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State Sen. Joseph Cryan. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Cryan introduces bill mandating continual campaign fundraising disclosures

Citing candidate’s alleged abuses, senator suggests Election Law Enforcement Commission needs broader reforms

By Nikita Biryukov, June 11 2021 4:47 pm

State Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union) introduced a bill that would require candidates for state office, including the legislature and governorship, to report campaign contributions within 48 hours of their receipt.

The bill, whose text runs for only a page, would require the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission to post such filings for public review no more than 72 hours after they reach the body.

The new requirements would apply to candidates and their campaign committees, including joint committees used by bracketed office-seekers.

“The impetus for it is the system doesn’t work as it’s currently designed, and campaigns should be set up and focused on reporting contributions as they come in on a continual basis,” Cryan said. “If you want to have some confidence in the system, that’s how, in my view, it should work.”

The legislation is similar on its face to provisions in a bill introduced by State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) in February that would require candidates for any office—not just those at the state level—municipal committees and PACs to report all spending and contributions over $200 within 72 hours.

But movement on the Scutari measure, which would also remove the $2,600 limit on contributions to candidates from individual donors, has been slow as Scutari, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, is tied up with a swell of judicial nominations meant to address the state’s shortage of judges.

While ELEC has long called for reforms to the state’s campaign finance rules to shift the balance of spending power away from political action committees and issues-advocacy non-profits with lax or non-existent disclosure requirements to candidates and party organizations, the commission and Gov. Phil Murphy have expressed trepidation about the removal of contribution limits.

The reporting time frame in the Cryan bill, which does not yet have an Assembly counterpart, got a warm reception from ELEC.

“We’re all in favor of providing information as quickly as possible, though we may need an appropriation to modify our computer system,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said.

But it could prove a sticking point among campaign treasurers.

While existing rules require candidates and committees to file 48-hour notices for fundraising and spending from or to a single source during the final 13 days of an election, those disclosures must only be made for amounts exceeding $1,400 in aggregate.

The senator acknowledged the strain the proposed rules could impose on campaign treasurers, though he said the state should take a look at how ELEC conducts its oversight.

“I think we’re going to have to look at ELEC in terms of a body, how it performs. I watched abuse after abuse in this most recent primary with me, and I’ve seen it before,” he said. “I think ELEC deserves a full review of how they operate”

The abuses Cryan mentioned are related to 29-day pre-primary reports filed by Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Roselle), who mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge against the senator this year.

Holley’s initial 29-day report, filed on May 11, showed no fundraising or spending, as did an amendment he submitted the same day.

A week later, on May 18, that report was amended a second time to show $104,087 in fundraising and $96,705 in spending. Two other amended reports filed on May 19 and May 27 showed $96,928 in fundraising and $97,014 in spending. Holley’s treasurer did not respond to a request for comment made at the time.

Candidates and committees are allowed to amend their campaign finance reports to correct mistakes, though interested parties can request an investigation if they believe the amendments to be nefarious in nature.

ELEC’s enforcement actions rarely tackle amendments and are most often limited to exceedingly late or deficient disclosures.

But amendments can be used to play political games. This year’s 11-day pre-primary disclosures serve as a poor example since they were released to the public just one day before the polls closed, but longer time horizons seen in past elections could be ripe for abuse.

A campaign finance filing released days before an election that underreported spending could impact campaign strategy. The underreporting could lead competitors to halt a last-minute batch of mailers, for example.

But campaign finance investigations, regardless of their outcome, could also put a thumb on the scale.

“We can’t comment on specific allegations, but Senator Cryan or anyone else is welcome to file a complaint if they believe violations have occurred,” Brindle said. “And in terms of how fast we can do investigations, instant investigations in the middle of a campaign wouldn’t be fair. Everyone is entitled to due process rights under the law.”

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