PATERSON, NJ – Four of the 15 defendants in the Attorney General’s voter fraud case involving Paterson’s 2010 city election have entered the Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) probationary program during the past three months, state officials said.
Also, two other defendants in the case are scheduled to seek admission to the PTI program next week, said Attorney General spokesman Peter Aseltine.
But the state’s investigation involving Paterson City Councilman Rigo Rodriguez; his wife, Lissette; and the other six people charged in the case in December 2010 is still ongoing, Aseltine said.
With Paterson’s next city election less than a month away, the pending voter fraud charges cast a cloud over the 2010 results in which Rodriguez won an at-large city council seat after a controversial recount of previously uncounted absentee ballots that had been found in a box in the Passaic County election offices.
“We are moving forward deliberatively with it,’’ said Aseltine, when asked if state authorities felt any urgency to resolve the case before Paterson holds its next election. “Our concern is to handle it properly.’’
Rodriguez said a grand jury has not yet been convened to hear the charges and he said the slow pace of the investigation shows that the state has a weak case against him.
“I can’t wait for this whole thing to be over and done,’’ said Rodriguez, who was arrested in 2010, along with his wife, at their home at dawn. “The Attorney General knows there was nothing malicious here.’’
But even if the charges are dropped, Rodriguez said the charges have hurt his reputation. “At the end of the day, the damage already has been done, they can’t do anything worse to me than what’s already been done,’’ he said. “Google me and the first thing you get is Rigo Rodriguez and fraud. I don’t think there’s a higher penalty than what I’ve already been through.’’
Rodriguez is one of two current council members whose seats are not up for re-election on May 8. The six ward seats and one at-large seat vacated when Benjie Wimberly took office as a state assemblyman are up for grabs. In fact, one of the candidates for the at-large seat is Kenneth McDaniel, who originally was declared the winner by four votes over Rodriguez in 2010. After the recount of 49 ballots, Rodriguez was ruled the winner by 41 votes.
The Attorney General’s case focuses on allegations that Rodriguez’ supporters fraudulently submitted absentee ballots for voters who had not authorized them to do so. Authorities have said that the councilman, his wife, and his campaign manager, Juan Jiminez, tampered with witnesses in the investigation by coaching them on how to respond to detectives. They have been charged with a third-degree offense of witness tampering.
The four people who already were admitted to PTI are Octavio A. Dominguez of Elmwood Park and three Patersonians - Juana A. Gil, Dalila Rodriguez and Loudes Inoa, according to Aseltine. Also, Jose E. Gonzalez and Ricardo A. Fermin-Cepeda, both of Paterson, have court appearances scheduled for April 19 for possible admission to the PTI program. All six of them faced third-degree charges of voter fraud and tampering with public records.
PTI allows people who have no felonies on their records and are charged with crimes of the third or fourth degree to enter a probationary program without admitting guilt. In these six cases, the charges were not brought to a grand jury, officials said.
Voter fraud and tampering charges remain pending against four Patersonians - Belkis M. Cespedes, Ana Vely-Gomez, Lucia A. Guzman, and Inocencio Jimenez - and Jose Ramon Ruiz of Prospect Park. They originally were charged with second degree offenses, which do not quality for PTI.
In addition, Wilson A. Torres of Paterson who faces third degree charges in the case is wanted on a bench warrant, Aseltine said.
Rodriguez said the Attorney General’s investigation targeted Paterson’s Latin community. “It’s a way of keeping the community down,’’ he said.