After denying accusations last week by a GOP party leader that they violated election laws, Belmar Democrats now admit that at least some of them were true.
At last week’s Borough Council meeting, Mike Seebeck, chairman of the Belmar Republicans Committee, accused Mayor Matthew Doherty and the Democratic council members of violating state election laws during their most recent campaigns, sparking a contentious debate between both sides that resulted in the mayor accusing Seebeck of photographing teenage girls last Election Day.
Doherty and the other council members denied the allegations at the Jan. 18 meeting, but earlier this week the Democrats admitted that they unwittingly broke at least two election laws: First, by having their party chairman, Louis Pulido, also chair their campaigns in 2010 and 2011 and, second, when Councilwoman Jennifer Nicolay’s joint campaign committee accepted cash donations from Pulido that exceeded the legal limit by $150.
The mayor contends that the Democrats and Pulido did not know they had broken any laws until after they investigated Seebeck’s claims. Nicolay said on Wednesday that she would return the extra money to Pulido and be more careful in the future.
“This is all small-town stuff and on occasion you’ll have someone who makes a minor error,” Doherty said Tuesday.
The maximum penalty for violating a state election law is a fine of $6,800 per transaction, according to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).
While Seebeck said he has filed claims with ELEC, the commission’s searchable database does not list any complaints or decisions related to any of the candidates, their party or the chairman.
An ELEC spokesman reached by telephone Tuesday said it was the commission’s policy to not discuss any possible claims or investigations.
The Council Meeting
After several minutes defending himself and fellow Democrats at last week's meeting from what he called “bogus” allegations at the time, Doherty turned the tables and accused Seebeck of taking photographs of teenage girls that were campaigning on Election Day last November, asking him what he did with the photos.
While photographing teenagers in public is not illegal, Doherty said one of the teen’s mothers called the borough to complain, and he was disturbed nothing could be done about it.
“It’s highly inappropriate. It’s completely unethical. You’re the chairman of the Republican Party in Belmar and to act like that is unconscionable — but it’s not technically illegal,” Doherty said.
Seebeck, who at first refused to answer but eventually conceded that he took the photos in order to document the Democrats’ campaign activity, said Doherty had over-stepped the boundary of reasonable political discourse.
“Mayor, you are completely out of line,” Seebeck said.
Council President Claire Deicke fired back.
“You attack my integrity,” Deicke said. “What can be said for a person who constantly wants to destroy people?”
Seebeck said he was called in by police Chief Thomas Palmisano on Election Day to discuss the photos, and was cleared of any wrongdoing. Palmisano, who was present at the council meeting, confirmed the story.
“So don’t stand there and talk to me or accuse me of taking pictures of teenage girls with some smirk on your face and think you’re going to impugn my character when I’m discussing facts,” Seebeck said to Doherty.
Seebeck said ELEC told him to document any campaign activity that was not reported by the candidates, which is why he photographed the teenagers campaigning last November.
Doherty said Seebeck has filed several "bogus claims" with ELEC against he and other Democratic officials in town. Not a single investigation has ever resulted from those claims, he said.
(Seebeck spoke twice during the meeting's public portion. An audio recording of both portions, in their entirety, is attached to the video section of this article.)
Pulido Chaired Both Campaign and Party Committees
Seebeck said the Democrats used their party chairman to serve as their campaign chairman, which according to the ELEC compliance manual for candidates, is a violation of state law.
Documents filed by all four officials with the state in 2010 and 2011 confirm that Pulido, the Democratic Committee chairman, served as chairmain to each of their campaigns.
In 2010, Pulido chaired the joint campaign committee of Doherty, Deicke and Councilman Brian Magovern, listed as “Belmar Democrats 2010,” records show. Doherty also filed separately that same year, listing himself as the campaign chair.
In 2011, Pulido served as campaign chairman for Nicolay and Concetta Guittierez, who ran under the joint committee “Jen and Connie for Council 2011,” records show. Guittierez did not win a seat on the council.
Last week all four Democrats confirmed that Pulido chaired their campaign committees, and Pulido earlier this week did not deny that he served as chairman for both the Democratic committee and the two campaigns, but said he was still looking into whether or not he violated any election laws.
“That’s an easy enough fix, if that’s the case – the one is no longer active anyway, so it just won’t happen again,” Pulido said during a telephone interview on Tuesday. “At this stage we are looking to confirm that.”
By Wednesday evening, Pulido said he still had not looked into whether or not he broke any election laws.
An entry on page six of the ELEC candidate compliance manual reads:
“Note that no person serving as a chairperson of a political party committee or a legislative leadership committee shall be eligible to be appointed to or serve as:
- Chairperson, campaign treasurer, or deputy campaign treasurer of a candidate committee or joint candidates committee, other than a candidate or joint candidates committee established to further the election of that person as a candidate…”
Doherty said on Tuesday that none of the Democrats knew they were violating the law by having Pulido chair their campaigns.
“He didn’t know. Now that we know, it won’t happen again,” Doherty said during a telephone interview.
Chalking it up to an innocent mistake, Doherty accused Seebeck of merely trying to score political points by making something out of largely nothing.
“Mr. Seebeck is trying to score as much political points as possible,” Doherty said. “To put it in perspective, this is 2012 and he’s talking about something that occurred in 2010.”
Nicolay Took More Cash Than Allowed
Seebeck’s second accusation was that Nicolay took three times the legal limit in cash donations from Pulido in 2011. While it appears she may have taken more than the legal limit, it was not three times the legal limit as Seebeck alleged.
According to Nicolay’s campaign records, she and Guitierrez took a combined $650 in cash donations from Pulido over a five-month period in late 2011.
State law says that each candidate may receive no more than $200 in cash donations from any particular donor during an election cycle. Since Nicolay and Guitierrez filed as a joint campaign committee, they could have accepted up to $400 combined from Pulido.
On Oct. 17, 2011, Nicolay and Guitierrez filed a document with the state, indicating Pulido donated a total of $350 in cash to their campaign committee between June and July of that year. Another filing on Dec. 2, 2011 indicates Pulido donated another $300 in cash that November.
Nicolay on Wednesday said that the allegations were correct, but her campaign at the time did not realize it had done anything wrong.
“It was definitely an oversight on Louis (Pulido)’s part, and we’re going to completely reimburse him the correct amount,” Nicolay said during a telephone interview.
Nicolay said she would be more careful in the future to avoid those kinds of mistakes.
“With the coming election, something such as that will not happen again. We will make sure no oversights are replicated,” Nicolay said.
Pulido on Tuesday said he could neither confirm nor deny the allegations, but was looking into it.
“What we’re doing right now is we’re currently looking into that and seeing where, if at all, (Seebeck’s) correct on that. And if there’s anything correct on that, we’ll do what we need to do to correct it,” Pulido said. “I do know that if there is anything, there are actions we can take to correct it, and we will.”
Relying on Community Watchdogs
ELEC Spokesman Joe Donohue said the commission, with only six full-time investigators overseeing about 6,000 candidates statewide each year, relies primarily on candidates to police themselves.
“To a large extent this law is self-enforcing. We have to depend on the candidates to be honest, but if you look at almost any state program that’s the way it is,” Donohue said during a telephone interview Tuesday. “We basically do the best we can within our limits.”
Donohue said the commission conducts general investigations each year, but complaints typically develop from members of the public such as other candidates, or from investigative news articles.
Each complaint is reviewed by a bipartisan commission that determines whether or not an investigation is warranted, Donohue said.
“Some people just flagrantly violate the law — there are candidates that run that never even file a report,” Donohue said. “And other people file the reports and either misreport or wrongly report things, and that’s a secondary issue.”
Politics As Usual?
Both Seebeck and Doherty contend that the other acted out of line at last week’s council meeting.
Doherty points to Seebeck's claims against him and his fellow Democrats as evidence that the Republican is merely trying to score political points.
“I think it’s unfortunate and sad that this past council meeting Mr. Seebeck tried to score cheap political points by attacking our Council President Claire Deicke, who’s a breast-cancer-surviving 68-year-old grandmother. But that’s evidently the Republican Party in Belmar today,” Doherty said.
Meanwhile, Seebeck maintains he is simply trying to hold the Democrats to the same campaign laws he has had to follow, and said that he believed Doherty took politics in Belmar to a new low by making unsavory insinuations regarding the photos he took of the teenage campaign workers.
“When Mayor Doherty, Council President Deicke and Councilman Magovern choose to attack my character rather than answer questions based on fact it sends a clear message about how they conduct their affairs and the respect they have for the people they serve,” Seebeck wrote in an email Tuesday.
“To use the municipal dais as their personal platform to abuse those with dissenting opinion is despicable. Their collective attempt to impugn my reputation in our community, especially concerning the many youth-oriented responsibilities and organizations in which I participate, will not go unaddressed,” Seebeck wrote.