Brindle sues Murphy, three top aides after attempt to oust him from ELEC
Election Law Enforcement Commission Executive Director Jeff Brindle on Thursday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Phil Murphy and three of his top aides, alleging a conspiracy to force Brindle out of his longtime post over his efforts to shine a light on “dark money” in politics.
The lawsuit, filed in Mercer County, mostly recounts allegations that Brindle’s attorney, Bruce Afran, made public three weeks ago, but adds the new allegation that the Murphy administration sought to force Brindle out over a satirical op-ed he wrote that was critical of groups that engage in political activity but do not publicly disclose the identity of their donors.
The suit alleges “a conspiracy by Governor Philip Murphy, his Counsel, Parimal Garg, Chief of Staff George Helmy and Chief Ethics Officer Dominic Rota to force by illegal coercion and threats the resignation of plaintiff from his position as Executive Director of ELEC and to interfere with the independence of ELEC by pressuring and otherwise instructing its Commissioners to terminate Brindle from his position.”
The lawsuit was filed weeks after the Legislature attempted but failed to pass an amended version of the mammoth “Elections Transparency Act” that would have made ELEC’s executive director, currently chosen by the commission’s board, a direct appointee of the governor in an attempt to oust Brindle. The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Thursday planned to take up a new version of the bill, which would make ELEC’s four commissioners direct appointments of the governor, circumventing Senate approval. (One of the commission’s seats is currently vacant).
Brindle has served as ELEC’s executive director since 2009 and started working at the agency in 1985.
According to the lawsuit, Brindle was summoned to the governor’s office in November, where Helmy, Garg and Rota demanded he resign over an allegedly anti-gay email he authored, though they refused to produce it for him. The lawsuit also claims they threatened to make the email public if Brindle refused — a charge a Murphy’s spokesperson denied last month.
The email, which later surfaced, was a response to a state communication about National Coming Out Day. Brindle emailed an ELEC staffer asking if she was coming out and lamented that employees couldn’t celebrate the birthdays of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln but could celebrate people coming out.
Brindle refused to resign. Two weeks later, according to the lawsuit, Rota called each of ELEC’s three commissioners over the Brindle email and an unspecified “racist” statement.
“Such actions by Rota were illegal and illicit in that they represented a direct form of interference in the independent operation of ELEC that is to be insulated from control or supervision by any other agency or officials of the State,” the lawsuit states, adding that the commissioners refused to take action “in the absence of documentation of any discriminatory acts.”
Following that, in December, the state Attorney General’s Office commenced an “investigation” of the email and demanded Brindle take part in discrimination training.
“The commencement of the [Equal Employment Opportunity] ‘investigation’ was retaliatory for the failure of Brindle to resign and the refusal of the ELEC Commissioners to fire Brindle,” the lawsuit claims. “Brindle refused to participate in the ‘investigation’ because the Attorney General has no disciplinary authority over ELEC and its officers and the 'investigation' would have compromised the independence of ELEC."
The lawsuit also claims that the Murphy administration officials should not have been in possession of any discrimination complaints against Brindle, as they should have been “forwarded solely to the State’s EEO office and/or the Commissioners of ELEC and to be kept confidential from all other State officers or employees, including the Governor and his staff.”
Murphy spokesperson Mahen Gunaratna declined to comment.