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Booker defends role in online startup; says he's gone 'above and beyond' on transparency

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CAMDEN, N.J. -- Newark Mayor Cory Booker on Monday defended his role in an Internet video startup company and insisted he's set the standard for transparency during his campaign to become New Jersey’s next senator.

"I do believe we have met requirements for disclosure and transparency and we've gone above and beyond what most of the -- all of the candidates in this race have submitted to in terms of disclosure," Booker told NBC News in a wide-ranging interview the day before the Democratic Senate primary. He's heavily favored to win.

"I believed in an idea and thought it was great, helped get a business off the ground, which is an experience politicians often don't have. And a lot of people found that interesting and invested in that idea," he said.

Senate candidate Cory Booker holds a campaign rally at Kennedy Plaza on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, in advance of Tuesday's Democratic U.S. Senate primary, Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013 in Atlantic City, N.J.Sean M. Fitzgerald / AP

If Booker prevails as expected Tuesday, he would be an overwhelming favorite to win in the October special general election in this very Democratic state.

But his final days on the primary campaign trail have been dogged by a series of reports about his finances and criticism from his Democratic rivals. The New York Times published a front-page story last Wednesday about his stake in Waywire, the video company he helped raise more than $1 million to start, and the New York Post this week highlighted payments from his law firm that continued after he began serving as mayor.

Booker has developed a national profile for drawing development to long-struggling Newark and using social media to personally engage with constituents. But his involvement with Waywire potentially conflicts with the image he's tried to cultivate as a house-cleaning, corruption-fighting public servant who uses the latest technology to bring more transparency and accountability to government.

"My focus is winning an election tomorrow, god willing, and winning a general and then going down to Washington to give New Jerseyans what they deserve: a hands on, pragmatic, change agent in Washington and in New Jersey, and that's what I look forward to being," Booker told NBC as his campaign bus carried him from Cherry Hill to Camden for final campaign stops ahead of an evening rally with actress Eva Longoria.

The coverage of Booker’s involvement in Waywire has become a point of focus for his opponents in the Democratic primary, among them longtime Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.

"As the mayor has said himself, running the city takes a lot of time, yet it seems that the mayor must have spent an enormous amount of time getting his startup off the ground and courting financial backers," Pallone's campaign said in a statement.

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“I would be concerned about his lack of disclosure concerning his investment in Waywire,” State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said Monday on MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd." She's lagged in fourth place in the race. 

Booker personally raised more than $1.7 million for the company, tapping his connections with Silicon Valley executives to win backing from tech luminaries like Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The investment has been public for over a year, but he amended his federal financial disclosure forms in July 2013 to show his stake in Waywire is worth between $1 million and $5 million. He amended his forms with the city of Newark last Tuesday, a day before the Times story was published.

In the interview, Booker said Holt has not submitted financial disclosures at all and Pallone also recently amended his reports.

"My opponents in this race right now - Rush Holt has not disclosed at all. His disclosures were due in May, and he has not disclosed them yet. Frank Pallone disclosed but then amended his disclosure," he said.

"We've disclosed my travel, my speaking, all of those things," Booker said.

Booker told NBC News that if elected, he will step down from Waywire's board and put the holdings into a public trust.

"This is a reality, is, is that this is a company that other people are running; I've been focused on being mayor for the last year," he said.

Booker has not released his tax returns, but he said on Monday that he believes candidates should do so. When he ran for mayor of Newark, he criticized his opponent for keeping the returns private.

"I absolutely do, and it's something that we will consider doing should I become the nominee," he told NBC News when asked if he believes candidates should release tax returns.

The focus on Booker's financial dealings is unlikely to change the outcome of Tuesday's election. But the ties could follow Booker onto the national stage as a senator or beyond. Democratic strategists speculate that he could eventually run for president.

The Newark mayor insisted that he doesn't have ambitions beyond his Senate race for the moment.

"The first answer is no," he said when asked about potential presidential ambitions, "and my overwhelming thoughts are serving the state of New Jersey. I want to be the United States senator and make change here now."

 Booker wouldn't say who he might consider supporting as the Democratic nominee in the 2016 presidential contest.

"I am looking at tomorrow and 2013, not three years from now. I have honestly have not given it that much thought. I am a huge fan of Hillary Clinton's and I think she's an extraordinary leader, but, c'mon that's three years away," he said when asked if he would support Clinton if she decides to run in 2016.

Who does he want to see run? "There's so many great Democrats in the party so I could go through names from [Maryland] Gov. [Martin] O'Malley to [Coloradio] Gov. [John] Hickenlooper to incredible senators that are there now," he said. "If me to put a list together there'd probably be 20, 30 names on it."

NBC News' Jessica Taylor contributed to this report.