Perhaps Trenton Democrats led by Gov. Phil Murphy figured that with former President Trump being arraigned in Manhattan on 32 criminal counts their passing of a bill that gutted the independence of New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission in broad daylight wouldn’t register on the corruption radar.
For months before the legislature acted, the Murphy administration had unsuccessfully tried to force out Jeff Brindle, NJ ELEC’s executive director on claims he had exhibited an anti-gay bias in an internal email. In a show of support for Brindle, the bi-partisan panel dismissed the allegations.
Brindle, a fierce critic of the growing power of dark money in politics, something that Gov. Murphy has relied on, filed a lawsuit alleging Gov. Murphy and his staff used “illegal coercion” to try and oust the career civil servant from his post.
In his March 16 filings in Mercer County Superior Court, Brindle, alleged he was summoned to a Nov. 2 meeting in Governor Murphy’s Executive Chambers. There he encountered Murphy’s Chief of Staff George Helmy, Counsel to the Governor Parimal Garg and the administration’s Chief Ethics Officer Dominc Rota where he was instructed to resign his post leading the state’s independent campaign finance watchdog to avoid the disclosure of an internal email by Brindle that exhibited an anti-gay bias.
According to the 13-page complaint, Brindle asked to see the email in question, but the power trio refused to share it. After Brindle refused to be bullied out of his position, Murphy’s Chief Ethics Officer Dominc Rota “called the ELEC Chair and the other two ELEC Commissioners in separate telephone calls and told each Commissioner that he wanted Jeffrey Brindle ‘fired’ because of the alleged ‘anti-gay’ statement and a ‘racist’ statement.
Brindle’s lawsuit states that Rota refused to disclose the alleged statements to the ELEC Chair. In these calls, Rota told the Commissioners that it was the opinion of the Governor’s Counsel that Mr. Brindle should be fired.
If true, Rota’s actions were a significant overreach by the Governor’s office into the internal affairs of the election law enforcement agency that was expressly established by the state legislature a half century ago to be independent.
According to Brindle’s lawyer, the Murphy team’s full court press to drive the veteran regulator out of his job even looped in the office of the state’s Attorney General who ordered Brindle to attend EEO training.
“They attempted to force his resignation an then they attempted to get NJ ELEC to fire him and then when both of those failed than they introduced this legislation to force his removal and then the Attorney General attempts to launch an investigation allegedly under EEO authority and they actually demanded Jeffrey Brindle show up for disciplinary training before they even held any inquiry,” Afran told InsiderNJ
Last month, the legislature gave Murphy the leverage to do legally what his aides had failed to do behind closed doors.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE
The description of the legislation on Gov. Murphy’s website that announced he had signed it made it sound like it was going to strengthen New Jersey’s campaign finance law but in an editorial the Star Ledger called it an “obscene power grab masquerading as reform.”
“Establishes ‘Elections Transparency Act;’ requires reporting of campaign contributions in excess of $200; increases contribution limits; concerns independent expenditure committees, certain business entity contributions, and certain local provisions; requires appropriation,” is how Murphy’s website described it.
There’s no mention in this dishonest synopsis that the legislation permits the Governor to name NJELEC’s Commissioners without the advice and consent of the legislature, permits state and county political committees to amass a war chest to cover their operating expenses that good government groups have described as a “slush” fund, and preempts local governments from enacting more stringent controls on so-called ‘pay to play’ than what the state has in place.
“And a third alteration to the bill slashes the time for investigating allegations of impropriety to two years, down from 10,” reported the New York Times. “The change is retroactive, and the four complaints filed in January, which stem from fund-raising done in 2017, will be quashed, along with an estimated 80 percent of the agency’s other open investigations, officials have said.”
In her lede, Times reporter Tracey Tully referenced that in January NJELEC “a watchdog agency created 50 years ago to safeguard the integrity of campaign fund-raising in New Jersey filed four complaints. Three cited irregularities in powerful Democrat-led accounts, and one dinged a committee set up to elect Republicans.”
Tully continued. “All of the complaints had the potential to result in hefty fines. And all of them vanished Monday afternoon when the governor, Philip D. Murphy, signed a controversial bill that fundamentally reshapes New Jersey’s campaign finance laws.”
On Jan. 4, NJELEC issued a press release updating the public about its enforcement actions to close out the previous year.
“Seven municipal candidates and one county freeholder must pay fines and fees totaling $3,083.36 for violating the Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act (Campaign Act), the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) announced today,” the agency reported. “These enforcement actions, known as final decisions, were approved by the Commission at its December 20, 2022, meeting.”
NJELEC’s advisory continued. “In addition, on December 14, 2022, four complaints were issued against four of the ‘Big Six’ political party committees and their treasurers for non-compliance by each entity with the Campaign Act in the 2017 quarterly reports. They too could face fines.”
The complaints were against the Democratic State Committee, the Republican State Committee, the Senate Democratic Majority, and the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee for alleged violations from the 2017 campaign cycle.
The violations ranged from what might be considered technical to, in the case of the Democratic committees more serious including failure to properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions and over a million dollars in expenditures. By contrast, the Republican exposure relates to a single $5,000 contribution that lacked an address and a $10,000 expenditure made on behalf of a mayoral candidate that lacked the required 48-hour notice.
NJELEC has rarely sanctioned the states so called “Big Six” committees which historically have done the multi-million-dollar heavy lifting for the two major parties. But in 2006, the Democratic State Committee was hit with a $255,000 fine, the agency’s largest, that the DSC had to pay off over time.
In that same round of enforcement, the agency fined the Republican State Committee $45,750 for non-compliance.
In the latest round of NJELEC complaints the political committees that support Democratic legislative leaders Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin had a serious exposure which now magically goes away thanks to the Trumpian scale of their retroactive self-dealing.
In the state Senate’s vote, 21 members voted yes, seven were counted as “not voting” and 12 voted no, including veteran Democratic Senator Nia Gill.
“I rise in opposition to this bill because it undermines the independence of the Election Law Enforcement Commission and expands the influence of money in our politics,” said Senator Nia Gill from the floor of the Senate on March 20. “I sincerely believe in the need for reform, but the changes outlined in this bill will have consequences that damage the integrity of our elections and reduce the transparency of our political process. We will not solve the issue of money in politics by allowing more money in politics without transparency.”
Gill continued. “The changes in the appointment process will remove the selection of ELEC Commissioners from a public, independent, and bi-partisan process to one that eliminates all checks and balances between the Commission and the executive branch. We must have reform based on the foundation of public transparency. Reform that secures our elections from improper influence and expands the access for people. This legislation however does not provide that. This legislation, in fact, provides the opposite. So, for those reasons I vote No.”
Gill was joined in opposing the bill by Republican Senator Holly Schepisi who warned her colleagues against voluntarily relinquishing and diminishing the legislature’s role in governing the state.
“However, we currently have the strongest Governor in the country with the powers enumerated and I think we all saw that during the pandemic—the shutdowns and the executive orders and the like,” Schepisi said. “So, what do we do in this bill? The enabling of the administration to weaponize ELEC against any person who may speak out. We are taking away the ability of this legislature to ensure an impartial ELEC.”
On March 30, the Assembly voted 42-30, to pass the bill “with a handful of votes that went against party lines: Democrats Dan Benson and John McKeon voted no, while Republicans DiAnne Gove, Donald Guardian, Kevin Rooney, Claire Swift, Michael Torrissi Jr. and Brandon Umba voted yes,” reported NorthJersey.com.
On the same day that the legislature passed the so called “Elections Transparency Act” NJ ELEC Chairman Eric Jaso, along with Commissioners Stephen Holden and Marguerite Simon resigned in protest. In a letter to Gov. Murphy, Jaso took issue with Murphy’s attempt to oust Jeff Brindle, the agency’s executive director, who has been a state employee with an unblemished record of professionalism and nonpartisanship since the mid-1980s.”
NJELEC, NJN RIP
Ironically, NJELEC is located in the old Trenton offices of NJN, New Jersey’s state-owned public broadcaster that was disemboweled by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and sold for its parts to WHYY, WNYC and WNET.
In a 2014, New York Magazine article headlined “The Times Chris Christie Shut Down a Public TV Station That Did a Tough Story on Him” Vanessa Grigoridus recounts how Christie was motivated by an August 2009 investigative piece
by then NJN’s Zack Fink about a “$46,000 loan that Christie had given Michele Brown, a subordinate that he’d promoted in the U.S. Attorney’s office, to pay her mortgage.”
“This raised questions immediately about Christie’s ties to the U.S. Attorney’s office while he was running for governor, and was followed by a string of terrible press for Christie, including a story in the New York Times that said he didn’t report the income from the loan on his personal financial disclosure forms,” Grigoridus wrote.
They are still picking up the phone at NJ ELEC’s ill-fated 25 South Stockton Street address in Trenton where the 60 employees who are civil servants are waiting for the other shoe to drop now that Gov. Murphy has 90 days to unilaterally appoint NLELEC commissioners more to his liking.
It will be this new panel, who will be getting $30,000 a year now, that will have to fire Brindle. That should be a great addition to any lawyer’s resume.
In the meantime, Brindle’s attorney Bruce Afran told InsiderNJ it’s his intention to file another lawsuit seeking to get an injunction to block the implementation of the controversial legislation because it violates New Jersey’s state constitution prohibition against “special legislation that illegally targets individuals” as he says is the case with his client.
Afran added that the legislature has also overreached by retroactively invalidating NJELEC cases that were opened up prior to the legislature’s latest action. “We will argue that once the state legislature gave NJELEC the independent power to file complaints it cannot reverse those complaints and declare them non-valid,” Afran said. “The legislature gave NJELEC these powers and it can’t take it back because they don’t like the way NJELEC uses them.”
Afran continued. “This legislation overrides the rule of law, and it is destructive to the rule of law because it introduces the idea that the legislature can behave arbitrarily and do anything it wants to the people of the state.”
Renee Steinhagen, an attorney and executive director of New Jersey Appleseed, a non-profit public interest law firm, agreed the bill’s retroactivity raises substantial issues.
“You can certainly change the statute of limitations going forward but to retroactively change them raises a real question as to whether they have the power to change it because they had given what is an independent agency the power to investigate these complaints but now, they are now trying to take that power back retroactively,” Steinhagen said.
The Appleseed founder also described the New Jersey’s Democratic legislature’s decision to preempt local municipal laws on banning pay-to-play campaign donations as “really detrimental” to transparency and accountability. Steinhagen noted that such state preemptions were the favorite tactic of Republican controlled state houses to gut municipal laws aimed at gun control, reproductive rights, and the climate crisis.
Hopefully that push for retroactivity has set off the alarm bells over at the Peter Rodino Federal Building in Newark where U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger has his office. Historically, Trenton has proven itself wholly incapable of policing its own political corruption and the public has had to rely almost entirely on federal prosecutors to do the job.
He knows all the players.
Back in the early 1960s it was FBI tapes of top Mafia bosses bragging about how they owned the state’s Democratic Party machines that set the stage for the conviction of Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio, a former Democratic Congressman on corruption charges.
A generation later, yet another federal probe shorthanded as ABSCAM netted U.S. Senator Harrison Williams and New Jersey Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. as well as Camden Mayor and State Senator Angelo Joseph Errichetti on corruption charges.
“The unfolding details were riveting, everything from mobsters hocking stolen paintings and fake securities in the Big Apple to politicians peddling influence in the nation’s capital,” recounts the FBI’s history page. “There were high-ranking government officials caught on tape stuffing wads of bribe money in their pockets and saying things like, ‘I’ve got larceny in my blood,’ and FBI agents posing as representatives of a fictitious Middle Eastern sheik, gathering evidence of these big-league crimes.”
Of course, a generation later in 2009 there was Operation Bid Rig where the FBI had to use a school bus to process the dozens of elected officials and political operatives snagged in the two year probe.
It feels like we are due. Hope the feds still have access to that school bus.