Following a public hearing, the commissioners of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), the state’s campaign finance watchdog, announced today that they will not discipline ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle over an insensitive email he sent last year.
“The narrow question before us is, does the sending of an insensitive email warrant the ending of a decades-long career of excellence?” ELEC Commissioner Steve Holden asked; the answer, apparently, is no.
The scope of the hearing was very constrained, however, and pointedly did not include reports from late last week that Brindle had sent numerous other insensitive emails about the LGBT community in addition to the one included in the original complaint. Members of the public were not allowed to participate, despite being told that they could register to make a public comment.
It will soon be a moot point anyways, with the legislature set to pass a bill in two days that will allow Gov. Phil Murphy – whose administration has been trying to get rid of Brindle for months – to appoint an entirely new set of ELEC commissioners. Once Murphy installs new commissioners, they will likely work to push Brindle out, possibly bringing a monthslong saga to an end.
In October of last year, Brindle sent an email to a subordinate in which he mocked National Coming Out Day and complained that he couldn’t celebrate presidents’ birthdays instead. The subordinate made a complaint which eventually made its way to the governor’s office in November, though it would not be made public until a Politico NJ report this February.
Gubernatorial staffers reacted by insisting that Brindle resign, and when he refused to do so, they put pressure on ELEC’s commissioners to force him out; they, too, declined. The attorney general’s office also initiated an investigation into the complaint, an investigation that was the subject of today’s hearing.
As laid out by Holden, the commissioners were tasked with looking at four accusations against Brindle: that he had sent a homophobic email, thus creating a hostile working environment; that he had made a racist remark (the nature of which has never been revealed); that he had not complied with Covid guidelines; and that he had refused to cooperate with the governor’s administration’s investigation.
Brindle categorically denied each of the “charges,” saying that he had always followed the rules and that his email was simply an ill-advised joke.
“To me, matters of sexuality are private and nobody’s business,” he said. “[My email] was not an anti-gay comment, but merely a comment protected by the 1st Amendment emphasizing my long-held views that Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays should be individually celebrated as public days, and that certain matters are private and of importance to people as individuals.”
He also claimed that the hubbub over his conduct stems from an InsiderNJ column he wrote criticizing dark money in politics, an accusation he also made in his pending lawsuit against Murphy and his staffers. (No one from the governor’s office, or anywhere else, has referenced the Insider columns in their complaints against Brindle.)
After making his initial statement, Brindle was subject to questioning from Holden and Commissioner Marguerite Simon, the only two ELEC members present; Commissioner Eric Jaso has recused himself from the matter, and the fourth commissioner seat has been left vacant for years.
Missing from the hearing was testimony from the original complainant against Brindle, who has declined to come forward. And members of the public who came to testify – in accordance with the original announcement of the hearing, which stated that “any member of the public who wishes to make a public statement at this meeting” should register to do so – were not allowed to speak.
That caused a kerfuffle between Holden and Amir Khan, a Camden activist who showed up at the hearing. Khan said he had signed up to speak, but Holden shut him down, essentially saying that he and his fellow commissioners had changed their minds after originally soliciting public testimony.
“That was incorrect, I’m sorry,” Holden said. “It is inappropriate in the context of this hearing.”
Holden ultimately ran through all four “charges” against Brindle and found each of them unsustained, meaning that Brindle will face no discipline. On the accusation of homophobia, which took up the bulk of the hearing, Holden said that there was no evidence that one ironic email was indicative of deeper prejudice.
“There is no testimony in the record that there is anyone here who was not treated with fairness, dignity, and respect,” he said. “Quite to the contrary, in the record, the testimony is that those who have worked with Mr. Brindle for many years never saw any trace of [insensitive] behavior or beliefs.”
In excusing Brindle’s remarks, Holden and Simon both focused on the singular nature of his insensitive National Coming Out Day email. But as reported by the New Jersey Monitor and WHYY, the email was far from unique.
In a batch of emails obtained by attorney CJ Griffin via the Open Public Records Act, Brindle made repeated snarky comments about gay rights, transgender people, and the Black Lives Matter Movement, often directed at staffers and subordinates. ELEC’s commissioners may have decided that those emails, too, did not warrant discipline, but it’s tough to know, since they were explicitly barred from consideration at today’s hearing.
The decision not to reprimand Brindle will likely only be relevant for another few days, though, since the Elections Transparency Act – a wide-ranging bill that, among other things, sweeps out the incumbent ELEC commissioners and temporarily gives Murphy direct appointment power to replace them – is scheduled to pass the full legislature on Thursday.
An earlier version of the bill, which would have given Murphy the power to appoint and fire ELEC’s executive director himself, caused an uproar when it came up in the legislature; in fact, the conflict between Brindle and Murphy’s administration first rose to light because of the debate over the bill. The tweaked version of the bill advancing now, however, has drawn much less pushback among legislators and is likely to be signed into law by Murphy as soon as next week.
Once Murphy appoints new commissioners, they will have the ability to retain Brindle or work to fire him – and presumably, a key qualification for their appointment will be a promise to do the latter.
At the conclusion of today’s hearing, Simon seemed to acknowledge that her days on the commission are numbered, treating her closing remarks as something of a farewell after six years as a commissioner.
“Whatever happens after today, I have totally enjoyed working with [ELEC’s commissioners and staffers],” Simon said. “It has been a pleasure. I leave impressed with the quality and character of the work. We really never knew, or never cared, whether we were on as Rs or Ds, and I just hope that tradition continues.”
This story was updated at 8:30 p.m. with a correction: the investigation into Brindle was conducted by the attorney general’s office, not the governor’s office.