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N.J. moves to restore election watchdog

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers have moved to resurrect the state’s election watchdog, which hasn’t been able to enforce campaign-finance laws for nearly a year because of board vacancies.

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers have moved to resurrect the state's election watchdog, which has been unable to enforce campaign-finance laws for at least a year because of board vacancies.

The Senate on Monday voted to confirm Eric H. Jaso, a former federal prosecutor under then-U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie, and Stephen M. Holden, a retired Superior Court judge in Camden, as members of the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).

Earlier Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved both nominations to the unpaid posts, which were submitted by Christie, now governor.

The election commission has lacked a quorum to hold meetings since April 2016; the only member was Chairman Ron DeFilippis. That month, Christie, a Republican, appointed the commission's other member, Democrat Walter Timpone, to the New Jersey Supreme Court, with the Senate's confirmation.

Under state law, the commission is to be composed of four members, with no more than two representing a single party. It regulates campaign fund-raising and the lobbying of elected officials.

Although candidates continue to report campaign contributions and commission staff perform their duties, the agency has been unable to issue final enforcement decisions in response to alleged violations of the law or promulgate regulations.

"Those are two things the statute specifically indicates that the commission has the authority to do," said Jeff Brindle, the agency's executive director.

For example, in 2015, an administrative law judge ruled the commission lacked a quorum when it voted in 2013 to issue a complaint against Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.

The 13-count complaint alleged that DiVincenzo, a Democratic power broker and Christie ally, misused tens of thousands of dollars during his 2010 campaign for county executive on such things as a tuxedo, a television, a gym membership, and trips to Puerto Rico.

Timpone recused himself from the vote, leaving just two Republican members to authorize the complaint. One, Amos Saunders, died in 2015.

A three-judge appeals panel upheld the judge's ruling on procedural grounds last year but suggested the commission could file a new complaint once it was fully staffed. The statute of limitations is 10 years. ELEC is appealing the decision.

The new board, with three members, could presumably issue a new complaint. Christie last month also nominated Democrat Marguerite Simon, another former judge, to serve on the commission. The Senate has not acted on her nomination.

DiVincenzo's spokesman has said the commission must act with a bipartisan quorum.

Jaso, 50, a Republican from Morristown, is a partner in the complex-litigation firm Spiro Harrison in Short Hills. He was a counselor in the Attorney General's Office under President George W. Bush and, before that, helped investigate the Whitewater scandal involving President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

"ELEC plays an essential role in ensuring transparency, integrity and accountability in our state and local political campaigns," Jaso told the Judiciary Committee on Monday.

Holden, 73, is a Democrat who lives in Merchantville.