PATERSON, NJ - More than a year after the Attorney General's Office arrested Councilman Rigo Rodriguez on criminal charges involving election fraud, the case still has not gone to a grand jury.
Rodriguez, his wife Lissette and 14 other people were charged in connection with allegations that someone tampered with absentee ballots in the disputed May 2010 City Council in which Rodriguez eventually prevailed in a controversial recount over Kenneth McDaniel.
In the 12 months since Rodriguez' high-profile arrest last December 1, state investigators have not questioned him further, issued him any subpoenas or called him in for grand jury proceedings, said the councilman's attorney, William Rocca.
"All this time, he's had this hanging over his head,'' said Rocca.
When asked about the status of the case against Rodriguez, Attorney General office spokeswoman Rachel Goemaat would only say, "The original charges are still pending. There is nothing new to report.''
"That's because they were just witch-hunting,'' Rodriguez said about the lack of progress in the case.
In the 2010 election, Benjie Wimberly and Kenneth Morris were the top voter-getters for two of the three at-large council seats that were up for grab. In initial tally, McDaniel finished six votes ahead of Rodriguez for the third seat.
But after a recount tallied 49 absentee ballots found in a box in the county election offices, Rodriguez was declared the winner by 41 votes.
Now that Wimberly is vacating the council seat after his election to the state Assembly, McDaniel's supporters have been circulating petitions urging the City Council to appoint him to fill the last 30 months of Wimberly's term.
"The way I see it, I already won the seat,'' said McDaniel. "Unfortunately, there were some things that went on.'' McDaniel said appointing him would be "the only just thing to do in this situation.''
City Council members, however, have said they plan not to pick someone to fill Wimberly's term. Instead, they say are leaning towards have the at-large seat be put for election in May with the six ward council slots. McDaniel said the council members seemed fearful of alienating anyone by appointing him to the seat. "To protect their interests, they may not want to do the brave thing,'' said McDaniel.
Two school board members - Christopher Irving and Pedro Rodriguez - have said they plan to run for the at-large seat in the May election.
Rigo Rodriguez and his various political supporters who were arrested with him last year remain in legal limbo. Rodriguez, his wife, and his campaign manager, Juan Jiminez, were charged with third-degree offense of witness tampering. Authorities allege that once they became aware of the probe into the disputed election, they began coaching political supporters - including those arrested earlier this week - in preparation for their interviews with investigators.
Authorities described others arrested in the case as "messengers" who were supposed to hand-deliver and return absentee ballots. The Attorney General's office alleges that people who supposedly cast absentee votes through the messenger had not received their ballots or had not authorized the messengers to submit their votes for them.
The following people were arrested on Nov. 30, 2010 on charges of second- and third-degree voter fraud and third-degree tampering with public record: Belkis M. Cespedes, 50, of Paterson; Ana Vely-Gomez, 47, of Paterson; Lucia A. Guzman, 41, of Paterson; Inocencio Jimenez, 55, of Paterson; and Jose Ramon Ruiz, 62, of Prospect Park. In addition, Dalila Rodriguez, 60, of Paterson, and Wilson A. Torres, 29, of Paterson were arrested on November 30 on charges of third-degree voter fraud and third-degree tampering with public records.
The following people were arrested Dec. 1, 2010 and charged with third-degree voter fraud and third-degree tampering with public records: Octavio A. Dominguez, 47, of Elmwood Park; Juana A. Gil, 43, of Paterson; Jose E. Gonzalez, 42, of Paterson; and Loudes Inoa, 37, of Paterson, according to the press release.
In addition, Ricardo A. Fermin-Cepeda, 24, of Paterson, was charged with second- and third-degree voter fraud and third-degree tampering with public records.
Because the charges are indictable offenses, the case would go to a grand jury, the Attorney General's office said at the time of the arrests. State officials originally said the grand jury proceedings likely would begin months after the arrests.