After yesterday’s indictment, Rigo Rodriguez, mayoral candidate and councilman at-large, said he will continue to run for mayor.
In a close election in May 2010, Rodriguez received 5,192 votes while Kenneth McDaniel, a council at-large candidate at the time, received 5,198 ballots, making McDaniel the winner, but it did not end there.
McDaniel defeated Rodriguez by six votes, but things changed weeks following the election, when an envelope stuffed with 49 ballots was discovered inside a closet at the Passaic County Board of Election’s office.
Thomas Brogan, a superior court judge, ruled the newly found ballots ought to be counted and tallied after the board evinced that except for one ballot that was mailed-in on April 28th, the rest bore a time stamp of May 10th, 2010.
After the board processed the absentee ballots, out of the 49, two of them were invalid, allowing 47 new votes to be added to Rodriguez’s name, changing the initial winner into a loser. New vote count published in June 2010 shows: Rodriguez: 5,239 votes; McDaniel: 5,198 votes.
Except for one ballot the rest were submitted by a “bearer,” an individual who delivers mail-in ballots to the board. It would be this “bearer” issue that would land Rodriguez, his wife, Lissette Rodriguez, and his campaign workers in the New Jersey State Police lockup in Totowa.
A week after the election, the Division of Criminal Justice’s corruption bureau launched an investigation to see whether any wrongdoing took place during the council at-large election, after receiving complaints of voter fraud.
Investigators contacted and interviewed voters only to find many of them had been coached by Rodriguez, his wife, and Juan Jimenez, his campaign manager at the time. Authorities alleged that voters were instructed by Rodriguez on how to answer police question after being tipped off that an investigation was taking place. Some voters were advised on straight “lying to police,” according to authorities.
In December 2010, Rodriguez, his wife, and top advisors, were arrested in early morning raids. State police arrested 14 people — including the councilman and his wife — connected to the voter fraud scheme. Each was charged with voter fraud and tampering with public records. Rodriguez, his wife, and Jimenez, were charged with voter fraud and witness tampering.
A 15th person was charged with voter fraud. Excluding Rodriguez, his wife, and Jimenez, “all allegedly acted as bearers/messengers for mail-in (absentee) ballots,” according to authorities. Each of the bearers tampered with absentee ballots by voting on behalf of individual registered voters without their knowledge.
Campaign volunteers would ask voters to complete the mail-in ballot form without filling in a name on the messenger line. Volunteers would then take the ballots to Rodriguez’s campaign office, tamper with it by completing that line with a messenger name unbeknownst to the voter, and then either deliver the ballots to the election office or discard them.
The law requires that a bearer collect the ballots and transport them directly to the election office without making a tampering stop at the campaign office.
After being arrested in the morning Rodriguez, his wife, and Jimenez were charged and released in the afternoon from the Totowa State Troopers barracks. From 2010 Rodriguez would wait three years for a court date.
Over the three years following the arrests, most of the individuals associated with the scheme would be prosecuted with Lucia Guzman, 44, mother of Wendy Guzman, school board member, and Jimenez, 49, who now works as the campaign manager for his sister Maria Teresa Feliciano’s mayoral campaign, entering into pre-trial intervention program in January 2014 for reduced punishment for their infractions.
During that January hearing Guzman was entered into the program and a grand jury was set to convene in order to consider bringing formal charges against the councilman and his wife. While leaving court, Rodriguez said he was glad a date was finally set for his trial. “It’s long overdue,” said Rodriguez. “People must know the truth.”
In February, Jimenez was allowed into the program, leaving Rodriguez, 41, his wife, 34, and Wilson Torres, 32, a fugitive, as the only defendants. Both Jimenez and Guzman were ordered by Donald Volkert, superior court judge, to complete 15 hours of community service each.
By entering into the program both Jimenez and Guzman were cooperating with the state prosecutors against Rodriguez.
A grand jury met during the first week of March, reviewed evidence, and brought formal charges against the councilman, his wife, and Torres. Seven charges have been levied against Rodriguez and his wife: conspiracy, election fraud, mail-in ballot fraud, tampering with public records or information, falsifying records, forgery, and witness tampering.
Torres, a resident of East 30th Street, who is believed to have fled the country to his native Dominican Republic, was charged with mail-in ballot fraud, tampering with public records or information, falsifying records, and witness tampering.
Reacting to the indictment Rodriguez said he wanted his day in court for a long time, and he is happy that the state finally decided to give him his day. “Would you want your case to be lingering for three years?” asked Rodriguez on Thursday, March 6th, 2014. “We’re finally going to go to court. I wanted this for a long time.”
Rodriguez said he is simply not the type of person to commit voter fraud. “This is all accusation that’s not true,” said the councilman. When asked how his wife is handling the news, Rodriguez defended her saying she is not that type of an individual. “She is just disgusted,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez indicated that these charges are not going to stop him from contesting for the city’s highest office in the May election. “People in the street tell me ‘you keep on going, we need a fighter, we need an individual that will stand up for something’,” said Rodriguez when asked whether residents question him on the charges as he campaigns in the city.
“People that know me will vote for me,” said Rodriguez. “People are behind me, and we’re going to win this thing.”