Hoboken Councilman Michael DeFusco is asking the courts to dismiss a legal complaint against him alleging that he violated the city’s campaign finance laws.
His lawyer argued the complaint is “a truly unprecedented effort by the [city] to silence its political opposition by seeking to enforce a blatantly illegal and unconstitutional ordinance.”
At a recent court hearing on March 3, a resolution between the state of New Jersey and DeFusco was not reached. DeFusco’s lawyer, Steven Kleinmann of Cleary Giacobbe Alfieri Jacobs, LLC, sought a dismissal, while the prosecutor for New Jersey, Connie Bently McGhee, opposed the dismissal and asked for more time to review provided material.
The two parties eventually agreed to carry the case over to March 31.
The complaint, which began back in 2019, was issued by City Clerk James Farina, alleging that DeFusco had gone over the city’s limits during his 2017 mayoral campaign. DeFusco, who was running for reelection as councilman at the time, had called the attempt a political stunt against him.
Since the complaint was filed, it has been stuck in the court system for over two years, having moved from Hoboken municipal court to Union City, before being moved again last year to West New York’s court due to an unexplained conflict of interest.
The complaint is also at the center of whether or not Hoboken’s campaign finance laws will change. A recently adopted ordinance permits labor unions to contribute up to $7,200 per candidate rather than the current limit of $500, but it will only go into effect if the court rules in the case between Farina and DeFusco that the finance laws are unconstitutional or unenforceable.
During the hearing, Kleinmann said that Hoboken was seeking a $330,000 penalty on DeFusco for several years, and that the arguments for dismissal “are so compelling that there should be no need for a lengthy delay.”
McGhee requested more time to review material that was provided, later saying that she had received the new ordinance that was adopted on Feb. 16 that references this case. “I’m also believing that there may be state guidelines that supersede those of the municipality, so I would need the opportunity to take a look at that,” she said.
The referenced ordinance was when the City Council readopted the ordinance again after having previously added the trigger clause in-between the first and second reading during its initial adoption. Corporation Counsel Brian Aiola had recommended such due to what he said would be considered a substantive amendment.
That ordinance is also under another lawsuit by Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who has opposed changing the city’s finance laws and is challenging that the amendment made right before it’s initial adoption violated state law.
“The complaint filed by City Clerk James Farina, and a similar complaint filed by Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, both stating that Councilman DeFusco violated campaign finance regulations and blatantly accepted tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions above the permitted limit, speak for themselves,” said Vijay Chaudhuri, Mayor Ravi Bhalla’s chief-of-staff.
Arguments for dismissal
In a motion to dismiss provided by DeFusco (which was originally sent to Union City’s court at the time), Kleinmann made multiple arguments for dismissal.
The first was that “many of the alleged violations cannot be prosecuted because the statue of limitations has expired.” He referenced when the Appellate Division said in 1988 that municipal ordinances violations are applicable to being limited for up to one year to prosecute as the same disorderly and petty disorderly person violations.
The second was that the complaint didn’t show probable cause that the “allegedly improper contributions have violated the ordinance, and has filed a false certification in support of probable cause for which he should be punished.”
He argued that Farina “has failed provide any evidence whatsoever that a large number of the allegedly improper contributions are from a ‘committee’ as that term is defined by the ordinance,” and that he also “freely admits that as a senior Hoboken government
official, he has no actual knowledge whether or not many of these contributions actually violate the ordinance in any way.”
The third was that it was a conflict of interest for Farina as the city clerk to issue the complaint, saying that because of the operations between them and the City Council and mayor, the clerk has “a vested personal interest in ensuring the ordinance is stringently enforced only against political challengers and those in opposition to the incumbent administration.”
The last argument was that the ordinance was pre-empted by the state, in that municipalities such as Hoboken can only legislate in areas where the legislature has authorized, and that it is also unconstitutional because “the rights of a donor to make and a candidate to receive donations for his or her campaign are of constitutional magnitude.”
“Councilman DeFusco was eager to see this case finally dismissed,” said Kleinmann in a statement to the Hudson Reporter after the hearing. “He has waited for years for a fair hearing in a court outside the sphere of the Hoboken mayor’s political influence.”
“Once the court reviews our comprehensive arguments, we are confident they will see this for exactly what it is – an unfounded attack leveled on one of the mayor’s most effective critics.”