A years’ long legal battle regarding alleged campaign finance violations by Hoboken Councilman Michael DeFusco has ended with a judge tossing out the case Thursday morning, handing the councilman a victory but also triggering an ordinance allowing labor unions to donate more to local elections.
DeFusco had sought to dismiss a complaint filed by City Clerk James Farina in 2019, which alleged that he exceeded the city’s campaign finance restrictions multiple times during his 2017 mayoral campaign. DeFusco has called the complaint a political attack against him.
The case has been heard in West New York’s municipal court before Judge Armando Hernandez over multiple months, and he ruled today in a virtual session that he was dismissing it.
“It is fundamental in our laws that there is an intended right of vote of self-govern beyond the composed state, and that municipalities offer a creation of state, limited in their powers and capable of exercise; only those powers government granted to them by the legislature,” he said during his ruling.
Hernandez said that he concurred with an opinion by the state Office of Legislative Services, reading a letter from March of 2021 saying that it is the state’s duty to oversee political contributions in New Jersey, including limiting contributions, and reporting contributions and expenditures.
This suggests Judge Hernandez decided that Farina as a municipal official lacked the standing to bring the complaint. It was unclear after the virtual hearing whether the city of Hoboken plans to appeal the ruling.
In previous court hearings, DeFusco’s lawyer, Steven Kleinman, had argued that the councilman could’ve faced $330,000 in penalties and “potential financial ruin” for accepting contributions that were legal under state law, and that the statute of limitations had expired.
State prosecutor Connie Bentley McGhee meanwhile had sought to proceed with the case, arguing that Farina acted on his obligation to enforce the violations and that probable cause existed for it.
“[DeFusco] is extremely relieved to have this be over,” said Kleinman in a phone interview after the ruling. “It’s been a long journey to get to this point. But obviously, we’re both pleased with the judge’s decision, which speaks for itself.”
The judge’s ruling on the matter consequentially changed Hoboken’s own campaign finance laws today. Back in December of last year, the City Council voted to change the city’s campaign finance rules. Normally contributions from political action committees (PACs) in local elections are limited to $500, but the new ordinance would grant labor union PACs an exemption.
However, a trigger clause was added to that ordinance (and was re-adopted this February) stating that the exemption would only go into effect if the judge in DeFusco’s case ruled that the campaign finance rules were unenforceable or unconstitutional.
Hoboken spokeswoman Marilyn Baer said as a result of the ruling, unions can now contribute to the maximum amount permitted by the state. According to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, political committees can donate up to $7,200.
Earlier, Baer also said that the administration “appreciates the due diligence of Judge Armando Hernandez in his review of Hoboken’s local campaign finance laws,” and that the court’s decision “provides important legal clarity on how the city should move forward.”
“The administration looks forward to putting this matter in the rearview mirror and continuing to work with all stakeholders on good government policies on behalf of the residents of Hoboken,” she said.