New Jersey’s top election-enforcement official sued Gov. Philip D. Murphy and three of Mr. Murphy’s top aides on Thursday for what the official said was their attempt to oust him in retaliation for comments he made ridiculing the state’s rules governing political fund-raising.
The election official, Jeffrey M. Brindle, claims in his lawsuit that Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, and the governor’s chief of staff, George Helmy, targeted him in a “concerted and joint action and conspiracy to extort and coerce” him.
Mr. Brindle has led New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, an independent agency responsible for monitoring state campaigns, as executive director for 14 years.
The suit comes as the Legislature, with support from Mr. Murphy’s office, is debating a sweeping bill that would fundamentally reshape New Jersey’s election laws. The legislation would increase the limits on certain campaign contributions; alter so-called pay-to-play rules meant to restrict the influence of money in government; and, by changing the statute of limitations for campaign violations, quash many of the commission’s pending investigations.
A proposed amendment to the bill would also give Mr. Murphy 90 days to appoint all new members to the election law commission — the only entity that is empowered to replace Mr. Brindle. (An earlier version of the bill, which was scuttled, would have given the governor the power to directly appoint the commission’s executive director, a change that the legislation’s opponents argued would gut the agency’s independence.)
The core argument in Mr. Brindle’s suit is tied to a meeting in November in the governor’s offices. Those at the meeting included Mr. Brindle, Mr. Helmy, Parimal Garg, Mr. Murphy’s top government lawyer, and Dominic Rota, the governor’s chief ethics officer.
Mr. Brindle was asked at the meeting about a message he had written in response to a subordinate’s email about National Coming Out Day, an annual gay-rights awareness celebration.
Mr. Brindle’s lawyer, Bruce Afran, said in an interview on Thursday that Mr. Murphy’s aides claimed that Mr. Brindle’s emailed response showed “anti-gay bias,” and asked him to sign a resignation letter that had already been typed.
In the email, which was sent in October, Mr. Brindle asked the staff member if she was coming out, and he lamented that there were not individual days set aside to celebrate the birthdays of President Lincoln and President Washington, according to three people familiar with the email.
Mr. Murphy was not at the meeting, but Mr. Afran said the aides threatened to publicize the contents of the email unless Mr. Brindle resigned.
“By threatening to publish an allegation of bias, unless he resigns, they were attempting to extort his resignation,” Mr. Afran said on Thursday.
The governor’s office declined to comment on Mr. Brindle’s suit. A spokeswoman for New Jersey’s attorney general, who oversees the election law commission and also defends state employees in lawsuits, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Mr. Brindle has refused to resign, and the election agency’s three current commissioners have not moved to fire him. Mr. Afran said in an earlier interview that the email was intended to express a political point of view that was protected by the First Amendment.
“Is it politic and diplomatic?” Mr. Afran said. “Probably not. But is it biased? No.”
Mr. Brindle says in his suit that the criticism of the email was merely a ruse to fire him because he is an outspoken critic of super PAC funds that shield the names of contributors and are often referred to as “dark money” accounts.
In the days before the November meeting, Mr. Brindle had written a satirical essay about the corrosive nature of campaigns financed by such untraceable funds. Mr. Murphy, who has considered running for president, benefits from a nonprofit political fund that does not disclose its donors.
“He doesn’t want someone in state government who is critical of dark money while he runs for president,” Mr. Afran said. Mr. Murphy has said that he will support President Biden if, as expected, he runs for re-election.
A hearing on the campaign finance legislation was scheduled for Thursday afternoon and the Assembly and Senate were expected to vote on it by the end of the month.
Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said the bill was “written and amended in back-room deals.”
“The public was not able to see the bill in advance,” she said, adding, “How can any of this be considered good government?”