Councilman Shahin Khalique’s court victory stunned his main rival and sent shock waves through the city’s political circles. Passaic County assignment judge Ernest Caposela’s ruling will have an impact beyond the 2nd Ward. Some have predicted the ruling will change the way election campaigns are run in the city for the worse.
Former councilman Aslon Goow and Eddie Gonzalez, both men who were in the 2nd Ward race, were shocked by the court ruling.
“It’s unbelievable,” remarked Goow, a three-term former councilman, on Monday afternoon. “The integrity of this process no longer exists. This was not a fair democratic process.” He lost his seat in 2012 to former councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman due to the large number of mail-in ballots cast in that election.
Gonzalez was baffled by the ruling. He cited the brief filed by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office which stated “fraud was afoot” in last year’s 2nd Ward election.
“You have a judge that’s saying it’s okay after it was clear that individuals had partook in activities that would lead the deputy attorney general to make a statement like this,” said Gonzalez. “It just talks about the tone of how the future of Paterson is going to go. Like former councilman [Thomas] Rooney would say: ‘Anything goes in Paterson.’”
The ruling shows there’s very few concrete rules in the way mail-in ballots should be handled, said a former campaign manager, who worked in one of the main mayoral campaigns in 2014. “Apparently, there’s not much regulation in vote by mail,” he said. “This case will have a precedence.” He predicts campaigns will aggressively exploit mail-in votes to secure election wins.
Khalique had more than 1,000 mail-in ballot in the race that propelled him to victory. His campaign was accused by every other campaign in the election of engaging in mail-in ballot manipulation.
“It tells some people that, if you want to win, commit fraud, drag it through a court case, and make sure you have enough money to win the case. I mean, it’s not how elections should be decided,” said a political strategist, who has managed multiple city council election campaigns.
Khalique reportedly spent $150,000 in the case while Akhtaruzzaman spent almost $100,000.
The campaign managers remain active in local politics and did not wish to be identified for this report.
“This thing will really change future elections in Paterson. There’s going to be a before [the ruling] and after,” said Pedro Rodriguez, who was Akhtaruzzaman’s campaign manager in 2016.
The message from the judge’s ruling is that you can “bring ballots into your headquarters and cook them” and “live anywhere” and vote in Paterson, said Rodriguez. There were allegations that Khalique’s campaign processed mail-in ballots in their campaign office.
Rodriguez said there was a lack of understanding of the way campaigns work on the court’s part. He suggested the New Jersey Judiciary have electoral judges with expertise in the election process.
The judge made a decision on the civil case filed by Akhtaruzzaman to oust Khalique.
Some of the most important pieces of evidence in the case were not heard at the trial. For example, the case of Khalique’s deceased father having cast a ballot in the election. Akhtaruzzaman’s attorneys did not bring up the vote cast by the deceased man. There was also the phone call where Khalique allegedly tells a voter there’s nothing wrong with living elsewhere and voting in Paterson which was heard in the courtroom, but not admitted as evidence at the objection of Khalique’s attorney.
Though the deputy attorney general stated there was fraud in the election no one has been prosecuted.
“There’s more than enough room for them to bring charges,” said Goow of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. “Their finding was fraud was committed. Clearly, fraud was committed. What are they doing about it? If they don’t do something about it then that’s what’s going to complicate things for future elections.”
“Our policy is that we neither confirm nor deny the status or existence of investigations,” said Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, on Tuesday morning.
The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office also has the authority to investigate allegations of voter fraud.
“Any alleged violations of the election laws are subject to review by the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office. As such, this office cannot comment on whether any criminal investigation exists at this time,” said Mary Cate Ryan, chief assistant prosecutor at the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office, on Monday afternoon.
Rodriguez, who is running for mayor in 2018, and others are bracing for a very different election environment.