TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The wealthy front-runner in the state's Democratic primary for governor should be punished for setting up political groups before officially entering the contest, two of his rivals said Thursday, with one of them citing emails stolen from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chairman as proof of a campaign law violation.
Jim Johnson filed a complaint Thursday with the Election Law Enforcement Commission against Phil Murphy, saying Murphy viewed the political groups as a way of getting a head start on his campaign without the close scrutiny that comes with declaring a gubernatorial run so early.
Murphy's campaign said he would seek its dismissal and called Johnson's complaint baseless.
"(He) is wasting taxpayers' money in forcing ELEC to look into allegations that he, as an attorney, knows don't pass the laugh test," said Murphy spokeswoman Julie Rogninsky.
Fellow Democratic underdog Assemblyman John Wisniewski, meanwhile, cited an email from Murphy to John Podesta — and released by WikiLeaks — in which the former Goldman Sachs executive and one-time finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee said he was likely to set up a nonprofit to build "visibility, credentials, etc." ahead of a possible run for governor.
Roginsky said Wisniewski's comments were "straight from" President Donald Trump's playbook.
"Maybe he would be better served to take his conspiracy theories to Breitbart, InfoWars or any other blog that caters to those who side with hostile foreign powers against the Democratic Party," she said.
The penalty, if the commission decides to investigate and finds a violation, is a fine of up to $8,600, according to state election officials. New Jersey law considers candidates who are "testing the waters" to be candidates and subject to filing and transparency requirements.
Johnson's campaign alleges that Murphy set up groups that amounted to exploratory committees before officially entering the race in May and that he avoided disclosing some contributors and expenditures. The complaint contends that Murphy's eventual gubernatorial campaign benefited from those groups' raising about $5 million in contributions.
Murphy's campaign provided an addendum to Internal Revenue Service filings showing that Murphy disclosed that he donated $1 million to New Start New Jersey, a social welfare nonprofit that isn't required by law to disclose donors.
IRS documents show the political organization New Way for New Jersey, disclosed — as required — that donors gave it about $4 million in 2015 and 2016.
Murphy, who has loaned $10 million to his campaign, has been leading in public polls ahead of the June 6 primaries.
Johnson, a former treasury official in President Bill Clinton's administration, has trailed in the single digits but has qualified for matching funds, having received nearly $900,000 so far, according to election records.
Johnson earlier this year asked Murphy to agree to a $15 million spending cap in the primary, where Murphy has racked up key endorsements and used millions of his own cash to surge to a dominant position. Murphy had no response to Johnson's request.
Experts say it's not uncommon for candidates to hold off announcing a run while they consider if it's something they want to do. In New Jersey, winning requires lining up local endorsements and party infrastructure, which takes time, said Matthew Hale, an associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University.
"Candidates want to do all of this before they are official, not necessarily because they are doing anything illegal or unethical, but because it is easier to do without paperwork," Hale said.
State Sen. Ray Lesniak is also running for governor for the Democrats. The Republican contenders include Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie is prohibited by term-limit laws from running for a third four-year term.
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