Election law watchdog to face hearing over allegations of homophobia, racism

By: - March 21, 2023 2:25 pm

The head of New Jersey's election law watchdog is accused of sending a homophobic email to a staffer. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The head of the state’s election law watchdog will face a public hearing next week over remarks he emailed to a staffer that state officials have characterized as homophobic.

Stephen Holden, a commissioner with the Election Law Enforcement Commission, announced next week’s public hearing during a Tuesday morning commission meeting, where he called the allegations aimed at the commission’s executive director, Jeff Brindle, “serious.” There are also allegations of racism, Holden said.

“If true, and if not true, it still requires a response from the commission because the commissioners have legislative responsibility and authority to address these kinds of concerns,” Holden said. “Most importantly, the commissioners believe in the due process requirements for all concerned.”

This comes as state lawmakers are mulling a bill that would, in part, give Gov. Phil Murphy the power to single-handedly appoint an entirely new ELEC board, a move intended to allow the Murphy administration to oust Brindle. The Senate approved the bill Monday, and it now awaits approval by the Assembly.

The Murphy administration’s clash with Brindle stems from an Oct. 11, 2022, email Brindle sent to an unknown commission employee about 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, according to a copy of the email obtained through a public records request.

An email Jeff Brindle, the head of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, sent to a staffer in October.

The state’s probe of the email stretches back to at least Nov. 4. The state Office of Equal Employment Opportunity received a complaint about Brindle’s “inappropriate comments of a homophobic nature,” interviewed an unidentified staffer, and reviewed the email sent by Brindle, according to a Nov. 4 letter obtained by the New Jersey Monitor.

Brindle’s email “on its face” is a violation of the state’s anti-discrimination policy, according to the letter, which is four pages and heavily redacted.

The letter was sent to ELEC commissioners on Nov. 14, according to emails reviewed by the New Jersey Monitor.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Holden said commissioners told Murphy administration officials they would “handle the allegations and make a decision.” They received a report with underlying facts less than two weeks ago, he said.

He said next week’s hearing would include testimony, an analysis of documents sent from Murphy’s office, and an examination of whether Brindle should face any discipline.

“That, I think, is consistent with our statutory responsibility. It’s consistent with our due process obligations. And it’s consistent with our ongoing efforts since we’ve been here to maintain the independence and bipartisanship and transparency of the things that are undertaken by the commission,” Holden added.

Brindle, who has worked for the Election Law Enforcement Commission since 1985 and been at its helm since 2009, claims in a lawsuit that Murphy and his aides are conspiring to interfere with the independence of the commission and seeking a way to get rid of him.

He alleges that the governor’s aides confronted him with the email and threatened to publicize it if he didn’t step down.

The public hearing will take place Tuesday, March 28 at 1 p.m. at the commission’s office in Trenton.

The governor’s office declined to comment. The commission’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.