Going down swinging
Corruption allegations lobbed as campaign goes to the finish
by Ray Smith
Reporter staff writer
Oct 31, 2010 | 2655 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
READY TO SERVE – Both candidates have campaigned and lobbed corruption charges, but this week it’s time for the 4th Ward to vote.
READY TO SERVE – Both candidates have campaigned and lobbed corruption charges, but this week it’s time for the 4th Ward to vote.

To put it mildly, political campaigns in Hoboken are controversial. Even a contest in a single ward in this city can resemble desperate combat. If you need proof, take a look at the special 4th Ward election. With just days to go until Election Day, both sides have cried foul and called for investigations into charges of corruption and voter fraud.

A campaign in one ward that may affect the balance of power on the City Council comes to an end on Tuesday.

Councilman Michael Lenz and challenger Tim Occhipinti are vying for that ward’s seat on the City Council on Tuesday, but it’s not just any council seat. The council is currently politically aligned with Mayor Dawn Zimmer on most issues by a 5-4 margin. Lenz, who was appointed and approved by the council following Zimmer’s rise to mayor, is part of that council majority. If Occhipinti wins, the political slant of the council will most likely turn, more opposition to the mayor’s plans can be expected, and the hopes of those who identify Zimmer with reform of the city’s government will be dimmed.

Developer deal?

On Tuesday, a local blog often critical of Lenz alleged that he met with developer Kyle Enger in the Coach House Diner to discuss a variance for approval to build a four story building in a three story zone, shortly before Lenz voted at a May 19 council meeting to approve the variance. Later, Enger appeared on Lenz’s Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) filing along with a $500 donation. Another developer also contributed $500.

Lenz did not dispute the donation, but said he stands by his decision, and tried to turn the table on Occhipinti.

“I voted to a reject a 12-story building in a two story zone because it was way out of scale with the neighborhood, and that owner now supports my opponent,” Lenz said. “I voted to uphold a Zoning Board decision to allow a four story townhouse next to a five story building because I believed it was the right thing for the neighborhood and that owner now has contributed to my campaign.

“In neither case did the hope of support have anything to do with my vote,” he said. “I welcome help from all who share my views, and and am proud, not embarrassed, when a builder of neighborhood-friendly projects chooses to support my campaign.”

Occhipinti sees the contribution differently.

“Former Mayor Peter Cammarano is in federal prison today for promising to use his position to expedite zoning approvals for a campaign contributor,” Occhipinti said Thursday. “The reported events surrounding Michael Lenz’s meeting with the developers of 226 Park are eerily similar to those that brought so much harm and negative attention to the City of Hoboken.”

The irony in this dispute is that the Lenz campaign has tried tirelessly to connect Occhipinti to behind-the-scenes supporters they say were the same “crowd” that promoted Cammarano’s mayoralty, the demise of which began in a local diner meeting with a developer who turned out to be a federal informant.

“Once again, this is just another attempt by Tim Occhipinti to distract them from his well-known support by big developers, his pay-to-vote system, and his inability to address the real issues in this campaign,” Lenz said. “With all the problems facing the 4th Ward, including the 2011 budget, flood solutions, and moving forward on a Southwest Park, we cannot afford to let Tim have ‘on the job training’ on the City Council.”

Occhipinti has called on the state Attorney General’s office to investigate the charges made against Lenz.

“This is what makes people lose faith in their elected representatives,” Occhipinti said. “I believe in honest, open government that serves people. These allegations against Mr. Lenz need to be fully investigated for the public good. Hoboken deserves better.”

Voter fraud allegations

On Thursday, the corruption charges continued. The Lenz campaign filed a complaint in Hudson County Superior Court against the Hudson County Board of Elections, Occhipinti, and the Occhipinti for Council campaign.

The 88-page complaint charges voter fraud, and includes a list of those who have voted by mail and requested vote-by-mail ballots, ELEC filings from Occhipinti which show payments to workers, and affidavits from people who say they were told by members of the Occhipinti campaign that they would be paid $40 to vote by mail.

The practice of paying members of the public for their vote and then disclosing them as campaign workers is not new in Hoboken, but an Occhipinti official said this is not what’s going on here.

“It’s a desperate attempt to deflect the issue of their own campaign corruption,” one Occhipinti official said. “There’s absolutely no truth to [the charges]. Any person with this campaign has made above-the-table dealings.”

A Lenz official responded.

“It is a desperate attempt,” a Lenz official said. “It’s a desperate attempt to make sure the election is free of corruption.”

The Occhipinti official also said it does not make sense for the campaign to pay $40 for one vote.

“It’s not an efficient method,” the official said. “If we can pay $40 to a worker who is going to wear the shirt, go out, and talk about Tim legally, we can get 20 more votes doing it that way.”

All employees of the Occhipinti campaign sign a “campaign worker information and declaration form.”

The contract states that the worker must “lawfully promote and encourage the participation of voters” and will “engage in only lawful conduct in connection to my work as a campaign worker for ‘Occhipinti for Council.’”

The complaint has four sworn affidavits from people who say they were told they could be paid $40 for their vote by an Occhipinti official, and charges that 78 out of 79 of Occhipinti’s campaign workers have already voted by mail.

The Lenz campaign is attempting to sequester those vote-by-mail ballots, but the Occhipinti campaign has said since they only have four affidavits, only four votes should be sequestered. The outcome will be decided by a Superior Court Judge.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Maurice Gallipoli refused to sequester the ballots, and Lenz campaign officials were scheduled to appeal to the county Board of Elections on Saturday morning.

Both sides are confident

Occhipinti and Lenz now both have countdowns to victory day in the campaign headquarters. One of them will be wrong, but neither side is ready to admit it.

“We’re feeling good,” an Occhipinti official said. “The public meetings have been going awesome. People realize the kid [Occhipinti] really isn’t who people say he is. People meet him and see he’s not a thug, not an idiot, he’s a good guy who is ready and capable to sit on the council.”

Just a block and a half away, the Lenz campaign is also feeling like Nov. 2 will be their day.

“We still feel good,” a Lenz official said. “There are more votes out there for Mike.”

The Lenz campaign said this year it is a “turnout election” and “illegal votes could make a difference in the election.”

Some in the campaigns have said that with appeals and lawsuits, the election season may not end on Nov. 2. If it does end on Nov. 2, the winner will sit in the fourth seat from the left in Council Chambers on Wednesday, Nov. 3.

Not sure who to vote for?

Through all the mudslinging, it could be difficult to understand the issues. Before you head to the polls, make sure to view the Hudson Reporter 4th Ward election debate at www.hudsonreporter.com. The video will be available through Election Day.

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