The majority of witnesses called to testify at the first day of trial in the 2nd Ward election fraud case said people allegedly connected to councilman Shahin Khalique’s campaign took their signatures and mail-in ballots without the voter having selected a candidate.
Eight witnesses testified on Monday. One witness, Miriam D. Tatis, said she did not seek a vote by mail ballot. She told the court she did not vote in the election.
“No, I didn’t,” Tatis told John Carbone, the attorney representing Khalique in the case, when he asked her whether she voted in the May 10th, 2016 election.
Tatis’ assistor on the ballot Foyes Ali, who would be repeatedly brought up, was not someone she knew, she said. She said an unidentified teenager visited her at her home and on more than one occasion took her signature.
Susan Champion, former councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman’s attorney, described the teenager mentioned by Tatis as a “phantom young person.”
Tatis said once the teenager took her signature to register her to vote.
“She may think she didn’t vote,” said Carbone. He argued she voted in the election because her signature matched with that which appears on the signed ballot.
“She clearly said she didn’t vote in the election,” responded Champion. She said Carbone’s argument would render a signature obtained through trickery as legitimate. “If someone tricks you, you voted,” she said.
“How’s that the American way?” remarked judge Ernest Caposela at Carbone’s argument. How can we validate a mail-in vote when she said she didn’t know what she did? stated the judge.
The court experienced several interruptions throughout the morning proceedings. At one point, deputy attorney general Alan Stephens, who is representing the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and the Passaic County Superintendent of Elections’ Office, had to rush to his car to obtain voter signatures that were redacted by Passaic County Board of Elections.
Stephens’ move allowed for the rest of the day’s proceeding to go on as Carbone compared signatures of voters throughout the hearing.
Some witnesses subpoenaed failed to appear due to an Islamic holiday having coincided with the first day of trial. Some of them wrote explanation letters to the court while others may argue they were served “defective” subpoenas.
Carbone said the subpoenas by Akhtaruzzaman’s team were “defective” because witnesses were not provided transportation fee.
All of this created frustration in the morning portion of the trial. Caposela described it was a “quagmire.”
“We’re not prepared,” said the judge.
“This matter is a logistical nightmare,” remarked Champion.
When the court returned from a brief recess things moved much more smoothly. Seven witnesses were called to testify.
Kamala Sen, a witness, said she “can’t remember” having marked a candidate on the ballot. She said she signed a document and presumed she voted.
Other witnesses said the same: someone came, got their signature, and the voter did not personally select one of the four men who ran for the 2nd Ward election in May.
Tahmeed Chowdhury, a witness, said he had no interest in voting in the 2nd Ward election. He said Khalique and another man visited his house and through persistence exerted heavy pressure on him to vote.
Chowdhury said the two men took his signature at his home and then one day while he stood waiting for a bus on Wayne Avenue between Totowa Avenue and Liberty Street, Taj Uddin, who ran a failed campaign for a school board seat last year and runs a dollar store on Wayne Avenue, had him sign another document.
Chowdhury said he did not recall picking a person to vote for in the election. “I haven’t seen this paper before,” he remarked when one of the attorneys showed him a ballot that had the name of the candidates.
“I didn’t want to vote,” said Chowdhury.
“Did anyone force you?” asked Stephens.
“Yes,” responded Chowdhury.
Chowdhury said Khalique and Uddin pressured him until he voted. His mail-in ballot had an assistor listed: Foyes Ali.
“I don’t know who that is,” said Chowdhury when asked about Ali.
The pattern continued with yet another 2nd Ward voter – Tyree Hodges. Hodges said a canvasser visited his home identifying himself as Khalique’s cousin.
Hodges said he did not see the names of the four people running for office in the paperwork he signed.
Champion asked him if he voted for a candidate: “Not really,” responded Hodges. He though suggested his intention was to support Khalique by virtue of him being the cousin of his neighbor.
Yacoub Nissan, another voter, said he filled out his own mail-in ballot. His ballot listed an assistor by the name of Rasel Ahmed.
“I don’t know Rasel Ahmed,” said Nissan when asked whether he knew the assistor.
Nazeda Khanom said she did not know Ali, who is listed as having assisted her in completing her ballot. She said she doesn’t remember marking a candidate on the ballot.
She said she was given paperwork by Jewl Khalique, brother of councilman Khalique.
“I didn’t mark anything,” said Franklin Rodriguez, speaking through a Spanish translator, when asked whether he picked a person to vote for in the ballot. The court had two Bengali translator to translate for a number of witnesses who did not speak English.
Khalique’s lawyer objected to using one of the Bengali translator who had translated a phone call between a voter and the councilman.
The judge determined there was a conflict of interest and released the translator from the case to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
Rodriguez said he did not know Ali, his assistor.
The final witness of the day, Ana Torres-Sanchez said, “I haven’t voted this year. I didn’t vote for anybody.”
Sanchez said she did not know Ali who is listed as having assisted her.
The case is expected to go on for two weeks. Both sides issued 400 or more subpoenas. A contingent of Akhtaruzzaman’s supporters were present throughout the hearing. The former councilman was also present.
Khalique’s campaign manager Henry Sosa was present. Sosa hurled an expletive at a reporter when asked about the first day of trial.
Khalique was not present at the hearing.
Though witness testimonies strengthened Akhtaruzzaman’s arguments; Khalique’s team did score a victory by preventing former detective and private investigator Steve Olimpio of Steve Olimpio Detective Agency from testifying as an expert witness. Olimpio’s investigation which identified a number of voters who voted without being domiciled in the 2nd Ward was critical in building the former councilman’s case.
Champion argued Olimpio is an expert witness who should be allowed to testify at the proceeding to share his findings. However, Carbone questioned Olimpio’s credibility as a witness for stating there’s a “high probability” some of the individuals who voted in the May 10th, 2016 election did not live in the 2nd Ward in a report.
Champion argued the private investigator is no different than a medical expert who makes an assessment after reviewing information.
“There’s no industry, it’s election,” said judge Ernest Caposela, disallowing the private investigator to serve as an expert witness.
Judicial proceedings continue tomorrow at 9 a.m. at the Passaic County Courthouse.