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Joseph DiVincenzo.

Longtime Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and his treasurer have paid New Jersey election law regulators a little more than $20,000 in penalties to resolve allegations that they failed to properly report campaign contributions and improperly spent other funds.

According to a consent order released Wednesday by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, DiVincenzo and his treasurer, Jorge Martinez, paid ELEC $20,446.60 on Nov. 20. The next day, in a 3-0 vote, the ELEC commissioners agreed to accept that payment to resolve the claims, the order said.

The commissioners previously had determined that DiVincenzo and Martinez had violated state campaign finance laws and regulations, and ordered them to pay $25,558.25 in penalties. DiVincenzo and Martinez will not be required to pay the difference between the two amounts, the order said.

Along the way, the long-running case yielded an appeal and a published ruling on the extent of ELEC’s investigative authority while lacking a full complement of commissioners.

The original ELEC complaint alleged 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. He could have been fined up to $4.5 million under law, according to ELEC.

The settlement was finalized not long before DiVincenzo announced his reelection campaign.

Angelo Genova, the attorney representing DiVincenzo and Martinez, said in a statement that the settlement was fair.

“We are pleased to have mutually resolved these matters with the commission,” said Genova, of Newark’s Genova Burns. “This has been a textbook case on how the rules on permissible campaign fund expenditures for all candidates and public officials remain gray and not black-and-white.

“The county executive believes the settlement is fair under all the circumstances and avoids the expense of further litigation,” Genova said.

In September, the Appellate Division ruled that ELEC could proceed with an investigation into the alleged violations. The court’s published decision overturned a ruling by Administrative Law Judge Jeff Masin, who said an ELEC investigation could not be pursued without a bipartisan quorum 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. To adopt that standard, Espinosa said, would be to subvert ELEC’s statutory authority to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws. Judges Carmen Messano and Karen Suter joined in the ruling.

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 and, ultimately, a justice. Masin had ruled that the sole remaining commissioner, Republican Ronald DeFilippis, could not act on his own. DeFilippis has since resigned, but three other commissioners—two Democrats and one Republican—were added. 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 Martinez with only one commissioner, but it had asked for an indefinite stay pending Gov. Chris Christie’s appointment of replacements for commissioners Lawrence Weiss and Amos Saunders, both of whom died.

In a separate decision 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.

The day after the settlement was announced, Thursday, DiVincenzo announced that he would be running for reelection.

“It is humbling and an honor to have received the public’s confidence to serve as Essex County Executive all these years. With their support, we have transformed Essex, but there is still more that I would like to accomplish to benefit our residents,” DiVincenzo said in a statement. “Putting Essex County First has been more than just a slogan. For me, it is a reminder of why I became an elected official and an inspiration to continue our work on behalf of our 800,000 Essex County residents.”

Michael Booth

Trenton Bureau Chief New Jersey Law Journal American Lawyer Media mbooth@alm.com Twitter: @mboothnjlj

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