Joseph DiVincenzo, Essex County Executive
Joseph DiVincenzo, Essex County Executive ()

A New Jersey appeals court ruled Friday that the state Election Law Enforcement Commission may proceed with an investigation into alleged campaign finance law violations by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and his treasurer.

A three-judge Appellate Division panel, in a published decision, overturned a lower court judge’s decision that said ELEC couldn’t proceed with the investigation since it did not have the requisite number of commissioners.

Appellate Division Judge Marianne Espinosa, writing for the panel, said ELEC has “broad authority” to conduct investigations, even though there may be a lack of commissioners at any given time. Judges Carmen Messano and Karen Suter joined in the ruling.

ELEC has been fighting a ruling by Administrative Law Judge Jeff Masin, who said an ELEC investigation could not be pursued without a bipartisan quorum of commissioners. To adopt that standard, Espinosa said, would be to subvert ELEC’s statutory authority to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws.

The ELEC complaint alleges that DiVincenzo, a Democrat first elected in 2003, failed to properly report $72,000 in contributions, and that he improperly spent $16,000 for purchases of clothes, trips to Houston and Puerto Rico, and tickets to sporting events.

Should ELEC ever determine that the allegations are true, DiVincenzo could be fined up to $4.5 million.

The Appellate Division’s ruling is largely procedural, merely stating that ELEC had the authority to launch the investigation, and it made no ruling on the merits of the allegations.

DiVincenzo’s attorney, Angelo Genova, said he will ask the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the ruling, and noted that there was “no finding whatsoever that my client violated any law.”

“The important legal issues raised in this case are bigger than Mr. DiVincenzo, and, in fact, touch upon significant issues of administrative law and the proper role of the courts in reviewing agency decisions and, most importantly, undermine the almost 50-year-old tradition of the bipartisan administration of our election laws,” Genova added.

ELEC Executive Director Jeffrey Brindle welcomed the ruling.

“We always had confidence that we’re on the right side of the law,” he said.

ELEC has been unable to act on the matter since 2013 because of the deaths of two of its four commissioners and the recusal of a third: Walter Timpone, when he became a state Supreme Court nominee. Masin had ruled that the sole remaining commissioner, Republican Ronald DeFilippis, could not act on his own.

DeFilippis has since resigned, but there are now three other commissioners—two Democrats and one Republican.

The Democratic commissioners are both retired Superior Court judges, Stephen Holden and Marguerite Simon. Holden is now deputy general counsel to the Delaware River Port Authority, while Simon is with Springfield’s Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins. The Republican commissioner is Eric Jaso, who is with the Short Hills office of Spiro Harrison.

ELEC had acknowledged that it could not proceed with a hearing on the allegations against DiVincenzo and his treasurer, Jorge Martinez, with only one commissioner, but it had asked for an indefinite stay pending Christie’s appointment of replacements for commissioners Lawrence Weiss and Amos Saunders, both of whom died.

By statute, ELEC was granted two 45-day stays. But both Masin and the appeals court had ruled that the commission was barred by statute from being granted further stays.

In a separate ruling last year, Espinosa, then joined by Judges Garry Rothstadt and Heidi Currier, noted that the statute of limitations for ruling on a case is 10 years, which meant ELEC could proceed in the future if there are enough commissioners.

A New Jersey appeals court ruled Friday that the state Election Law Enforcement Commission may proceed with an investigation into alleged campaign finance law violations by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and his treasurer.

A three-judge Appellate Division panel, in a published decision, overturned a lower court judge’s decision that said ELEC couldn’t proceed with the investigation since it did not have the requisite number of commissioners.

Appellate Division Judge Marianne Espinosa , writing for the panel, said ELEC has “broad authority” to conduct investigations, even though there may be a lack of commissioners at any given time. Judges Carmen Messano and Karen Suter joined in the ruling.

ELEC has been fighting a ruling by Administrative Law Judge Jeff Masin, who said an ELEC investigation could not be pursued without a bipartisan quorum of commissioners. To adopt that standard, Espinosa said, would be to subvert ELEC’s statutory authority to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws.

The ELEC complaint alleges that DiVincenzo, a Democrat first elected in 2003, failed to properly report $72,000 in contributions, and that he improperly spent $16,000 for purchases of clothes, trips to Houston and Puerto Rico, and tickets to sporting events.

Should ELEC ever determine that the allegations are true, DiVincenzo could be fined up to $4.5 million.

The Appellate Division’s ruling is largely procedural, merely stating that ELEC had the authority to launch the investigation, and it made no ruling on the merits of the allegations.

DiVincenzo’s attorney, Angelo Genova, said he will ask the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the ruling, and noted that there was “no finding whatsoever that my client violated any law.”

“The important legal issues raised in this case are bigger than Mr. DiVincenzo, and, in fact, touch upon significant issues of administrative law and the proper role of the courts in reviewing agency decisions and, most importantly, undermine the almost 50-year-old tradition of the bipartisan administration of our election laws,” Genova added.

ELEC Executive Director Jeffrey Brindle welcomed the ruling.

“We always had confidence that we’re on the right side of the law,” he said.

ELEC has been unable to act on the matter since 2013 because of the deaths of two of its four commissioners and the recusal of a third: Walter Timpone, when he became a state Supreme Court nominee. Masin had ruled that the sole remaining commissioner, Republican Ronald DeFilippis, could not act on his own.

DeFilippis has since resigned, but there are now three other commissioners—two Democrats and one Republican.

The Democratic commissioners are both retired Superior Court judges, Stephen Holden and Marguerite Simon. Holden is now deputy general counsel to the Delaware River Port Authority, while Simon is with Springfield’s Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins. The Republican commissioner is Eric Jaso, who is with the Short Hills office of Spiro Harrison.

ELEC had acknowledged that it could not proceed with a hearing on the allegations against DiVincenzo and his treasurer, Jorge Martinez, with only one commissioner, but it had asked for an indefinite stay pending Christie’s appointment of replacements for commissioners Lawrence Weiss and Amos Saunders, both of whom died.

By statute, ELEC was granted two 45-day stays. But both Masin and the appeals court had ruled that the commission was barred by statute from being granted further stays.

In a separate ruling last year, Espinosa, then joined by Judges Garry Rothstadt and Heidi Currier, noted that the statute of limitations for ruling on a case is 10 years, which meant ELEC could proceed in the future if there are enough commissioners.