After an almost year-long trial, Passaic County Superior Court judge Ernest Caposela on Monday afternoon crowned Shahin Khalique winner of the city’s 2nd Ward election.
Caposela allowed Khalique’s attorney John Carbone to revive seven votes that were rejected by the Passaic County Board of Elections due to signature issues. Six votes were cast for Khalique and one was cast for former councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman.
One ballot was rejected after the judge found the witness lacking in credibility. The judge counted the 22 invalidated votes against Khalique (pictured). This created a final tally of 1,385 for Khalique and 1,382 for Akhtaruzzaman.
Khalique declined to comment after he was announced the winner. His supporters filled half of the courtroom.
“We proved fraud happened,” said Akhtaruzzaman after the verdict was announced. He said there were a lot of his votes that were rejected by the Board of Elections. He has maintained there was widespread voter fraud in the 2nd Ward election. In fact, deputy attorney general Alan Stephens in a brief agreed with Akhtaruzzaman’s side by stating there was “fraud was afoot” in the 2nd Ward election.
“I didn’t agree with the decision,” said Akhtaruzzaman. He spent almost $100,000 on the court case, he said. He could be on the hook for Khalique’s legal expenses.
Carbone has said last year that if Akhtaruzzaman lost the case he’d end up taking on Khalique’s legal expenses. Carbone said he plans to file an application with the court to force Akhtaruzzaman to pay.
When asked how much Khalique has racked up in legal expenses, Carbone declined to provide a figure.
The hearing on Monday was divided in a morning and afternoon session. The judge heard from five witnesses in the morning session. He allowed four of the rejected votes to be counted and rejected one. A Passaic County election official — Ken Hirmann — opened up the four ballots and found three voted for Khalique and one voted for Akhtaruzzaman. This, with the assumption that the 22 ballots invalidated last months were Khalique votes, created a tie with each man having 1,382 votes.
In the morning, the first witness called to the stand by Khalique’s attorney was Gladys Espinoza. She identified her signature on the mail-in ballot documents. She told the court she was urged to come to the court to testify by councilwoman Maritza Davila.
Espinoza told the court she discussed her testimony with the councilwoman. Davila and Khalique are political allies. The attorneys questioned the voters on their signature. In majority of the cases, the voters said they had rushed which created signatures that appeared different than their signatures in the county voters’ database.
Carbone argued whatever signature the voter identifies as their own is their signature. His argument was rebutted by Stephens.
“Essence of voting is the signature,” said Stephens.
“I’m going to make a determination based on credibility of the witnesses, not signature comparison,” said Caposela.
Caposela did not find one witness, Mohammed Salam, as credible.
Salam claimed he printed his name in place of a cursive signature to speedily affix his signature. He also claimed he was assisted by his nephew rather than the assistor listed in his mail-in ballot.
In the afternoon session, the judge heard from three witnesses. He allowed all three votes. When Hirmann opened the ballots in the court chamber’s jury room with the lawyers present, he found the three votes were cast for Khalique.