Promised Quorum Could Bring Election Commission Out of Cold Storage

Colleen O'Dea | February 15, 2017 | Politics
Watchdog agency plays critical role in rapidly approaching gubernatorial debates, other tasks related to 2017 election

On Tuesday morning, the single remaining commissioner of New Jersey’s election watchdog agency issued a press release that he was seeking legal guidance on how to proceed with important tasks related to this year’s gubernatorial election because without a quorum the commission was unable to meet.

By late afternoon, Ronald DeFilippis — chairman of the Election Law Enforcement Commission — got what must have been welcome news: the Senate Democrats’ office was saying a full complement of four members would be onboard in a month.

“We will be acting to fill all the vacancies on the Election Law Enforcement Commission so it will have a quorum and a full membership that is balanced between Republicans and Democrats,” said Richard McGrath, a spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

ELEC’s main responsibilities include checking financial filings by candidates for office from municipal government up to governor, as well as by lobbyists, overseeing the pay-to-play restrictions on business contributions and investigating alleged abuses of the law. While the agency has continued to investigate the disclosure laws, it has been unable to act to enforce the laws.

While the one-day turnaround may seem like fast work, ELEC’s last public meeting was 11 months ago. And it will still be a month before ELEC can get down to work determining debate sponsorship and public financing disbursements for the governor’s race, among other tasks.

Actually, ELEC has been hamstrung for more than five years, losing commissioners one after another until only DeFilippis, whose term expired in 2013, remained last April.

Some suggest that one reason for the delay can be attributed to the fact that as far back as 2013 ELEC was investigating powerful Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo for misuse of campaign funds. One thing is clear: There’s been a lot of blame to go around.

Although three commissioners remained in place as holdovers, their terms having expired in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and one actual vacancy that arose in 2011, Gov. Chris Christie did not nominate any replacement until mid-2015 and that nomination was neither useful, nor acted upon by the Senate, because it was of a Republican to fill a Democratic seat. By law, ELEC can have no more than two members from any political party, which has usually meant two Republicans and two Democrats. Then one commissioner died in the summer of 2015 and last spring another was named to the state Supreme Court, leaving DeFilippis, a Republican, alone.

Last September, Christie again tried to put Eric Jaso, a Republican who had worked under him in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, on the commission. That would have given ELEC only two members, both Republicans. Finally, two months ago, the governor nominated a Democrat, retired Superior Court Judge Stephen Michael Holden of Merchantville.

While confirming Holden would have balanced the commission and even two members give it a quorum to meet, the Senate Judiciary Committee has not considered the nomination. Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and chairman of that committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s really an unprecedented situation,” said Jeffrey Brindle, ELEC’s executive director and a staffer at the agency since 1985. He said that this is the longest time in his 32 years with the commission that it has been unable to meet due to vacancies.

Brindle said that the agency has been able to fulfill virtually all of its duties, albeit with some lack of “transparency” — without a public vote.

It’s worth noting that many say the reason why neither party has moved with haste to fill the empty seats at ELEC is that the commission was investigating Essex County exec DiVincenzo for allegedly misusing thousands in campaign funds and failing to report tens of thousands more in campaign spending. Because it lacked at least one member of each party to issue a final decision on the allegation and approve any penalties against DiVincenzo in the case that dated back to 2013, his lawyers successfully halted the investigation in state court. ELEC has appealed that ruling. DiVincenzo is a Democrat but is an ally of Christie.

On Tuesday, DeFilippis said he was asking for legal guidance over how to select sponsors for upcoming gubernatorial debates and for giving out public matching funds to candidates, two things in which the commission has always had a say.

“In the past, the commission has selected debate sponsors at a public meeting and has been informed of the disbursement of public funds,” DeFilippis said. “Given this unprecedented situation, it is critical that all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted.”

Brindle said ELEC would still be able to act on these issues, but DeFilippis issued the statement “to alert the public that it’s a different situation without the commission meeting.”

The Democrats’ swift reply brought word that not only would the upper house be moving the nominations of Jaso and Holden, but a third nominee – retired Superior Court Judge Marguerite Simon, a Democrat — would also be forthcoming from the governor.

Sweeney’s spokesman, McGrath, said the judiciary committee planned to hold hearings on Jaso and Holden “before the end of the month” and that the Democrats and Christie “have an agreement” on Simon’s nomination.

“We expect to receive her official nomination in time for consideration by the committee as well,” McGrath added, calling Simon “highly respected.”

Brian Murray, a Christie spokesman, yesterday declined to comment on the issue, saying the administration does not “discuss potential nominations outside the appointment process.”

If approved by the judiciary committee, all three nominees could be confirmed by the Senate on March 13, which would give ELEC a full, four-member commission for the first time since 2011.