Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis today filed a complaint against Sheriff Jim McGettigan at the Egg Harbor Township Municipal Court, charging that McGettigan accepted wheeled-in money from the Atlantic County Democratic Committee last year after the county passed an ordinance banning wheeling.
Davis said that, since McGettigan accepted $11,552 from the county party after it had taken over-the-limit donations from two labor groups after the ordinance’s November 2, 2007 effective date, McGettigan should have been barred from accepting any money from his own party.
“We had the toughest pay to play and anti-wheeling ordinance in the state of New Jersey,” Davis told PolitickerNJ.com while on his way to a press conference announcing the complaint. “It was adopted unanimously and in a bipartisan manner.”
McGettigan characterized the charge as desperate and pathetic. First of all, he said, the accusation is baseless – that the county law only applied to those who have the authority to make contacts. He can only approve contracts with the co-signatures of the county executive and county counsel.
“This so-called legislation that was passed in Atlantic County will be challenged in court. We will prevail,” said McGettigan.
McGettigan argued that the charge was nothing but an Election Day ploy and waste of taxpayer money and accused Davis of shopping it around to find a prosecutor willing to take it on.
“This was a carefully orchestrated plot laid out last year in anticipation of last year’s election season,” he said. “The facts of this bogus complaint were well known to Keith Davis and the Republican machine this time last year. Why did they wait until three weeks before Election Day to bring this to a court of law?”
Davis said that he originally wanted to file the complaint in McGettigan’s hometown of Somers Point, but the prosecutor there said he had a conflict and that Davis could file the complaint in other towns. So he chose Egg Harbor Township, where the Democrats had their campaign headquarters last year.
At a meeting last night, the Freeholder Board considered filing a complaint against McGettigan, but put the decision off in favor of reviewing how to enforce its own ordinance.
Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Patrick D’Arcy said that the accusation will backfire on the Republicans.
“If indeed those are the allegations that Mr. Davis intends on making, they are both fundamentally and technically flawed and, even more disconcerting, driven solely by desperate and dirty politics,” he said. “The court is a forum intended to serve justice. It is not a place for political retribution and mudslinging. Nevertheless, I invite the filing of a complaint so that we can actually have a legal forum instead of a continued political grandstand to address the allegations. I am confident that before it is over, Mr. Davis and the Republican Party’s inexcusable shenanigans will be exposed for all to see.”
The wheeling charge against McGettigan is the latest line of attack on him by the Atlantic County Republicans, who see him as wounded and vulnerable from his county executive race against incumbent Dennis Levinson last year.
The contributions they’re complaining about date back to that race.
Now, the Atlantic County Sheriff race is one of the most competitive county races in the state, and it probably wouldn’t be if last year’s county executive race hadn’t been run. Until then, McGettigan was consistently the top vote getter in Atlantic County.
He ran against Levinson in what turned out to be one of the nastiest races of 2007 — one that, despite McGettigan being well-funded, ended in a lopsided defeat. After several high profile gaffes and missteps, and in a race where Levinson repeatedly questioned McGettigan’s fitness to remain as sheriff, let alone take over as county executive, McGettigan wound up with about one-third of the vote.
This year McGettigan is facing a tough challenge from Pleasantville Detective Frank Balles to keep the office he’s held for 15 years.
Levinson, whose disdain for McGettigan is still palpable, thinks that’s at least partly because he softened McGettigan up last year.
McGettigan is also currently out-funded by Balles, who has $20,880 on hand to McGettigan’s $7,241.
“My campaign for county executive against him just highlighted his competence as a sheriff. It’s not like no one knew about it. No one thought about it. They just figured, ‘That’s the sheriff, he’s just a backslapper that shows up at county fairs, handing you coloring books,’” said Levinson.
Case in point, according to Levinson: the Democratic at-large freeholder candidates don’t freely associate their names with McGettigan and don’t share a single campaign sign with him.
“The two freeholders at-large that are running with him are running really away from him. There has been no endorsement of anyone saying what a great sheriff he is,” Levinson said.
McGettigan countered that Frank Balles and the Republican freeholder candidates also don’t share signs, but he didn’t take it to mean that there’s a split between them.
McGettigan doesn’t buy the argument that his county executive race weakened his incumbency, and that the voters realize he’s presided over an effective and frugal sheriff’s office that hasn’t gone over budget with operating expenses during his 15-year tenure.
“We’re at the tops of all of our fields of operation – court security, transportation communications, community relations, legal services, and nobody will dispute that,” he said. “Dennis Levinson is a very bitter man after last year’s election. Although he won, he’s a sore winner.”
Even Levinson acknowledges that McGettigan has one thing going for him: Barack Obama. For the first time in history, Democrats have a registration advantage over Republicans in Atlantic County, with about a 10,000 voter lead. In presidential years, Democrats tend to fare better than in off-year elections like the last one
“I think Obama is going to do very well. I have to be realistic and take a look at the registrations. They’ve been overwhelmingly Democratic,” Levinson said. “But at the same time, the Democrats aren’t stupid. They’re also fed up generally with McGettigan. But he may ride. He may benefit from the Obama candidacy.”