West New York Municipal Court Judge Armando Hernandez is expected to rule soon on whether there was cause to issue the complaint over Hoboken Councilman Michael DeFusco’s alleged 2017 campaign finance violations.
DeFusco’s counsel, Steven Kleinman, and Connie Bentley McGhee, the prosecutor for New Jersey, argued in a virtual hearing before Judge Hernandez on June 21 over whether the city ordinance under which City Clerk James Farina charged DeFusco was subject to a statute of limitations that would have made the charges against DeFusco moot.
In 2019 Farina alleged that DeFusco had violated the city’s finance laws by going over the $500 contribution limit during his 2017 mayoral campaign. DeFusco has called the complaint a political attack against him, a charge Kleinman echoed in his argument in the hearing.
Kleinman argued that if DeFusco was found culpable for the alleged violations he faced a potential $330,000 in penalties and “potential financial ruin” for accepting contributions that were legal under state law. DeFusco has asked the court to dismiss Farina’s complaint.
“My client has had to live every day and every night for three years with this,” Kleinman said.
Kleinman criticized the prosecutor for not dropping the case despite his offering numerous examples of “dispositive” binding case law, including decisions supporting his argument that the statute of limitations on the ordinance expired after one year. He also cited a letter about the case from the Hoboken’s corporation counsel calling the penalty provisions in the ordinance “nonsensical and impossible to enforce.”
He criticized the substance of Farina’s complaint, which he said “listed a bunch of contributions my client received without even documenting any information as to whether they even fall under the ordinance.”
He added that the prosecution had also failed to document the relevance of the complaint under the ordinance, which, since its adoption in 2011, has never been enforced despite “multiple instances when it could have been enforced.”
He pointed out that complaint against DeFusco was sworn and distributed to news media two weeks before the 2017 mayoral election, which DeFusco lost.
McGhee said the city based its complaint on election contribution reports provided by DeFusco, and that Farina acted on his obligation to enforce violations of the ordinance. She argued that probable cause existed for the complaint and it should not be dismissed.
“There is no one year statute of limitations,” she argued. She said, addressing Kleinman’s prediction of financial ruin, that if DeFusco is found guilty there are many possible ways a penalty could be “worked out” between the defendant and the state.
McGhee contended the case law Kleinman cited does not explicitly state that a town has only one year to issue a city ordinance violation. “That’s left up to the town.”
“This is not even a plausible argument to make,” Kleinman replied.
Judge Hernandez told both sides he would render his decision and they’d be notified of the date.
One side effect of a decision on the complaint could determine whether or not the city’s own campaign finance laws itself would change. An ordinance adopted would allow labor unions an exemption from the laws, but will only go into effect if the court rules in this case that the laws are unenforceable or unconstitutional.
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