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Buono Accused of Violating Campaign-Finance Rules in Race Against Christie

Ex-state senator faces fine for using money from Senate election account to pay for polling in governor’s race

Gubernatorial challenger Sen. Barbara Buono delivers her concession speech.
Gubernatorial challenger Sen. Barbara Buono delivers her concession speech.

A year and a half after her gubernatorial bid was crushed by Gov. Chris Christie’s reelection juggernaut, former state senator Barbara Buono is still feeling the lingering hangover of that defeat, as she now faces accusations of violating state campaign finance rules.

Buono, a Metuchen Democrat and one-time Senate majority leader, may have to pay a fine of up to $13,600. The potential penalty stems from allegations made by the state Republican Party in January 2013, a few weeks after she declared her candidacy.

Buono is charged with illegally using the account for her aborted Senate reelection effort to pay for polling on the governor’s race. Buono and her campaign treasurer Martin Gizzi paid Myers Research & Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm in Washington, $37,250 to conduct the poll in January 2012, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).

Buono violated the law “by failing to establish separate candidate committees for the multiple offices sought during the 2013 primary election, and by making an expenditure on behalf of her gubernatorial candidacy through her senatorial account,” ELEC said in a legal complaint released yesterday.

“NJGOP reported this questionable activity to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission and we applaud them for investigating and taking action on this matter,” state GOP spokesman Rick Rosenberg Jr. said.

The complaint, one of many against various candidates that the agency released yesterday, comes as Buono is apparently preparing to move out of state. On Monday, she wrote on Twitter that she had “mixed feelings” as she sat eating mint gelato, watching old episodes of “In Living Color,” and preparing to sell her home of 33 years. In response to a question, she said she is moving to Portland, OR.

When Buono announced her candidacy in December 2012, she was expected to be part of a crowded field, possibly including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who was not yet a U.S. senator. But Christie’s popularity in those pre-Bridgegate days led Sweeney and others to skip the gubernatorial race, leaving Buono as the only significant Democratic candidate.

Christie, seeking a broad mandate ahead of an intended presidential run, wooed Democratic party leaders and elected officials to endorse him or at least not endorse Buono, leading her in her concession speech to decry an “onslaught of betrayal.”

Buono has largely kept out of the public eye since her 60 percent-38 percent defeat in November 2013, but her Twitter feed got some notice last year when she was observed commenting on celebrities’ outfits on a TV awards show and other topics. She remains active on the site, responding last week to a remark by Christie about their last debate. To his comment that “The prize wasn’t to beat her that night,” Buono tweeted, “Yeah, because ya didn’t.”

Buono did not respond to an email requesting comment and could not reached by phone yesterday.

ELEC was alerted to possible campaign violations in a letter sent by Mark Sheridan, an attorney for the Republican state committee. He pointed to payments from Buono’s Senate account that may have been used to finance her campaign for governor, such as for website registration, media and speaker training, and travel. Sheridan also alleged that some of her donors may have exceeded contribution limits by giving large amounts to both her Senate and gubernatorial campaigns.

“The commission must determine whether Buono for Senate has paid campaign expenses that should have been paid by Buono for Governor,” he wrote. “Failure to do so will, in essence, be opening up the contribution limits for Buono for Governor, which unquestionably threatens the integrity of the election process.”

Buono’s campaign spokesman denied the allegations at the time, saying, "This is a blatant attempt by New Jersey Republicans to distract from Chris Christie's failed record on the economy, inability to reduce education costs and failure to bring down the highest property taxes in the country.”

The specific issues Sheridan cited did not appear in the ELEC complaint released yesterday, though the allegedly illegal polling payment follows the pattern he outlined.

Buono established a Senate election fund in March 2012, when she still was apparently planning to run in the 2013 legislative primary, according to the complaint. In a filing that covered the first quarter of 2012, she and Gizzi reported the January payment to Myers Research. She seems to have also been exploring a run for governor, but did not file the required campaign finance paperwork.

Over three days in January, Myers conducted 800 telephone interviews consisting of over 80 questions, the complaint says. They included questions like, “If the election for governor was held today and the candidates were Barbara Buono and Chris Christie, for whom would you vote?” and “If the election for governor were held today, would you be voting for the Democratic or Republican candidate?”

But it was not until December 10, the day before she announced her candidacy, that Buono gave ELEC notice that she had set up a gubernatorial primary campaign account. Later that month she submitted reports indicating that the gubernatorial account had sent the Senate account $37,250 as “reimbursement for polling and research expenses,” the agency said.

ELEC filed two counts against Buono: one for spending from the wrong account and not creating a separate gubernatorial candidate committee, and one for missing the 10-day deadline for filing the proper form after paying Myers Research. The penalties are $6,800 per violation, though ELEC often settles for less.

Buono spent $3 million in the general election to Christie’s $13.2 million. Summary reports filed in April showed she had about $33,500 remaining in her general election accounts, $58,500 in the gubernatorial primary accounts, and $37,800 in her Senate primary account.

The charges against Buono are the only ones of that type announced yesterday for a state-level candidate. Nine other complaints charged that unsuccessful Assembly and Senate candidates failed to file campaign reports with ELEC.

The Senate candidates are Vernon Pullins, Jr., in the 34th District, Lynda Gallashaw in the 35th and William Meredith Ashley in the 40th. The Assembly candidates are Nicholas Nellegar in the 12th, Ralph Drake in the 23rd, Lorelei Rouvrais in the 30th, Rayfield Morto n and Beverly K. Williams in the 34th, and Rhina Tavarez in the 35th.

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