After fighting the Election Law Enforcement Commission for years, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo has agreed to settle charges that he misused thousands of dollars in campaign funds on personal expenses.
DiVincenzo admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, but he will pay ELEC a fine of more than $20,000. DiVincenzo, a Democrat, is perhaps the most powerful New Jersey politician that ELEC has accused of wrongdoing, and the case stalled and dragged on for years before the settlement announced Wednesday.
ELEC, the state’s campaign finance watchdog agency, found that DiVincenzo misused campaign contributions for 43 expenditures totaling roughly $14,000, and was late in reporting 602 credit card transactions worth more than $71,000.
The settlement is a big win for ELEC, which kept the case alive even as Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney — two DiVincenzo allies over the years — effectively defanged the commission by not filling vacant positions for nearly a year.
That made ELEC unable to meet or hold any votes for 11 months. The commission also won a legal battle in September, when an appeals court ruled ELEC acted legally when it voted to authorize the 13-count complaint against DiVincenzo in 2013.
“It tested our mettle,” said ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle. “For me, it really demonstrated that we have a very dedicated legal team and they weren’t going to be put off by the fact that some of the circumstances were very unusual.”
Bridle said he was happy with the settlement – which reduced ELEC’s proposed fine from $25,558 to $20,446 – because it resolved the longstanding case in manner that upholds “ELEC’s interpretation of what constitutes impermissible use of campaign funds.”
In a statement, DiVincenzo attorney Angelo Genova, of the firm Genova Burns, said his client was “pleased to have mutually resolved this matter.”
“This has been a textbook case on how the rules on permissible campaign fund expenditures for all candidates and public officials remain gray and not black and white,” Genova said. “The commission acknowledges as much by recognizing the county executive’s representation that he possessed a good faith belief that the expenditures at issue were permissible by withdrawing a number of claimed violations; by not requiring reimbursement of the disputed expenditures and by imposing a modest fine. We encourage the commission to address the vagueness of these rules in the future through new rule making and public comment to lend clarity to public officials and candidates. The county executive believes this settlement is fair under all the circumstances and avoids the expense of further litigation.”
In October 2013, ELEC accused DiVincenzo of misusing campaign funds on trips to Puerto Rico, a tuxedo, a gym membership, parking tickets, baseball tickets, and tickets to the U.S. Open. DiVincenzo took the agency to court, arguing that ELEC did not have a legal quorum when it voted to authorize the complaint against him.
Only two Republican commissioners were present for that vote. ELEC typically has four commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans.
In September, an appeals court sided with ELEC and ruled the commission did not violate the law by having two Republicans vote to charge the Democratic county executive. DiVincenzo had vowed to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, but never did.