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Big, ugly win for N.J. Democratic leaders who pushed for campaign finance overhaul

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Big, ugly win for N.J. Democratic leaders who pushed for campaign finance overhaul

Jul 27, 2023 | 7:12 am ET
By Terrence T. McDonald
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Big, ugly win for N.J. Democratic leaders who pushed for campaign finance overhaul
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The campaign finance overhaul that Senate President Nicholas Scutari, right, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin pushed through the Legislature this year allows fundraising committees tied to both men to skate on some alleged violations. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

Democrats who pushed for the Elections Transparency Act should get their hands on George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” banner.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in April, was intended, its sponsors say, to bring more transparency to the money that floods our state’s political campaigns. But the law’s architects couldn’t help themselves and added a provision that allows the state’s Democratic Party to skate on allegations of pretty major campaign finance violations.

On Tuesday, the Dems laced up their skates.

That’s when the Election Law Enforcement Commission met for the first time since all its commissioners were replaced by Murphy. The commission oversees the state’s election law and punishes people who violate it.

One of the newly constituted board’s first actions was voting to dismiss 107 complaints of election law violations — a move it had to take because the Elections Transparency Act limits how far back the agency can go to investigate violations. It used to be 10 years; now it’s two.

If you’ve ever seen the kinds of complaints the commission reviews, they often ding a town council candidate who didn’t file their required campaign finance paperwork on time, or a mayoral hopeful who didn’t include the addresses of their donors — that kind of thing. Sometimes the complaints target people who should know better (hi, Joe D.), but often the alleged violator is a nobody who probably didn’t have a campaign team, let alone a lawyer to help them navigate New Jersey’s campaign laws.

But among the 107 complaints dismissed Tuesday were three lodged against major Democratic Party fundraising committees that do know better: the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, and the Senate Democratic Majority. That first one is the statewide Democratic Party and the last two are controlled by our legislative leaders, Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex). Right now, the three committees are sitting on about $3.1 million.

The complaints allege the three committees in total improperly reported nearly $900,000 in donations and more than $1 million in spending back in 2017. One of the claims: The state Democratic Party received a $25,000 donation from an LLC and didn’t report who the LLC’s members are. Another: They did not accurately report who gave them $10,000 in October 2017.

To get a sense of what a big deal these allegations are, the Election Law Enforcement Commission case against Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo that dragged on for four years — a fight that led to our then-governor and senate president kneecapping the commission to save DiVincenzo — focused on improprieties involving a fraction of the amount in the new case against Democrats.

The New Jersey Republican State Committee also faced alleged violations that were tossed Tuesday, though that complaint didn’t rise to the level of the claim against the Democratic committees. The statewide GOP was accused of not reporting a $10,000 donation within a required period of time and not including the address of a donor who gave $5,000.

The new complaints were made public on Jan. 4, 2023. The next month, the Elections Transparency Act was amended to add a section that would ban the commission from investigating violations more than two years old, retroactively. Two months after that, Murphy signed the bill, giving the commission no choice Tuesday but to toss the allegations against the Democratic committees into the trash.

Mission accomplished!

Bergen County Republican Sen. Holly Schepisi was one of the loudest voices urging Democrats not to pass the Elections Transparency Act, in part because of the way the bill would hobble the Election Law Enforcement Commission. Schepisi told me she worries about the signal our state’s election law watchdog is sending to New Jersey politicians.

“You’re essentially doing a wink-wink-nod-nod telling the big state parties that there is no consequence to them not complying” with the law, she said. “You’re setting up a template to make things even shadier in a state that is known for being shady.”

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