Election watchdog chief dodges discipline for emails deemed discriminatory

By: - March 28, 2023 6:12 pm

Jeff Brindle, executive director of the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, testifies in his own defense on March 28, 2023, at a disciplinary hearing at the commission’s Trenton office. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The head of the state’s election law watchdog will not be disciplined for allegations of workplace homophobia, racism, and insubordination after commissioners cleared him of wrongdoing during a public hearing Tuesday.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of the Election Law Enforcement Commission since 2009, testified in his own defense during the 90-minute hearing at the commission’s Trenton office, telling the two commissioners mulling his fate that an email he sent in October mocking National Coming Out Day is protected by the First Amendment and “not an anti-gay comment.”

He accused Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration of working to orchestrate his ouster since early November, after he published a commentary on Insider NJ about dark money in politics that he said “struck a chord” with the governor’s office.

Administration officials subsequently demanded Brindle’s resignation and then rushed legislation through the Statehouse that would give Murphy the power to oust him.

“This effort to do away with ELEC, its current commissioners, and its statutory independence, along with its admirable history, is not justice,” Brindle said, reading a 9-minute statement. “It’s politics, naked and raw politics, an attempt to turn a highly respected and independent governmental agency into one controlled by the patronage of the governor’s office.”

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office declined to comment.

Brindle had been facing discipline — and possibly termination — for insubordination, failure to cooperate, and emails he sent to colleagues that state officials characterized as homophobic. The former charges stemmed from his alleged refusal to mask during the pandemic, participate in an interview with Office of the Attorney General investigators, and attend sensitivity training.

But after deliberating for 20 minutes behind closed doors, commissioners Stephen Holden and Marguerite Simon did not sustain any of the allegations. The commission has three members, but commissioner Eric Jaso recused himself from the matter without explanation.

Holden, who presided over the hearing, cited various reasons for siding with Brindle.

Of the controversial emails, Simon agreed one characterized as homophobic “could look damning” and Holden conceded it “has an edge to it that had the capacity to insult, hurt, make someone feel bad.”

But commission employees were supportive of Brindle and did not complain of a hostile workplace, the commissioners said.

“I think there’s no way we can impose any discipline upon someone who’s been an outstanding individual in the field,” Simon said.

The hearing erupted in hubbub after commissioners announced they would not take public testimony, even though they had invited public comment. Commission attorney Edwin Matthews told spectators such invitations were issued in error, prompting a handful of critics to interrupt the proceedings.

“When you go to a Walmart and they make a mistake when the manager puts up the price, they honor it,” said Pastor Amir Khan of New Beginnings in Camden. “I think you should at least honor the testimonies that are here today for those that came out. At least honor them as taxpayers.”

When Holden announced they would adjourn for the closed-door session, Christian Fuscarino of Garden State Equality announced his objections.

“You lost all legitimacy, and this hearing is proof of that! This is a joke!” he said. “Shame on all of you — a bunch of white, straight men. Shame on all of you! Go take a diversity and inclusion class and you’ll see the problem here.”

Holden, as he stood to leave the room, retorted: “Go express your heterophobia someplace else, young man!”

Brielle Winslow-Majette of Garden State Equality demanding to testify during an Election Law Enforcement Commission meeting in Trenton on March 28, 2023. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Later, Fuscarino, Khan, and Brielle Winslow-Majette of Garden State Equality told reporters it’s “absolutely crazy” Brindle wouldn’t be held accountable for workplace emails they called discriminatory.

“We weren’t able to comment on the governor’s investigation, which revealed homophobia and transphobia, so all of the public that showed up both in person and virtually were silenced and not able to express their concerns with the commissioners who are tasked with upholding the pillars of our democracy, and that’s super alarming,” Fuscarino said.

After the hearing, Brindle — who filed a lawsuit earlier this month accusing Murphy of conspiring to oust him — smiled and chatted with the commissioners and lawyers.

“I’m very gratified that the people that know me the most, the commissioners, have exonerated me of any of these allegations,” he told the New Jersey Monitor.

Still, his days could be numbered, despite his discipline dodge.

The Assembly is set to vote Thursday on legislation that would empower Murphy to appoint new commissioners without needing Senate approval. The Senate already passed it.

Bruce Afran, Brindle’s attorney, said Tuesday its passage wouldn’t necessarily ensure Brindle gets booted.

Instead, he said, he’s “sincerely reviewing” asking a judge to block any new law.

“It’s an illegal bill because it’s zeroing in on this one agency to change its governance and no other agencies are subject to this change,” Afran said. “The courts may very well hold this bill to be illegal.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.