Councilman Alex Mendez is under heavy criticism for distributing $5,000 worth of school uniform discount vouchers by tying them to his 2018 mayoral campaign. He received the 200 vouchers, each worth $25 in discount, from Hawthorne-based Kid City.
Mendez acknowledged he attached his campaign business cards to the vouchers prior to distribution. Vouchers were handed out to assist needy families, he said. A former school board member, he visited two local schools and distributed them to parents.
Although he attached his campaign materials on the vouchers, Mendez does not see the $5,000 worth of tokens as an in-kind contribution to his 2018 campaign. Except, state election law suggests the vouchers were an in-kind contribution. “A contribution received in the form of goods is reported in an amount equal to the fair market value of the goods,” reads New Jersey election law.
Jack Shamosh, one of the owners of Kid City, disagrees his firm was making a contribution to Mendez’s campaign. “These are absolutely not political contributions. I don’t know any of his political agenda,” he said. “We’re people trying to do a good job.” His business has 18 locations in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Through these stores, the business provides $50,000 worth of vouchers for poor children every year, said Shamosh.
“In general, when a business or individual, donates goods and services to a candidate, it’s considered an in-kind contribution. It’s the equivalent of a check one would write,” said Joe Donohue‚ deputy director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). An in-kind contribution of $5,000 exceeds the $2,600 threshold for companies.
Shamosh was “disturbed” to hear the vouchers were being used as a campaigning tool, he said. “We don’t have control over how they are handed out,” he said. His store manager Neil Patel said Mendez was selected for his local connections and ability to hand out the vouchers.
Patel, who manages the store in Hawthorne, attempted to give the vouchers to School 6 and School 15; however, school officials were uninterested viewing the vouchers as little more than a marketing ploy for the store to attract customers.
Both Patel and Shamosh were agitated when questioned about the contribution at their Hawthorne store. The interview was arranged by an independent freelance Spanish language journalist. Shamosh agreed to a video interview for the freelancer, but midway wanted recording stopped and later requested the footage be deleted. In a tizzy, Patel, after the interview, demanded a reporter tear up and destroy notes taken in the course of the interview. His request was rejected. This further aggravated him resulting in a tantrum.
Some of Mendez’s opponents have raised questions about the vouchers. Councilman Luis Velez, a critic of Mendez’s, said the impression Mendez has been giving to the Spanish speaking communities in Paterson is that the vouchers were purchased by him.
“Did he purchase those vouchers?” asked Velez. “He was giving it out to people like he spent money on it.”
Pedro Rodriguez, an announced candidate for 2018 mayoral race, said he saw articles and heard broadcasts in Spanish that Mendez gave out $5,000 worth of vouchers. He was under the same impression as Velez.
“The vouchers were not Mendez’s vouchers? I thought he purchased the vouchers and was giving them away,” asked a surprised Rodriguez. When told the vouchers were given to Mendez free of charge for distribution, Rodriguez replied, “That’s basically reaching a new low when it comes to campaign ethics. It’s misleading the public. It’s a shame that’s happening.”
In a brief interview on Thursday night, Mendez readily said the vouchers were provided to him by Kid City. The vouchers also raise questions whether Mendez is attempting to induce voters for support at the polls.
“He should have exercised better judgment. People can perceive this as more than just a shameless plug,” added councilman Andre Sayegh, a possible candidate for 2018 mayoral race, speaking of Mendez. It can be “severely misconstrued” as an exchange for votes, he said.
It’s illegal to induce voters by offering payments or giving them goods.
Mendez’s distribution of vouchers appears eerily similar to candidates from the Hammonton First party knocking on doors and presenting residents with a bag of produce as part of their campaign. Hammonton candidates were reprimanded and had to pay thousands in penalties for various alleged campaign violations including questionable filing of in-kind donations. One particular donation was a $3,250 in-kind contribution of blueberries, fruits, and vegetables that was cited in ELEC’s charging documents.
“Once again, he’s misleading the community,” said Velez mentioning a previous scandal where Mendez held an event offering subsidies to residents looking to purchase homes in majority Hispanic and black neighborhoods. Mendez left out the name of the bank, which was offering more than $10,000 in down payment and closing subsidies to minority neighborhoods to comply with a consent order, from his flyer for the event.