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ELEC executive director Jeff Brindle. (Photo: ELEC).

ELEC head sues governor over attempts to oust him

Battle between Brindle, governor’s office began last fall after insensitive email

By Joey Fox, March 16 2023 2:07 pm

Jeff Brindle, the longtime executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), sued Gov. Phil Murphy and several of his top staffers today over attempts to oust him as the head of New Jersey’s campaign finance watchdog.

In the lawsuit, Brindle alleges that Murphy, chief of staff George Helmy, chief counsel Parimal Garg, and chief ethics officer Dominic Rota tried to “force by illegal coercion and threats the resignation of [Brindle] from his position as executive director of ELEC and to interfere with the independence of ELEC by pressuring and otherwise instructing its commissioners to terminate Brindle from his position.”

Last month, Politico NJ’s Matt Friedman reported that the governor’s office had pressured Brindle to resign over an insensitive email he had sent in October 2022; Brindle had received an email about the LGBT-focused National Coming Out Day, to which he replied, “Are you coming out? No Lincoln or Washington’s Birthday’s but we can celebrate national coming out day.” Brindle also allegedly made a “racist remark,” but it’s not clear what it was.

According to Brindle’s lawsuit, after he refused to resign, Rota called the three sitting ELEC commissioners – who have ultimate discretion over the organization’s executive director – and told them to fire Brindle; they declined to do so. Rota’s actions, the lawsuit alleges, constituted illegal interference in the operations of an independent agency.

Brindle additionally claims that the governor’s office obtained a copy of a complaint of discrimination, which he says they had “no legal right to possess.”

Several months after the initial kerfuffle over Brindle’s email, the Elections Transparency Act, a wide-ranging and mostly unrelated campaign finance bill, was amended to target Brindle and ELEC. As amended on February 27, the bill would have made the ELEC executive director serve at liberty of the governor, essentially giving Murphy the ability to bypass ELEC’s commissioners and fire Brindle directly.

After outcry from both Republicans and progressives, the bill was pulled before a scheduled vote. But the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee will hear a new version of the bill today, one that would make it easier for Murphy to install new ELEC commissioners, all of whom are currently on holdover status.

The governor’s office was never directly tied to the amendments, but it’s not hard to draw the connection, and Brindle’s lawsuit does. According to the lawsuit, the bill “demonstrates the continuing pattern and intent of the governor and his staff to force the [removal] of Brindle and, now, the ELEC commissioners.”

The bill would also make another major change to ELEC’s operations: implementing a two-year statute of limitations on campaign finance enforcement decisions. ELEC typically takes years to impose fines for campaign finance violations, many of which would likely expire if a two-year limit was imposed.

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