Campaign finance bill advances with new provisions targeting election law watchdog

By: - March 16, 2023 7:37 pm

Critics say the bill would gut New Jersey anti-corruption laws, flood the state with campaign cash, and strip the independence from the state's election law watchdog. (Courtesy of New Jersey Governor's Office)

A Senate panel advanced a bill to overhaul New Jersey’s campaign finance system on Thursday, accepting some changes sought by good government groups while approving a provision that would effectively allow Gov. Phil Murphy to pick who leads the state agency that oversees and enforces New Jersey’s campaign finance laws.

The vote came hours after that agency’s director, Jeff Brindle, filed a lawsuit accusing Murphy and senior Murphy administration officials of conspiring to force his resignation over allegedly anti-gay remarks Brindle made. The lawsuit claims the legislation advanced Thursday is part of a “pattern and scheme to force by different artifices the resignation or firing of Jeffrey Brindle.”

Other critics were no less harsh, telling senators Thursday that the measure is an attempt to weaken pay-to-play laws, flood the state with campaign cash, and strip Brindle’s agency, the Election Law Enforcement Commission, of its independence.

“The way this is being done, we think it’s the worst of backroom politics,” Philip Hensley, democracy policy analyst for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, told members of the Senate’s budget committee before they voted to advance the bill.

The panel voted 7-3 in favor of the measure, dubbed the Elections Transparency Act, with all Republicans present voting no and Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden) abstaining. The bill would sharply increase contribution limits to candidates and political organizations, impose new disclosure rules on some independent expenditure groups, and impose a narrow statute of limitations on campaign finance violators, among numerous other changes.

Revisions made to the bill Thursday removed a controversial provision that would have given the governor direct appointment powers over the Election Law Enforcement Commission’s executive director. But a provision added by Thursday’s amendments would allow the governor to temporarily appoint ELEC commissioners without approval from the state Senate.

At present, ELEC commissioners select their executive director, and selecting a new slate of commissioners would effectively allow Murphy to handpick the agency’s new boss.

“We’re really distressed by this blatant circumvention of checks and balances,” Hensley said.

Hensley noted that all three current ELEC commissioners are serving terms that have expired, and Murphy could appoint a full cohort of four commissioners through the normal process, which would include Senate confirmation. That method would allow for public oversight, Hensley said.

The provisions that would allow the governor to unilaterally appoint ELEC commissioners would remain active until through the initial term of the newly appointed commissioners.

Brindle, who first joined the Election Law Enforcement Commission in 1985, 12 years after its founding, alleges in his lawsuit that Murphy sought to oust him over an emailed response to an agency staffer who informed Brindle it was National Coming Out Day.

“Are you coming out? No Lincoln or Washington’s Birthday’s [sic] but we can celebrate national coming out day,” Brindle wrote back.

The suit further claims an equal employment opportunity probe the Attorney General’s Office is conducting over the exchange was retaliatory and began only after Brindle refused to resign and commissioners refused to remove him.

Politico New Jersey was first to report news of the lawsuit.

A Murphy spokesperson declined to comment on the newly filed litigation.

Another round of changes

Some amendments to the bill offer concessions sought by advocates.

One new addition would require business and trade organizations to adhere to the same disclosure requirements as some politically active nonprofits. Another would reduce contribution limits for proposed “housekeeping” accounts that party organizations can use to pay for non-political expenses, like rent.

But the amendments were not enough to win critics’ support.

“We do think this transparency bill runs counter to transparency,” said Maura Collinsgru, director of policy and advocacy at New Jersey Citizen Action.

Some controversial provisions remain. Currently, the Election Law Enforcement Commission has 10 years from a violation to reach a final decision. The bill would lower the statute of limitations to two years, and it would apply retroactively.

The agency’s deputy director, Joe Donohue, told senators Thursday that these investigations often involve time-intensive activities, like researching bank transactions and vendor records.

“This severe restriction would have a devastating impact on the commission’s enforcement capability, potentially scrapping 80% of the agency’s current active cases,” he said.

Other critics re-aired concerns about a provision in the bill that would abolish local pay-to-play ordinances, which are often stricter than the state pay-to-play law, and require local governments to rely on the state law instead.

At the same time, the bill weakens the state’s pay-to-play law by allowing individuals and firms to seek contracts in municipalities where they have donated to party organizations. Under the bill, only donations made directly to candidates would invoke pay-to-play protections. Under current law, donations to candidates, party organizations, and legislative leadership committees invoke those protections.

“The bill, as written, even with these amendments, manages to instead gut New Jersey anti-corruption laws, which is bad for New Jersey and bad for our democracy,” said Arati Kreibich of New Jersey Working Families.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.