- American Dream project won state approval on bond issue
- Triple Five took over stalled retail project in 2011
Members of the billionaire Ghermezian family, who are developing the American Dream mega-mall project in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, and their employees contributed $40,000 to the New Jersey State Republican Committee in May and $50,000 to the Republican National Committee in June, according to campaign-finance records.
The family runs Edmonton, Alberta-based Triple Five Worldwide, which won state approval Thursday for $1.2 billion of tax-exempt bonds to finish the 2.9 million square-foot shopping and entertainment destination about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Manhattan in Bergen County. Triple Five needed the municipal-bond financing in order to move forward with a $1.5 billion construction loan arranged by Deutsche Bank AG.
While there’s nothing wrong with providing political contributions, when made by an entity with business before government officials, some say it feeds a perception they’re made to influence decisions or reward officials. New Jersey has adopted contribution limits for for-profit businesses that have or are seeking government contracts.
“I understand this is the way the world works, but nobody likes it," said Republican State Senator Michael Doherty, an opponent of the project, who represents parts of Warren, Somerset and Hunterdon counties. Both Democratic and Republican elected officials support the project because they expect to receive campaign contributions in return, he said.
The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns the mall site and whose commissioners are appointed by the governor, voted Thursday to readopt resolutions for the sale of the bonds after an opposition group said the prior vote didn’t adhere to state rules. About $800 million is backed by payments by the developer in lieu of property taxes and $350 million by grant payments by the state equivalent to 75 percent of the sales tax revenues generated by American Dream.
The project, known as Xanadu before Triple Five took over the project, will be the biggest mall in the U.S. when it is completed. Plans include the first indoor ski slope in North America, as well as an indoor water park, an enclosed amusement park, ice rink, movie theater, aquarium, comedy club, performing arts theater, retail shops and restaurants.
“We are on the precipice of meeting the Sports Authority’s mandate: the completion of a world class entertainment and retail destination,” Tony Armlin, Triple Five’s vice president of development and construction, said at Thursday’s meeting.
Triple Five also owns the Mall of America in Minnesota. Members of the family have donated $173,560 to Democrats and Republicans in Minnesota since 2005, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The company has been less politically active in New Jersey. One Triple Five employee gave $2,750 in contributions to a Democratic assemblyman in 2013 and 2015. At least three Triple Five employees donated $2,600 each to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential campaign.
Christie, who negotiated a deal with Triple Five to take over the stalled mall project in 2011, is a close adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and is head of Trump’s transition team.
Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, said Friday that governor didn’t solicit the contributions. Murray said, when asked by Bloomberg News about why the Ghermezians contributed, that the reporter should ask the family.
Syd and his wife, Aviva Ghermezian, contributed $20,000 to the New Jersey State Republican Committee on May 28, according to campaign-finance records. The same day, the state party received $10,000 each from Triple Five’s general counsel Joseph Calascibetta and Chief Financial Officer Martin Walrath, filings show.
In a brief telephone conversation, Aviva Ghermezian, who lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, said Wednesday that she didn’t know about the contributions. Syd Ghermezian didn’t return calls seeking comment.
“NJGOP has raised more than one million this year in contributions and not one is ever received for any purpose other than to support the party’s work on behalf of Republican candidates,” said Rick Rosenberg Jr., a party spokesman.
Calascibetta, Walrath and Armlin, each contributed $2,600 to Christie’s presidential campaign in January.
Marina Ghermezian, who is married to Triple Five president Don Ghermezian, contributed $50,000 to the Republican National Committee on June 29, according to federal election commission records. Don Ghermezian didn’t return calls for comment. RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
Debbie Patire, a spokeswoman for the American Dream project didn’t return a voice mail or emails.
Don Ghermezian, president of Triple Five, is the grandson of Jacob Ghermezian, an Iranian rug merchant who moved to Canada with his four sons in 1964. The family expanded the rug business into a real estate empire that includes the West Edmonton Mall as well as banking and energy divisions.
Don’s brother Syd, runs the family charity, the Jacob and Miriam Ghermezian Foundation, which contributed $5.4 million to more than 500 Jewish organizations in 2014, according to the non-profit’s filings with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. He is also a Triple Five officer, according to Nevada corporate records.
Triple Five has also contributed to secular organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Big Brothers and Big Sisters and Multiple Sclerosis Association, according to the company’s website.
The New Jersey Alliance for Fiscal Integrity, which objected to the earlier vote on the bonds, hasn’t disclosed its funders, saying on its website that it is a 501(c)(4) advocacy group “supported by taxpayers and North Jersey businesses.” The group’s president, Mark Bentivegna, is a CPA and financial adviser.
The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority is selling the debt to the Wisconsin Public Finance Authority, which will market the unrated bonds to investors.
(An earlier version of the story corrected the name of the spokeswoman for the project.)