More than 221 mail-in ballots were handled by a team of men working for challenger Shahin Khalique’s campaign in the May 10th election for the 2nd Ward council seat, alleges incumbent Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman in court documents filed on Friday.
Akhtaruzzaman’s campaign identified 25 men, who allegedly worked out of a backroom office at Khalique’s campaign headquarter, to sign more than 221 mail-in ballots as “assitors.” One of those man in a voluntary statement to private investigator Steve Olimpio said he filled out 13 certificate of mail-in voter, flaps attached to mail-in ballots, at the back office at Khalique’s command in April, according to Akhtaruzzaman’s court filings.
Titu Miah told the private investigator hired by Akhtaruzzaman he was outside of the campaign headquarter in April when Khalique pulled him inside the office and handed him a stack of certificate of mail-in voter to complete. “When I asked who are they for, he [Khalique] told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, just fill them out and sign your name at the bottom,’” reads Miah’s statement.
Khalique did not respond to a call for comment on Monday morning.
Miah’s statement says he completed the 13 certificate of mail-in voter. While he was leaving the campaign office, he witnessed several other individuals doing the same, he alleged in the statement.
“No mail-in voter shall permit any person in any way, except as provided by this act, to unseal, mark or inspect the voter’s ballot, interfere with the secrecy of the voter’s vote, complete or sign the certificate, or seal the inner or outer envelope, nor shall any person do so,” reads the New Jersey vote by mail law. “In no event may a candidate for election provide such assistance, nor may any person, at the time of providing such assistance, campaign or electioneer on behalf of any candidate.”
Miah received $60 in cash from Khalique few days later for wearing a branded t-shirt and promoting his candidacy in the 2nd Ward. All 25 men were electioneering for Khalique’s campaign, alleges the court filings, by citing photograph of the men wearing campaign shirts and appearing on images with campaign signs.
“We never anticipated a problem of this magnitude,” said Akhtaruzzaman. “If this isn’t fraud I don’t what is.”
Akhtaruzzaman’s campaign obtained the flaps of mail-in ballots cast in the election to find eight individuals connected to the Khalique campaign signed between 9 and 65 certificate of mail-in voter as “assistors” amounting to 180 ballots. And another 17 individuals – including Khalique’s brother Jwel Khalique – allegedly signed 41 more, according to court filings.
In all, the new court filings question 221 mail-in ballots. In previous court filings, the incumbent alleged 40 of Khalique’s supporters submited mail-in ballots without being domiciled in the 2nd Ward.
The court filing also cites a clause in the Vote by Mail Law that states a voter may be assisted by an adult family member – spouse, parent, child, grandparent, grandchild, or sibling of the voter – or someone who lives with the voter in completing the mail-in ballot.
“A mail-in voter shall be entitled to assistance from a family member in performing any of the actions provided for in this section. The family member or other person providing such assistance shall certify that he or she assisted the voter and will maintain the secrecy of the vote by both printing and signing his or her name in the space provided on the certificate,” reads the law.
Akhtaruzzaman’s campaign said those assisted by the 25 individuals were not family members of voters nor did they reside at the same address. For example, one individual, Foyes Ali, who allegedly signed 65 mail-in ballots, the most of any, signed as an assistor for Ana Torres. Ali, who is Bangladeshi-American, is unlikely to be related to Torres. Interracial families are uncommon in the largely conservative Bangladesh-American community in the city. Ali and Torres also have different home addresses, according to the court filings.
Aheya Khan, a close supporter and friend of Akhtaruzzaman, said the Passaic County Board of Election should have spotted the 221 mail-in ballots.
Chairman of the board of elections John Currie said the board checks and validates the voter certification signatures on the flaps.
“I don’t know what he’s alleging. He must not understand the system because every one of those ballots are scrutinized,” said Currie.
The ineligible mail-in ballots were rejected, said the chairman. “We rejected quite a few,” he said while warning Khan to avoid making defamatory statements against him and his staff. “They are going to have to go before a judge to prove this stuff.”
Currie said the board checks a voter’s signature on the certificate of mail-in voter. He said the determination of whether a mail-in ballot assister is legitimate or otherwise falls under the jurisdiction of the Passaic County superintendent of elections office.
“We don’t even get them,” said Sherine El-Abd, Passaic County superintendent of elections, when asked about the flaps. She said her office does investigate when someone raises questions about a mail-in vote. The mail-in ballots are received by the board of elections.
Though the law appears to narrow assistors to family members, the practice appears to be different allowing anyone to assist a voter in completing the ballot so long as a certification statement is completed by the assistor, said election officials.
Shawn Crisafulli, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of State, emphasized the “or” when asked for clarity. “Family member or other person,” he responded succinctly.
Khalique, who is expected to be sworn into office on Friday, has been accused of using questionable tactics to secure mail-in ballots by all three of his opponents. He boasted about having secured 1,000 mail-in votes in a mail drop a week before election day. Akhtaruzzaman said the allegations explain how Khalique knew he had 1,000 mail-in votes prior to election day.
El-Abd said her office has been briefing both the Passaic County Proseuctor’s Office and the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office about their investigation. She opened an investigation in April as large number of mail-in ballots were proliferating in the 2nd Ward.
“Yes, we are aware of the allegations,” said Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. “We do not have any further comment.”
The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to a message for comment on Monday morning.
Khalique finished last at the polls, but propelled himself to victory with 1,010 mail-in votes. His final tally stood at 1,401 votes and Akhtaruzzaman’s 1,381.
“We won the election fair and square. It was stolen from us,” said Akhtaruzzaman. “I’m not doing this for myself. I’m doing this to safe guard the democratic process.”
Both parties are scheduled to meet for a scheduling conference before a judge on Wednesday morning.
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This report was last updated at 9:37 a.m. on June 28th, 2016.