N.J. power broker DiVincenzo settles campaign-finance case for $20,000

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo at McLoone’s Boat House in West Orange, N.J., in June 2013.

One of New Jersey’s most powerful political bosses has paid more than $20,000 as part of a settlement with the state’s campaign-finance watchdog, which accused him of illegally spending thousands of dollars in campaign funds on personal expenses including trips to Puerto Rico, a gym membership, and U.S. Open tickets.

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and his campaign treasurer neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing in the settlement announced Wednesday, which comes more than four years after campaign regulators filed the complaint.

In its original complaint, the state Election Law Enforcement Commission accused DiVincenzo, a Democrat and key ally of Republican Gov. Christie’s, of illegally spending about $16,000 in the 2010 general election and 2014 primary election. The agency also accused him of failing to disclose more than $70,000 in expenditures.

DiVincenzo was perhaps the highest-profile Democrat to endorse Christie for reelection in 2013, a time when the governor was working to demonstrate his cross-party appeal amid a shadow campaign for the presidency.

The commission, known as ELEC, said in its consent order that it had dropped several allegations of improper spending. For example, it said DiVincenzo’s use of $792 in campaign funds to purchase tickets to 2011 NCAA Tournament basketball games in Newark was permissible.

DiVincenzo “attended to represent Essex County, which was hosting the national tournament for the first time,” ELEC said.

Angelo J. Genova, DiVincenzo’s attorney, said this was 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 a statement.

The agency maintained that much of DiVincenzo’s campaign spending violated state law. He spent $676 on a tuxedo, $699 for an office television, $408 on U.S. Open tickets, and $56 on a parking ticket, according to ELEC.

And he used thousands of dollars of campaign funds to pay for airfare to Puerto Rico, hotel stays there, and meals.

DiVincenzo and his treasurer, Jorge Martinez, said they believed the disputed expenditures were permissible.

ELEC imposed a penalty of $25,558 but dropped that to $20,446 after DiVincenzo paid the lower amount in late November. He had faced millions of dollars in potential fines.

For a while, it looked as if  DiVincenzo might escape penalty altogether.

He argued in court that the campaign-finance regulator’s board lacked a sufficient quorum of members when it filed the complaint in 2013. An administrative law judge agreed, and vacancies on ELEC’s four-member board hobbled its ability to move forward with the case.

Board members are appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the state Senate. Three members were confirmed earlier this year.