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November 03, 2023

New Jersey GOP sues group boosting third-party candidates

State Republicans hope to freeze the bank account of Jersey Freedom, which they say is connected to South Jersey Democrats

Politics Lawsuits
NJ GOP Lawsuit Michael Candelori/for PhillyVoice

Jersey Freedom has launched mailers, online ads and television spots boosting independent candidates in what New Jersey Republicans say is a bid to siphon votes from GOP candidates.

State Republicans lodged a lawsuit Thursday against an independent expenditure group boosting minor-party candidates in South Jersey, alleging it flouted campaign finance reporting requirements.

The Republican suit, lodged in state Superior Court in Atlantic County, alleges Jersey Freedom, the independent expenditure group, failed to timely file some paperwork with the Election Law Enforcement Commission and sought to illegally shield donor and spending information from disclosure in its latest filing, a move the GOP claims is meant to hide the group’s ties to South Jersey Democrats.

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“We need to take a stand here as Americans and New Jerseyans. As Republicans, yes, but more importantly for the rule of law. This is just egregious,” Bob Hugin, the state Republican chairman, told reporters earlier this week. “We need to really stand firm here and make sure people are aware of it and stop this nonsense. It’s really bad for democracy.”

The GOP’s suit asks the court to freeze Jersey Freedom’s bank account, bar it from making additional independent expenditures, require the group to amend an apparently deficient registration form, and award the Republicans attorney fees.

Jersey Freedom has launched mailers, online ads, and television spots boosting independent candidates in the 2nd and 4th districts in what Republicans have charged is a bid to boost spoilers to siphon votes from GOP candidates there.

The 4th District is in South Jersey, and it’s held by Democrats now but the GOP believes they can flip it this year because its longtime state senator, Fred Madden, is retiring and its boundaries were redrawn to make it more friendly for the Republican Party. Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester) is seeking the Senate seat there against Republican Chris Del Borrello.

In an 11-day preelection filing made public Monday, Jersey Freedom reported spending $35,226 on mailers boosting Guiseppe Constanzo, who is seeking the 4th Legislative District’s Senate seat under the banner Conservatives for South Jersey, and Shawn Peck, a Libertarian who had been seeking the 2nd District’s Senate seat. Peck suspended his campaign in October and endorsed incumbent Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic), citing Jersey Freedom’s “interference” in the race.

Jersey Freedom reported no fundraising in its most recent filing and paid for the mailer by taking on debt to its Maryland-based mail vendor for printing and postage, a legal but highly unusual maneuver that Republicans argue was made to shield the group’s donors from disclosure.

“Well, it’s news to me that mail houses from other states will front money on postage for alleged independent expenditure groups that haven’t reported a single dollar in donations,” said Jason Sena, the Republican State Committee’s general counsel.

Because the group took on debt instead of spending funds, it could spend without taking in any contributions, whose sources Jersey Freedom would otherwise be required to disclose.

Republicans allege Jersey Freedom also failed to disclose some independent expenditures, but it’s not clear that’s the case.

The group has launched television ads supporting Constanzo and Peck on Fox News, but those ads were purchased on Oct. 27 — days after the reporting period’s Oct. 24 cutoff — a review of Federal Communications Commission filings found.

Digital ads run by Jersey Freedom on Meta platforms — which include Facebook and Instagram — boosting Constanzo and Peck or dinging Del Borrello became active on Oct. 30. It’s unclear if the group is running digital ads elsewhere.

Constanzo did not return requests for comment.

Recent changes to state campaign finance law mean the source of the funds used to launch the Jersey Freedom ads won’t become clear until 20-day post-election reports are released to the public. The Elections Transparency Act, signed in July, removed a requirement that independent expenditure groups file reports detailing some fundraising and spending in the final days of a race.

“My perspective, quickly, is I think the law needs to be amended. There’s a lot of good parts to it and a lot of bad parts to it. This needs to be amended,” said Polistina, whose lone Senate Republican yes vote was instrumental in passing the Elections Transparency Act.

The suit also charges Jersey Freedom failed to register with the Election Law Enforcement Commission, the state’s campaign finance regulator, in a timely manner. ELEC requires independent expenditure groups to register within 10 days of making an independent expenditure or receiving a contribution.

The group appears to have filed in line with that timeline but left some information off the form, like contact information for its chairman, Eric Peterson.

Republican officials said they would also forward the matter to county prosecutors with a request for an investigation. Similar requests sent to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and the office of the U.S. Attorney for the district of New Jersey went unreturned, Polistina and Del Borrello said Tuesday.

The closeness of Election Day — now less than a week away — leaves little time for the suit to wind its way through the courts.

“The shadowy actors responsible for the background facts have acted in such a way that puts us under the gun,” Sena said. “We’re going to file and do what we need to do as quickly as we can to get in front of the judge.”

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