New Jersey’s election watchdog dumps 107 cases after controversial law cuts investigative time

By: - July 25, 2023 5:03 pm

Newly appointed commissioners for the New Jersey Law Enforcement Commission met at their Trenton office on July 25, 2023, for the commission's first public meeting since lawmakers last spring overhauled its operations. (Mary Iuvone for the New Jersey Monitor)

The state’s election watchdog dismissed almost half its active investigations into reported campaign finance violations Tuesday, four months after state legislators passed a controversial new law critics warned would weaken election protections.

Tuesday was the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission’s first meeting since its former commissioners resigned in protest in March over the new law, which Gov. Murphy signed in April.

With four new commissioners appointed by Murphy last month, the commission agreed unanimously to toss 107 cases, including complaints against four of the “big six” political party committees — the two state political parties and four legislative leadership committees. The four accused committees and their treasurers allegedly failed to comply with campaign finance quarterly reporting requirements in 2017.

The complaints allege the Democratic State Committee and the two fundraising arms of the party’s legislative leaders failed to properly report nearly $900,000 in donations and more than $1 million in spending, all in 2017. They also claim the Republican State Committee did not properly report $15,000 in donations that year.

It’s unclear exactly how much the committees faced in fines if found guilty. But after a similar audit of the six committees nearly 20 years ago, the commission in 2006 issued its largest fine ever — $255,000 against the Democratic State Committee, according to Joe Donohue, the commission’s deputy director. That same year, the commission fined the Republican State Committee $45,750, the largest fine it ever imposed on a GOP committee and one of its largest fines ever, Donohue said.

Tuesday’s dismissals come 13 months after lawmakers first introduced a bill intended to revamp New Jersey’s campaign finance system.

One change in the new law, called the Elections Transparency Act, included cutting the statute of limitations on campaign finance investigations from 10 years to two years. The 107 cases dismissed Tuesday all fell outside the new time limit, which applied retroactively, and so had to be dismissed under the new law.

That leaves the commission with just 130 active cases that fall within the new time limit, Donohue said. Donohue said he couldn’t yet release the full list of cases the commissioners voted to drop until commission staff members follow through with dismissal requirements.

Reaction was swift and severe.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris), an outspoken critic of the Elections Transparency Act, called Tuesday’s dismissals “absolutely disgusting.”

“The fact that they would wash away all those violations, 100 of them on day one, it’s disgusting. And it’s not in keeping of what we want good government to be,” Bergen said. “I’m not blaming [the new commissioners]. I’m blaming the legislators and the governor for enacting this moronic law.”

Another provision in the Elections Transparency Act was widely seen as an effort to allow Murphy to oust the commission’s executive director, Jeff Brindle.

The Murphy administration investigated Brindle internally for sending an email last year that critics regarded as homophobic.

Brindle was cleared of wrongdoing, but the new law gave Murphy more control over the Election Law Enforcement Commission by allowing him to appoint new commissioners without Senate confirmation — a tweak that essentially empowers him to hand-pick a new executive director, who commissioners appoint.

In a lawsuit filed in March, Brindle accused Murphy of trying to force him out of his job. He has worked at the commission since 1985 and became its executive director in 2009. That lawsuit is ongoing. Brindle declined to comment Tuesday.

The new commissioners took no action to remove Brindle from his position Tuesday, and the commission’s new chairman, Thomas Prol, declined to comment on Brindle’s fate after the meeting.

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 15.

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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.