By: Ian Cummings
In New Jersey, this year’s state and local elections may forgo monitoring or oversight with any enforcement power if co-branch – and personal – politics between the state’s governor and state legislative leaders continues. The Election Law Enforcement Commission, a state agency tasked to safeguard election integrity by regulating campaign finance reports, lobbying, play-to-play, and political fundraising rules, has been without a quorum since May. The four-person body has three-quarters of its commissioners’ seats vacant, with only one, its chairman, in office. The commission, which traditionally splits evenly with two Republican and two Democratic appointees, only has Republican appointee Ronald DeFilippis serving as of present.
The commission is appointed by the governor, but confirmed by the state senate. And then comes the politics. The Governor, Chris Christie (R), is in a dispute with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D). The two state leaders have had a tumultuous relationship. Christie nominated former assistant U.S. Eric Jaso over a year ago as the second Republican for the vacant post in efforts to create a quorum; the state Senate has declined to review his nomination. Christie has refused to nominate replacements for the two empty Democratic slots, telling the press that “I’m not going to just pick two Democrats that I like because – almost invariably – if I like them, they won’t get confirmed.” Instead, he told Sweeney to give him two names that would be confirmed and he would vet them, and if found qualified, he would nominate them. A spokesman for Sweeney’s office recently said that “[w]e are currently reviewing the résumés of Democratic candidates so that we can submit names to the governor for his consideration.”
Despite the political gridlock caused by a nearly-empty commissioners’ board, which has even sparked an op-ed by a major newspaper in New Jersey’s southwest, the ELEC’s professional staff continue their oversight duties. Jeff Brindle, the ELEC’s executive director, noted that that commission continues to investigate tips and irregularities, release disclosures, and review complaints. The ELEC continues to receive complaints, usually from citizen watchdog groups or concerned individuals, as well as opposition campaigns. However, without a quorum of commissioners, the ELEC cannot issue final decisions or issue fines to violators.
The powerless election watchdog can only prepare charges and reports in two ongoing ELEC complaints that have caught the attention of New Jersey’s political circles. One involves stalled charges against Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a powerful Democratic politician who is an ally of both Christie and Sweeney. DiVincenzo is accused by the commission of the improper use of campaign funds for personal trips to Puerto Rico, and of allegedly incurring irregular expenses running into the tens of thousands. The second stalled charge is even more recent, involving an intra-party feud between Democrats eying the 2017 governor’s race. Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop (D), believed to be a 2017 gubernatorial aspirant, was accused by his would-be rival Phil Murphy, a declared gubernatorial candidate, of improperly acting as a candidate “testing the waters” while not declaring his candidacy and filing papers for a campaign committee, as required under state law. The Murphy campaign alleges that Fulop’s recent actions, including paying his chief of staff to act as a political consultant, hiring “a team of political operatives widely believed to be focused on a statewide campaign, and emailing a news article about the 2017 governor’s race from his re-election campaign account” are indicative of a gubernatorial run, and want the ELEC to order Fulop to establish a campaign committee indicating his candidacy and to punish him for any state election laws broken to date. The ELEC, however, is powerless to act at the present.
However, according to Brindle, pending complaints “will not expire” and the ELEC is prepared to take action on them once it has a functioning commissioners’ board again.