As first reported by NJ Advance Media’s Matt Arco and confirmed by the New Jersey Globe, all three commissioners of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) – Eric Jaso, Steve Holden, and Marguerite Simon – have resigned their posts, pre-empting a bill passed by the state legislature today that would have forced them out.
The bill, the Elections Transparency Act, is likely to be signed by Gov. Phil Murphy shortly. Once it is, the governor will have the ability to directly appoint four new commissioners to the state’s campaign finance oversight agency.
“Because you have used political blunt force to neuter and co-opt this venerable and honorable agency, I can no longer faithfully serve the purposes the Legislature originally intended,” Jaso, the now-former commission chairman, said in a scathing letter to Murphy. “Accordingly, I hereby resign, effective immediately.”
Conflict between Murphy’s administration and ELEC first arose last November, when administration officials demanded ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle’s resignation over an insensitive email Brindle had sent. Brindle refused to resign, and ELEC’s commissioners declined to use their authority to remove him.
Earlier this week, Holden and Simon held a public hearing into the allegations against Brindle; they found no cause to discipline him, but they also declined to take into account any additional evidence or public testimony outside the narrow scope they had laid out.
Jaso, Holden, and Simon were all appointees of former Gov. Chris Christie, though Holden and Simon are both Democrats, in keeping with the bipartisan nature of the commission. When their terms expired, Murphy declined to nominate new commissioners to replace them, and he also left the commission’s second Republican seat vacant for years.
In other words, Murphy could have tried to install a new board of commissioners under current law. The Elections Transparency Act, however, gives him the ability to do so without going through the Senate confirmation process, and it also implements a $30,000 salary that may help attract more candidates for the job.
Until Murphy appoints new commissioners, ELEC will be unable to issue any final decisions or levy any fines. But under another provision of the Elections Transparency Act, there will be fewer decisions to make anyways, since the bill imposes a retroactive two-year statute of limitations on enforcement decisions.
The new statute of limitations, which would likely nullify hundreds of cases – including a potentially expensive complaint against the state Democratic Party – was excoriated by Jaso, who said in his letter that the bill deals a grievous blow to ELEC’s independence.
“This ill-advised legislation, enabling a ham-handed exercise of Executive power where back-room arm-twisting failed to achieve your immediate political goals, at least undermines and at worst destroys ELEC’s hard-earned public perception of independence, transparency and freedom from political influence,” he wrote.Jaso letter to Murphy