New 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti has been sworn into office, and he will be seated for the first time on the left side of the City Council table on Monday night. It looks and sounds like Hoboken’s election season is over.
In fact, with municipal elections coming up next May, some say it’s just beginning.
“I’m confident the Board of Elections will do what they’re supposed to do and the prosecutor’s office will do what they’re supposed to do. This is all standard procedure for elections. I’m moving forward and getting onto the business of the 4th Ward.” – Councilman Tim Occhipinti
Hudson County Board of Elections Clerk Michael Harper said last week that based on what his bi-partisan board saw in the review process, some ballots will be forwarded to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office for criminal referrals. Harper said it is up to the prosecutor to decide if charges will be filed.
A total of 96 out of 442 vote-by-mail ballots have been rejected thus far for simple issues such as signature problems. Occhipinti received far more vote-by-mail ballots than Lenz, and the cloud of fraud could hang over the outcome if the allegations prove to be true, even though the election has been certified and Occhipinti is the official winner, having out-polled Lenz on the voting machine tally.
Harper said on Thursday that there are a few specific reasons why some ballots are disqualified and others are passed on for criminal referrals.
“Mishandling votes is a big one,” Harper said, speaking on what warrants a criminal referral. “The chain of custody has to be clear. If anyone interfered with that it could be a crime. To be paid to vote is certainly a jail-able offense. There’s also the issue of fraudulent voting.”
Harper said his office does not deal explicitly with the legal process, but when a red flag is raised a ballot could be referred to the proper authorities. Harper also said his board will cooperate and assist the prosecutor’s office as necessary.
Allegations from the Lenz campaign
Occhipinti defeated Lenz on the machine votes by a total of 841-791. With vote-by-mail and provisional ballots included, the official count is still 1,240 – 834 in favor of Occhipinti.
The Occhipinti campaign’s legal counsel Michael Goldberg has previously said that the campaign welcomes all challenges, and reiterated that stance on Monday night when Occhipinti was sworn into office at the City Council chambers.
Councilman Ravi Bhalla serves as the legal counsel for the Lenz campaign.
“We have credible information that there will be at least four criminal referrals,” Bhalla said on Thursday.
Bhalla said the campaign has challenged ballots on four different grounds.
“We looked at the Occhipinti campaign’s 11 day pre-election ELEC reports,” Bhalla said. “We checked that document against the Board of Elections list of people that voted by mail, and we saw there were 79 people who were paid to work on Election Day, and 78 of them voted by mail and were paid.”
Bhalla referred to that instance as “circumstantial evidence” that people were paid to vote by mail.
A second challenge made by the Lenz campaign was that there were allegedly 105 people who voted at a certain address but their names were not on leases as listed residents of the property.
Bhalla also said that five people changed their address and no longer live in the 4th Ward but voted. The fourth basis, according to Bhalla, comes from a criminal complaint filed in Hudson County Superior Court by the Lenz campaign which states that five people delivered sworn affidavits and said they were paid to vote by members of the Occhipinti campaign. The charges have not been confirmed, and are simply allegations at this point.
Bhalla knows that the result of the election will not change, but said the process is being done “to ensure that in the future we have clean elections and that the vote by mail process is not abused.”
All six ward seats are up for election in May, and some say these allegations are the beginning of the new election season because if any of his former campaign staff are found guilty of voter fraud it could taint Occhipinti, who must defend his seat next May, and his running mates.
Time to get to work
Occhipinti said on Thursday he is looking forward to his council work when he takes his seat for the first time on Monday, Nov. 15. The meeting will be held on a Monday to avoid a conflict with the League of Municipalities conference, which will be held next week in Atlantic City.
“We welcome an investigation,” Occhipinti said in an e-mail on Thursday. “I’m confident the Board of Elections will do what they’re supposed to do and the prosecutor’s office will do what they’re supposed to do. This is all standard procedure for elections. I’m moving forward and getting onto the business of the 4th Ward.”
Occhipinti was officially sworn in last week at City Hall, with 30 supporters in the room. At Monday’s council meeting, he will be sworn in again ceremoniously in front of the City Council. Two days later, some of his supporters may find their names on the desk of the Hudson County Prosecutor, and the May election season in Hoboken will be officially underway.
Ray Smith can be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com.