Democrats are calling foul on a contract awarded by Atlantic County to the Ocean City accounting firm Ford Scott & Associates, saying that contract may have violated pay-to-play laws due to a partner’s donations to Sheriff Frank Balles’ state senate campaign.

In addition, Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis was copied on the firm’s disclosure form to the county.

Republican Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson countered that the contract received bipartisan support, with Democratic Freeholder Ernest Coursey voting in favor. He said that while he believes there was no violation, the donations would be returned if it is determined there was.

As for Davis being copied, Levinson said, that was “stupid ... and made it look political. They should have copied (Democratic Chairman) Jim Schroeder. (Or) they shouldn’t have copied either side.”

The one-year contract for auditing services not to exceed $88,000 was awarded under the Professional Services Contract provision of state law, in which the county can award the contract without a bid if the contractors are authorized by law to perform specialized services, and if the contractor “has not made any reportable contributions to a political or candidate committee in the County of Atlantic in the previous one year.”

The county’s own pay-to-play ordinance requires that a contractor not have donated to “any campaign committee of any candidate for elective County office or or to the current holders of any elective County office” in the past year or while under contract. Ford Scott has been contracted to do auditing work for the county since 2012.

Democratic Freeholder Colin Bell and Schroeder pointed to contributions by Ford Scott partner Leon Costello of $2,000 to Balles’ 2013 state senate campaign and $2,600 to the joint campaign of Balles and Assemblymen John Amodeo and Chris Brown.

“This company, through its owner, gave large contributions to Frank Balles’ Senate campaign while he was also sitting county sheriff,” Bell said. “I believe this violates the plain language of the ordinance and definitely the spirit.”

Schroeder added in a statement that in 2013, Amodeo gave then-freeholder candidate Will Pauls $1,000 on two occasions, LoBiondo — who also received $1,000 from Costello — gave the Atlantic County Republican party $8,000 on Oct. 15, and Balles, Amodeo and Brown gave the Atlantic County Republican Party $35,000 in November.

“These actions would appear to violate the ‘anti-wheeling’ provisions of the 2007 ordinance which were defined by and highly touted by Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson at the time the ordinance was adopted,” Schroeder said. “Levinson defined wheeling as ‘the process that allows those who wish to make undetected political contributions to do so via a third party with the understanding that it will be ‘wheeled’ back to the candidate for whom it was intended without identifying the original source.’

“The contract with Ford Scott & Associates needs to be rescinded and the ‘pay to play’ ordinance needs to be strictly enforced so that all parties are in compliance and the public interest is protected,” Schroeder said.

Levinson said the Board of Freeholders, which voted 8-1 to approve the contract, including Coursey, was satisfied that Costello donating to Balles’ Senate campaign, for a state office and not a county one, did not violate the pay-to-play provision.

“We have the most strident pay-to-play law in the state,” Levinson said. “It’s difficult to interpret, but if there is a violation, the money would be returned. But I don’t know there is a violation.”

Costello also said that donating to a campaign for state office did not violate the ordinance, adding that he cc’d Davis as a courtesy as it was his party’s candidates listed as receiving donations on the disclosure form.

Davis, for his part, said he was surprised by Bell and Schroeder’s allegations.

“Particularly by Colin Bell, who is an attorney,” Davis said. “It’s clear that the county pay-to-play ordinance cannot regulate campaign funding for those running for state office.”

Davis also said Democrats should make an official complaint to the state instead of making allegations.

“It’s easy to make allegations, but it’s hard to make a complaint and put your name on the line,” Davis said. “They won’t do it because it’s bogus. ... Pure politics.”

Davis also cited “the millions of dollars” brought in by independent political action committees to “attack” Balles and other state Republican candidates during the campaign.

“Where were they then?” Davis asked.

As for being copied on Ford Scott’s disclosure form, “I can’t control what other people do on letters which they write,” Davis said.

Contact Steven Lemongello:

609-272-7275

@ACPress_Steve on Twitter

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.