PATERSON, NJ – In the two years since state police swept into Paterson to arrest 14 people in a voter fraud case involving the city’s 2010 elections, authorities have not yet convened a grand jury to hear the charges against Councilman Rigo Rodriguez and other key defendants.
“It shows their case isn’t as strong as they initially thought it was,’’ said William Rocca, Rodriguez’ attorney. “There’s no criminal element here, just some technicalities with the handling of the ballots.’’
But the Attorney General’s Office said the time that has passed since the arrests should not be seen as a lack of commitment to the case. “We are working to move this case forward to the indictment of the key defendants,’’ said Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the AG’s office. “It takes time to build a case.’’
Earlier this year, six of the defendants in the case entered pre-trial intervention (PTI), a probationary program that would allow them to have their criminal records cleared once they complete the requirements. Similar arrangements may be reached with some of the other defendants.
Rocca said he eventually may seek to have the charges dropped if they continue to linger without any apparent progress. Rodriguez, who has said he is interested in running for mayor in 2014, said he wants to put the cloud of the case behind him.
“Do you think this is fair to me?’’ Rodriguez asked. “I’m being the victim of circumstances. Whatever I say will be used against me.’’
Rodriguez; his wife, Lisette; and his campaign manager, Juan Jiminez, were charged with witness tampering, a third-degree offense. Jiminez earlier this year was appointed as a commissioner on the Paterson Parking Authority. The three of them and other defendants were arrested in pre-dawn visits to their homes by state police on Dec. 2, 2010.
The AG said that after the three of them learned of the investigation into alleged tampering with mail-in ballots they began meeting with campaign workers to coach them on what to say to detectives.
Six other defendants still face second- and third-degree charges of voter fraud and tampering with public records. They are Belkis M. Cespedes, Ana Vely-Gomez, Lucia A. Guzman, Inocencio Jimenez, 55 and Ricardo A. Fermin-Cepeda, all of Paterson, along with Jose Ramon Ruiz of Prospect Park. Authorities say they tampered with mail-in ballots or voted on behalf of people who never received their ballots. Fermin-Cepeda has been a fugitive for the past two years and was never arrested, authorities said.
The mail-in ballots played a key role in Rodriguez’ victory that year. Initially, Rodriguez had finished fourth among the contenders for three at-large council seats. But a recount was held after a box of uncounted absentee ballots was found at the county election offices and Rodriguez gained enough votes to move past Kenneth McDaniel for third place and a seat on the council. McDaniel has since won a seat on the council.
Rodriguez said he has focused on his work as a councilman and not dwelled on the pending charges. “I’m trying full-fledged to help my community,’’ Rodriguez said. “I’m doing what an elected official should do.’’
In the two years since the Paterson arrests, the Attorney General’s staff has handled two other high-profile voter fraud cases.
An Atlantic City councilman took his case to trial in April 2011 and was acquitted, a verdict that prompted the dismissal of voter fraud charges against six other defendants.
But two months ago, a jury found an Essex County government official guilty of submitting fraudulent absentee ballots while working for the campaign of State Senator Teresa Ruiz. Three other defendants pleaded guilty in that case and Ruiz’ husband, former Essex County Freeholder Samuel Gonzalez, agreed to forfeit his freeholder seat and his job as an aide to a Newark city councilman as part of his pre-trial intervention agreement.
The Atlantic City case stemmed from the city’s 2009 election, while the Essex County case involved a 2007 election.
Aseltine declined to comment on the significance of the timeframes of the various cases.
Rocca said he thought it was important that the AG’s office has not required any the defendants who entered pre-trial intervention to sign plea admitting the charges against them. “Why would they let so many people go into PTI without a plea if they had a strong case?’’ Rocca said.
But Aseltine said that it’s the current policy of the AG’s office not to ask defendants entering PTI to plead guilty to the charges against them.