Campaign finance complaint against Michael DeFusco dismissed

Campaign finance complaint against Michael DeFusco dismissed
Councilman Michael DeFusco was successfully able to dismiss the complaint filed against him. Photo by Mark Koosau.

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 leaving the future of the city’s own campaign contribution rules up in the air.

DeFusco had sought to dismiss a complaint filed by City Clerk James Farina in 2019, which alleged that he went over the city’s campaign finance restrictions multiple times during his 2017 mayoral campaign. DeFusco had called the complaint a political attack against him.

The case was heard in West New York’s municipal court before Judge Armando Hernandez over multiple months, who 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 ruled that Farina as a municipal official lacked the standing to bring the lawsuit. 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 legal matter now throws the case of Hoboken’s own campaign finance laws up in the air. Back in December of last year, the City Council voted to change the city’s campaign finance rules; normally it limits contributions in local elections to $500, but the new ordinance would grant labor unions an exemption from those rules.

However, a trigger clause was added to that ordinance (and was later re-adopted this February) stating that the changes would only go into effect if the judge in DeFusco’s case ruled that the campaign finance rules were unenforceable or unconstitutional.

A Hoboken official declined to comment on the matter of the potential campaign finance changes.

For updates on this and other stories, check and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mark Koosau can be reached at [email protected] or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja.

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