HAMMONTON — Candidates for Town Council in the third-party Hammonton First group and their treasurer, Michael J. Messina, are charged with failing to file political contribution and expenditure reports to the state on time in their 2007 and 2008 races.
The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission released two complaints Wednesday, charging the two slates of candidates with several counts of violating election law. Those charged have 20 days to respond to the allegations before a hearing would be scheduled. The charges could eventually cost the treasurer and candidates tens of thousands of dollars in penalties.
“We’re reviewing our records from that era to determine whether there were any late filings,”said Jim Donio, spokesperson for Hammonton First and a longtime advocate for preservation and redevelopment of the downtown. “Thus far, it appears that the filings for the last several elections were submitted on time.”
Hammonton First’s then-president, Patty Palmieri, told The Press in late October 2008 that the group discovered it had mailed reports to the wrong address, and when it discovered the problem, it drove reports to Trenton.
All of the required reports were eventually received, said ELEC, but not until the day before the election, in the case of the 2008 complaint, and not until long after the election in 2007.
ELEC spokesman Joe Donohue said he cannot comment on specific cases, but ELEC’s mission is to provide timely disclosure of political contributions.
“If voters don’t get that information in a timely fashion, it makes it harder for them to evaluate the candidates,” Donohue said. “It conceivably could be a factor people would want to weigh — who is backing those candidates.”
He said charges aren’t filed automatically if reports come in late, as they are at the federal level. It can take years to conduct investigations, he said. Sometimes, the ELEC brings charges on its own, and sometimes it’s a result of an outside party filing a complaint, he said.
ELEC does not disclose how individual investigations are started. ELEC said that in the 2007 race, Messina and winning candidates Jerry Barberio, now the city’s business administrator and public works manager; Ed Wuillermin and Tracy Petrongolo missed all filing deadlines.
The complaint said the 2007 group should have filed forms by Sept. 24, 2007; Oct. 9, 2007; Oct. 26, 2007; and Nov. 26, 2007. All of the forms were filed March 6, 2008, ELEC said.
The forms disclosed monetary contributions of about $11,000 and in-kind donations of more than $30,000.
The complaint regarding the 2008 race said Messina, failed candidate Tom Gribbin, and winning candidates Jeanne Sparacino-Lewis and Sam Rodio, failed to file on time, as well. The ELEC complaint said that group should have filed forms by July 17, 2008; Oct. 6, 2008; and Oct. 24, 2008. Those forms were received Nov. 3, 2008, ELEC said.
In addition, 20-day post-election reports, which were due Nov. 24, 2008, were not received until April 22, 2009, according to ELEC. The forms disclosed about $500 in cash donations and $26,000 in in-kind contributions.
Of winning candidates in both groups, only Rodio is still on Town Council. Hammonton First is a third party group whose members first swept into office in 2005 and led efforts to build a new town hall downtown, which was completed in 2008.
Some Hammonton First members are registered Republicans, although the group itself is independent. Members have put great emphasis on redeveloping downtown Hammonton. Its members dominate current council.
Barberio declined comment on the details of the charges, saying he hasn’t had time to review them with his attorney.
“Because of all the annoying snow issues, I haven’t had a chance to read through everything,” he said. “I heard about it Monday or last Friday.” It was a surprise, he said. “I wasn’t reallly (expecting it). It seems so long ago. It’s hard for me to place myself back then, when I was running for the first time. I was very green and new to it.”
Messina, currently a member of the Hammonton Planning Board, said he is no longer acting as treasurer for any political group and declined to comment further.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: 609-272-7219 MPost@pressofac.com