On information supplied by a mole in the District 8 office of former Republican Assemblyman Francis Bodine, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce today filed ethics complaints against Democrats running in the 1st, 2nd and 8th districts, charging them with failing to keep their political campaigns from spilling over into their district offices.
According to DeCroce, the legislative campaigns of senate candidates Assemblyman Jim Whelan, Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew and Bodine “used state resources to further their campaign activities or the campaign activities of their running mates,” a misuse of public resources that violates conflicts of interest law and the legislative code of ethics and rules, DeCroce said.
The minority leader filed the complaint with Judge Herbert S. Friend, vice chair/acting chair of the state Joint Committee on Ethics, after a Bodine 8th District office staffer told Republicans that he collected tax rebate mail pieces at Bodine’s district office, which he then gave to Bodine’s campaign spokesman Peter Clerkin for use in the candidate’s state Senate race.
“You’re looking at a coordinated statewide strategy of candidates on fliers that are paid for by the Democratic State Committee, which go back to the district offices under the guise of constituent services,” said Richard Wright, executive director of the state Assembly GOP.
He hit the ex-Republican hardest. “The most egregious issue here is the allegation against Bodine,” Wright said.
Democrats said the fact that Wrightin the Assembly Office was acting as DeCroce’s spokesman on a campaign matter showed some GOP hypocrisy.
Speaking for the Bodine campaign to the minority leader’s specific allegations, Clerkin denied he used the mailers for political purposes. “I see Fran Bodine more than his wife sees him,” said Clerkin, on why he was handling tax rebate mailers that went to the candidate’s district office.
“I was acting as an intermediary between the staffer and the assemblyman,” Clerkin said. “I was doing him a favor by dropping these things off with him. This is a non-issue.”
DeCroce didn’t buy it. “You can’t use state resources to work on campaigns,” said the minority leader, referring to what he described as the processing of the campaign mailers at district offices. “You can’t mix campaign materials with day-to-day work.”
Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, chairman of the State Democratic Party, said, “There’s Alex DeCroce, fighting against property tax relief notices again.”
In the case of his District 1 allegations, DeCroce said Van Drew’s campaign team sent a mixed-messages mailing out to the public on behalf of “Assemblymen Jeff Van Drew and Nelson Albano, and Assembly Candidate Matt Milam.”
“…Matt Milam is not a current member of the Legislature,” DeCroce writes in his complaint to Friend. “His inclusion on this mailer demonstrates that it is nothing more than campaign literature and was circulated for the express purpose of furthering the campaign of the three identified individuals. Despite the fact that the mailing is a campaign mailer, it asks anyone who did not receive a property tax rebate check to (contact the district office).”
An incredulous Van Drew said DeCroce’s complaint shows Republican desperation. Thecampaignsent out the mailers and voters returned the mailers to the campaign office, Van Drew said. “There’s no prohibition on using campaign funds to help constituents,” said the candidate. “Clearly it’s not a problem. Nothing ever originated from our legislative office or came back to our legislative office.”
His opponent, GOP Sen. Nicholas Asselta, said in a statement, “This is a shocking abuse of taxpayer-funded district office resources, and it appears to be a clear violation of the ethics code. To send out a mailer featuring their non-incumbent running mate, and then to direct responses to their legislative district offices, crosses a clear line by using taxpayer dollars to fund their campaign.”
Then there’s the Whelan campaign, where the District 2 Assemblyman is running on a ticket with two newcomers, Blondell Spellman and Joe Wilkins. Whelan, said DeCroce, “is utilizing his district office as a repository to handle responses to campaign literature sent on behalf of his two running mates. Like Assemblymen Van Drew and Albano, Assemblyman Whelan cannot use his district office, its staff and State resources to handle campaign mail for himself or his running mates.”
In response, Whelan campaign spokesman Raiyan Syed echoed Van Drew’s statement. “There is no prohibition on using campaign funds for governmental issues,” he said. “The Republicans are trying to score cheap headlines in an election year.”
DeCroce insisted that all of the allegations are severe, but Republicans in the 8th District in particular relished the chance to go after Bodine. “This is a disgraceful abuse of state resources to benefit Bodine’s election campaign,” said Phil Haines, Bodine’s Republican opponent. “Fran Bodine has been caught red-handed using his district office for campaign purposes, and he needs to be held accountable for this clear violation of the ethics code.”
Prof. David Rebovich, managing director of Rider University’s Institute of New Jersey Politics, said DeCroce’s letter wouldn’t matter much, regardless of the judge’s ruling.
“In a political environment, where over 100 public officials have been prosecuted, this complaint doesn’t seem to be that weighty,” said Rebovich. “If they made mistakes, Democrats need to pay a fine, but it won’t determine the outcome of any of these races.”