With fevered speculation that former President Trump may soon be arrested, it was easy to miss the lawsuit filed by New Jersey’s top campaign finance regulator alleging that Gov. Murphy and his top lieutenants tried to illegally remove him from his job at the independent agency in retaliation for a satirical InsiderNJ post he wrote critically about the proliferation of hidden money in politics.
Gov. Murphy’s press office declined to “comment on pending litigation.”
Throughout Murphy’s political career he has benefited from millions in media buys executed by so-called “dark-money” non-profits that proliferated after the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision that overturned a 1909 ban of the use of corporate money in campaigns.
In his March 16 filings in Mercer County Superior Court, Jeff Brindle, executive director of New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, alleges 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. The New York Times reported that the email in question was written in October by Brindle in response to an email from a NJELEC employee referencing National Coming Out Day, a yearly gay-rights observance that falls in October.
“Mr. Brindle asked the staff member if she was coming out, and he lamented that there were not individual days to celebrate the birthdays of President Lincoln and President Washington, according to three people familiar with the email,” the New York Times reported.
Brindle denied he had expressed any anti-gay bias and refused to resign.
“Upon Brindle stating that he would not resign, defendants told Brindle that he would not want publicity about the alleged email after his long career in state government,” according to Brindle’s complaint. “Brindle understood this to be a threat that the alleged email would be disclosed publicly if he refused the demand to resign; the statement was, in fact, an attempt to extort by force or coercion Brindle’s resignation from his office of Executive Director of ELEC. “
Brice Afran, Brindle’s attorney, told InsiderNJ in a phone interview that the Governor’s staff referenced his client’s lengthy tenure at NJELEC where he has served for ten years as executive director and 15 years as deputy director.
“They said he had to sign the resignation because he wouldn’t want publicity about the anti-gay email after all his years in public service—that’s a way of saying we are going to publicize this email unless you resign which amounts to an attempt to extort his resignation,” Afran said.
OVER THE TOP
According to the lawsuit, 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. 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.”
The filings continued. “In the absence of documentation of any discriminatory acts, the ELEC Commissioners refused to take action as to a longstanding Executive Director with a high reputation for integrity in the operation of the campaign finance agency.”
According to Brindle’s complaint, his failure to acquiesce to the Murphy’s team’s demands only prompted the Governor’s lieutenants to double down on their irregular pressure campaign on an agency that by legislative design was set up to be independent.
“Such actions by Rota were illegal and illicit in that they represented a direct form of interference in the independent operation of ELEC that is to be insulated from control or supervision by any other agency or officials of the State; in this respect, only the ELEC Com missioners have the power, privilege and right to hire or fire an Executive Director,” the lawsuit asserts. “Rota’s communications were intended as instructions to the ELEC Commissioners to fire Brindle and were supported by his statement that the Governor’s counsel, Garg, was of the opinion that Mr. Brindle should be fired, a direct communication that it was the Governor and his staff that sought the dismissal of Brindle, all in violation of the legal requirement that the Governor may have no role in the operation of this independent public body.”
The intrigue surrounding Brindle is playing out as the Trenton is contemplating a significant re-write of the state’s campaign finance laws backed by Murphy which good government groups say would mark a significant retreat on campaign finance reform. Billed as the “Election Transparency Act,” it’s sponsored by Senate President Nicholas Scutari.
PRESTO-NO MORE PROBLEMS
One proposed change which has set off ethical alarm bells is the dialing back of the statute of limitations on NJELEC probes which the New York Times reported would “quash many of the commission’s pending investigations.” The agency’s ten-year window would be narrowed to just two years which would eliminate 80 percent of the agency open enforcement investigations.
“The legislation also allows political parties to create new ‘housekeeping’ accounts that would greatly expand the influence of big donors and prop up local political organizations,” reported NJ Spotlight. “While there would be new disclosure requirements for some independent groups, party bosses and county political groups that select candidates and control the primary ballot would be empowered.”
“This is a transparency bill that runs counter to transparency. It erodes public faith in government at a time when we need faith in government more than ever. It’s just bad policy,” Maura Collinsgru, with New Jersey Citizen Action, told NJ Spotlight.
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
Brindle rebuffed the office of the Attorney General’s direction Afran said because NJ ELEC was an independent agency.
For attorney Renee Steinhagen, the executive director of NJ Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, the Murphy team’s efforts to drive out Brindle begs the question as to “why were they so frantic that they responded the way that they did?”
Late last month the NJ ELEC Commissioners Chairman Eric H. Jaso, Stephen M. Holden and Marguerite T. Simon issued a statement recounting the agency’s 50-year history as “a bipartisan independent agency tasked with promoting transparency and accountability in the financing of our state and local elections.”
The panel likened itself to the state’s judicial system, in that like the courts, NJELEC’s “ability to perform its tasks effectively” was only possible because of “its independence and separation from partisan politics. Elimination of its independence is an open invitation to political meddling.”
“Regardless of which party controls the governor’s office, executive directors appointed by one party, or under the constant threat of termination, would be more susceptible to blocking investigations of their party’s candidates or committees while targeting those of the opposing party,” the Commissioners wrote. “And of equal concern, an ELEC run by a political appointee could not investigate or bring enforcement actions against campaigns conducted by the opposing party without suspicion of partisan motives.”
The panel recalled that NJELEC was a response to the Watergate scandal era. At the time, the law was hailed as a national model thanks to its tough disclosure requirements. Its creation predated the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo decision which upheld some provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 but found that overall limits on campaign spending violated the First Amendment.
The equating of money with free speech would grease the skids for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.
PAY TO PLAY
“In Buckley, the Supreme Court struck down much of the post-Watergate laws aimed at preventing another scandal that was big enough to take down a sitting president,” wrote Derek Cressman in 2016 in U.S. News & World Report. “These days, such scandals feel routine. The court struck down a policy that set an equal amount that each candidate for Congress could not exceed, as well as limits on how much any wealthy candidate could spend. The result has been to greatly advantage personally wealthy candidates such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former New Jersey Gov. John Corzine, and Donald Trump.”
In 2017, Jim Johnson, a former under-secretary with the U.S. Treasury Department challenged Murphy for the Democratic Party nomination. Johnson took Murphy to task for his use of shadowy non-profits to fund his pre-campaign for the party’s nod.
“By illegally using these non-profits in the early part of his campaign, Phil Murphy was able to avoid disclosing some contributors and expenditures that were for the sole purpose of supporting his candidacy,” Johnson charged. “They ran TV ads, conducted polling, and developed campaign policy positions without making the required disclosures under New Jersey election law, and potentially accept contributions far in excess of the $4,300 per election campaign donation limit.”
The Murphy crew’s coup attempt targeting of Brindle and their shameless effort to fully capture NJELEC comes at a time when Gov. Murphy holds top leadership posts with the National Governor Association and the Democratic Governors Association which solicit corporate donations.
The DGA, like its GOP counterpart the Republican Governors Association, pull in millions of dollars in corporate donations. According to Open Secrets, in the 2021/2022 Gubernatorial races they ploughed in more than $46 million to get their candidates elected. And back in 2013, Paul Aboud reported the DGA and RGA were increasingly relying on so-called dark money groups to cover their tracks.
The gyrations in Trenton should come as no surprise. We are the state where both political parties let a younger Donald Trump in Atlantic City learn how to become a law unto himself as long as the insiders got a taste.
On the surface, our crisis of confidence in the ability of our railroads to keep their trains on the rails or in our banks to keep our savings secure may seem unrelated. Yet, they are linked because in both instances the banks and railroads have used millions in campaign cash and dark money to corrupt our politicians who in turn do their bidding by rolling back regulations and enforcement.
And when there’s a catastrophic rail derailment with a fire that spews toxic chemicals for miles or a massive bank run, we are told ‘nobody saw it coming.’
Everybody wins but the American people.