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Gov. Phil Murphy. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

Murphy still dabbles as soccer team owner despite blind trust

Governor got on the phone to convince first-round draft pick to sign with his team

By David Wildstein, January 25 2019 12:41 am

Governor Phil Murphy’s failure to convince the first-round pick in the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League college draft to play in New Jersey calls attention to his continued involvement in the operations of the professional women’s soccer team he owns.

The Equalizer, a women’s soccer news site, first reported this week that Murphy participated in a conference call with his draft pick, Julia Ashley, and her parents in a last-ditch effort to sign her to a contract.

That means the full-time governor of New Jersey has not entirely separated himself from his private sector interests even though Murphy filed paperwork with the State Ethics Commission in May placing his investments in a blind trust managed by his brother-in-law.

Following published reports last July that Sky Blue players were living in housing that used plastic bags as windows, lacked shower space, and were slow to get reimbursed for medical bills, Murphy accepted responsibility – “the buck stops with me” – and said he had spoken to his partner and was working to fix the problems.

Ashley reportedly cited shoddy player conditions as the reason why she would not sign with Murphy’s team and would instead play in Sweden.

In his blind trust agreement, Murphy says that he “wishes to avoid any conflict of interest, or the appearance of any conflict of interest.”

Murphy may not have a conflict because he has lost money on the team – perhaps as much as $6 million, according to his tax returns.  His side-work for Sky Blue arguably does not benefit him financially, although the signing of a star player could reduce the amount of his losses.

There is some precedent.

When billionaire Herb Kohl won Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate seat in 1988, he put his assets into a trust run by his brother but continued some involvement with the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA team he owned.   George W. Bush stepped down as managing partner of the Texas Rangers major league baseball team after he was elected governor in 1994 and sold his minority shares in the team in 1998.

In both cases, the sports team owners-turned-politicians acted in accordance with existing ethics rules.

Murphy’s continued involvement with his soccer team – he is the majority shareholder – poses at least some, albeit minor, potential appearances of conflicts:

* Sky Blue plays home games at Rutgers University’s Yurack Field in Piscataway, which indirectly makes the governor his own landlord.

* Sky Blue sponsors include Hackensack Meridian Health., which won state approval of a merger with the Carrier Clinic this year.  The company is heavily regulated by the state Department of Health.  Other companies regulated by the state, like NJM Insurance Group and Provident Bank, are also sponsors of Murphy’s soccer team.

* Another sponsor, Avis, is a tenant of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Murphy has veto power over lease agreements with the car rental company.

In November, NJ Advance Media reported that Sky Blue dropped out of a controversial project near the Pinelands reserve in Jackson that would have included a new soccer stadium and team facilities after environmental activists voiced strong opposition to the plan to cut down thousands of trees to clear a 200-acre site.

The withdrawal came a few weeks after Tracie Yostpille, the head of the Monmouth County teacher’s union, lost to GOP mayor Michael Reina in a campaign where her donors had ties to state Democrats.

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