P.C., which was named as a special counsel to the school board in January 2016. Former Republican Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, the first-named partner of the firm, was at one point the registered agent of the LLC. The second named partner is former Republican state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman. Reached by phone, DiFrancesco said he didn’t know anything about the donation or legal work for the Elizabeth Board of Education but that he’d check with others at his office. He did not call back.

— Aloia Law Firm gave $5,000. It was hired as special counsel in January 2016.

— Rogut McCarthy, a law firm, gave $2,000. The firm was hired as a special counsel in January 2016.

— Alamo Insurance Group gave $2,500. This is the only donor to the nonprofit for which POLITICO could not find any payment by the Elizabeth Board of Education.

— According to a Sept. 21, 2016, email Caddle sent to Williams, Dieter Lerch, an accountant with the firm Lerch, Vinci & Higgins, wrote a check to the group, though the email does not say how much and the firm’s name does not show up in the email Paiz wrote to Williams the following week. Dieter Lerch was hired as a forensic auditor for the Elizabeth board in January 2016 for up to $125,000. In April 2016, Williams recommended that the board expand Lerch’s contract, which it promptly did, according to minutes of board meetings. Lerch later outlined results of his audit that alleged, among other things, that law firms under the previous board leadership had overbilled the district by more than $1 million.

Many of the firms continue to work for the Elizabeth Board of Education.

It’s unclear how much they’ve been paid in that time, but it’s at least in the hundreds of thousands. In October 2016 alone — less than a month after the emails were written — the board authorized payment of more than $100,000 to five of the above named law firms.

Other than Williams and DiFrancesco, none of the firms returned phone calls seeking comment.

Money saved?

Williams said in the phone interview with POLITICO that despite the donations, the special counsels saved the school board millions of dollars from what the board had spent when it was under the control of the previous faction.

“The legal fees for the Elizabeth Board of Education each year was in excess of $6 million. That’s what they were spending for all of the lawyers they used,” he said. “The group of law firms [hired in 2016], by dividing the work up, dropped that to right around $2 million a year.”

Williams acknowledged that as co-general counsel, he has a role in divvying up the board’s legal work.

“I coordinate a lot of that. I attend all of the board meetings and committee meetings. And as work comes in, I make sure that it goes to … the firm that’s going to do that kind of work,” Williams said. “Other than that, all the other work goes to different law firms, and I work with the board to make sure it ends up in the right place.”

Williams said he does not see a conflict of interest between his role in raising money for the political nonprofit and his work as co-general counsel.

“I wouldn’t be able to give [the firms] legal work if they hadn’t participated in a competitive procurement process to be appointed first by the Board of Education. Once they’re on an approved list in accordance with the process that has been outlined by state statutes, I’m free to assign it to whoever,” he said. “No one in those firms … ever made a direct contribution to any of those board members of their campaigns.”

Williams said that once he turned over the donations to the nonprofit, the way the money was spent was “completely out of our hands.”

Another dark money group

According to an email chain from July 26 and 27, 2017, Williams corresponded with Caddle about setting up another dark money group. In the emails, Caddle asks Williams about which candidates the group would be supporting and whether Williams would be the point person for legal questions related to the group.

Williams does not respond to those questions in the email chain, though Caddle refers to a voicemail he said Williams left him. In one email, Williams tells Caddle the name of the group was Education First Committee. However, that group would instead be called Leading Education Advancing Democratic Solutions (LEADS), which was formed a month later. Two of the people copied on the email chain — Donald Travisano and William Reyes — were trustees with the group.

Travisano and Reyes are both longtime former employees of the city of Elizabeth who now work together as the administrator and assistant administrator, respectively, of nearby Union Township.

LEADS sent out campaign literature that year that helped the faction already in control of the board solidify it, winning all of its seats.

POLITICO has not obtained a a list of donors to LEADS.

A spurned board member

Carlos Trujillo, a former board member aligned with the faction that was ousted in the 2016 election, called Wiliams’ role with the dark money groups “Corruption 101.” He was especially irked to hear that Lerch’s name popped up on the emails.

“It’s ironic that somebody that would go and do an audit, who was brought to us by Jonathan Williams as someone who is going to bring to life any misdoings by the Board of Education … would contribute to a campaign to oust me,” Trujillo said. “They weaponized this guy.”

Trujillo said Williams likely wasn’t the only player in the dark money groups.

“Jonathan Williams is a cog in the machine. Obviously, it’s bigger than him. It’s the entire Union County Democratic machine,” he said.