Campaign charges against DiVincenzo dropped on technicality

By Ted Sherman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 27, 2016

 More than two years after charging Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo with spending tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds on himself, the state Election Law Enforcement Commission has dismissed the case.

 

 

TRENTON — Time ran out Wednesday on the complaint filed by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission against Joseph DiVincenzo, closing the long-standing case charging the Essex County Executive with spending thousands of dollars of campaign funds on himself.

Earlier this week, a state appellate court refused to stop the clock in the matter—which has been stalled for more than two years because of continuing vacancies on the election watchdog agency left unfilled by Gov. Chris Christie, a close friend and ally of DiVincenzo, a Democrat.

With that court ruling, ELEC in a letter Wednesday told DiVincenzo's attorney that a hearing officer's ruling on the case was effectively adopted, and the case dropped.

"We have been notified that the administrative law judge's decision to dismiss this case has been adopted and are reviewing the decision with our attorney," confirmed Anthony Puglisi, a spokesman for DiVincenzo.

But while the matter has officially been closed, it still may not necessarily be the end of it. ELEC could still file an appeal of the court ruling — or even refile the complaint if the governor were to fill the vacancies on the commission.

"We're weighing our options," said ELEC spokesman Joseph Donohue.

DiVincenzo has been under scrutiny since 2011, when Marilynn English, a former political opponent, filed a formal complaint with ELEC in 2011 questioning his alleged lack of disclosure on campaign finance reports.

An examination by The Star-Ledger found that over just one four-month period, DiVincenzo used campaign funds to pay for more than 100 meals, 28 golf games and airfare for a planned trip to Puerto Rico. Those reports also showed he racked up about $250,000 in charges to his personal credit cards, paying off the bills with his campaign account without itemizing any of the charges.

In 2013, ELEC charged DiVincenzo with misusing more than $16,000 in campaign funds and failing to disclose nearly $72,000 in campaign spending over a two-year period — including more than $9,000 for airfare, hotel stays and food for two trips to Puerto Rico during Super Bowl weekend in 2011 and 2012.

The event was described by DiVincenzo as a political retreat for Essex County Democrats.

The complaint also charged the DiVincenzo used his campaign account to pay for tickets to the U.S. Open, Devils games and a Houston Astros game; a $676.94 tuxedo at Joseph A. Bank; a $97.25-a-month gym membership; and more than $100 in parking tickets in Nutley.

But last December, an administrative law judge ruled the election commission had no authority to act because no Democrats had participated in the enforcement proceeding.

By law, the four-member election commission cannot have any more than two members of the same party—traditionally two Democrats and two Republicans.

However, the seat once held by Lawrence Weiss, a Democrat and retired Superior Court judge, was left unfilled by Gov. Chris Christie more than four years after the death of Weiss. At the same time, the other Democrat on the commission, Walter Timpone — who was just confirmed by the state Senate to become a justice on the state Supreme Court — recused himself in the case because years earlier he had sought DiVincenzo's help finding his nephew a job with the county.

Administrative Judge Jeff Masin, ruling that ELEC did not have a quorum without at least one Democrat, said the commission was precluded from moving on the case and called for its dismissal. ELEC had 45 days to decide if would accept the recommendation before it became final.

As time nearly ran out, ELEC in December filed a motion with the state Appellate Division to extend the 45-day period until the governor appointed additional members to the commission. They were finally turned down on Monday.

While the appeals court said there was a legitimate concern over whether the public's confidence in the integrity of the political process might be "compromised when ELEC's enforcement efforts were hobbled by the actions or inaction of other branches of government," it said enforcement efforts needed to be resolved "in a reasonable, and not unlimited" period of time.

In the letter today to DiVincenzo's attorney, ELEC said the recommendation by Maslin was "deemed adopted" with the expiration of the 45-day review period, and the complaint effectively dismissed.

English, the independent candidate who ran against DiVincenzo, called the decision unfortunate.

"He got away with it," she said.

Meanwhile, ELEC now only has one member. With Timpone's appointment to the Supreme Court, there are no Democrats on the commission.

Christie last year named Republican attorney Eric H. Jaso to the agency, but his nomination was not considered by the state Senate. Jaso was to replace retired Passaic County Judge Amos Saunders, who died last August.

Republican Ronald DeFilippis remains the sole member of the commission. The vacancies — and the court ruling — means ELEC is unable to enforce the state's campaign finance laws, said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University.

"They can no longer pursue any actions against Republicans or Democrats," she said. "Both the governor and the state legislature are now operating outside the code of campaign finance regulations. It's great to have this strong regulatory agency, but right now it can't function."

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