When the jury announced in federal court on Tuesday that they had reached a decision, West New York Mayor Felix Roque sat up.
A number of things ran through his mind. Yes, he was scared. He had been put through the worst experience imaginable, nearly two years of waiting for justice, living with accusations he believed in his heart were not true.
Now, after all of that time, after a 10-day trial, everything hinged on what the jury would decide – whether he would lose his freedom, his medical practice, and see his family shattered by his conviction and his son’s.
Roque had been accused of conspiring with his son, Joseph, to hack into a “Recall Roque” website started by political opponents, an accusation Roque said was not true.
The site was run by Freeholder Jose Munoz, who, it turns out, was also a federal informant.
“When they said my son went into Godaddy [a web hosting site],” Roque said after the trial, referring to the website Joseph was found guilty on Tuesday of hacking into, “I thought they were talking about a gentlemen’s club. I didn’t know anything about computers. But I learned a lot during the trial.”
The jury had deliberated for three days, something experienced lawyers suggested might benefit Roque and his son.
“When they said they had come to a unanimous verdict, I was a little nervous,” Felix Roque said in an interview with the Reporter. “I was confident that I had done nothing wrong. But the conspiracy charge bothered me.”
“I always said to myself, I didn’t do what they said I did.” – Mayor Felix Roque
“Even my attorneys cried for me,” Roque recalled. “They were like family to me.”
If there was a dark cloud, it hovered over his son, who had during the trial admitted to hacking into the site in order to find out who was behind it. Joseph also said he wanted to protect his father from what Roque’s attorney John Azzarello called “political sharks.”
“I felt strong and I felt confident,” Mayor Roque said last week. “I felt that God was with me and I felt that energy flowing through me, but I was very worried about my son. What happens to my son matters to me.”
While Joseph Roque will have to face penalties associated with his misdemeanor conviction for doing the actually hacking into the website, he also escaped the most serious charge of conspiracy. The jury also found that there was never an intent to steal or hurt anyone in the process, which will likely figure heavily into the sentencing.
Joseph faces a possible sentence of probation to one year in prison.
Mayor Roque was exonerated on all charges including conspiracy and intimidation. But he did acknowledge conversations with Munoz that were cited in an attempt to convict him of harassment.
The charges stem a February 2012 incident when Joseph Roque allegedly hacked into and closed down the website run by Munoz. Additionally, Mayor Roque has been charged with intimidating people connected with the website after his son allegedly stole their information from the website.
Federal authorities brought a number of very powerful witnesses including a federal expert on internet fraud, a representative from Google, as well as an official from the provider of the hacked website.
“I feel very good about this decision,” said Roque. “I always said to myself, I didn’t do what they said I did. I didn’t even know what they were talking about. But I learned a lot about computers during this trial.”
He added, “I believe in the justice system and they did what they had to do.”
But he also believes that federal prosecutors missed critical evidence that would have exonerated him earlier. His son was apparently in a hospital during a time period when federal authorities claimed the conspiracy took place.
“Nobody interviewed the doctors or checked those records,” Roque said.
He said his was encouraged by the show of support he had as family, friends, co-workers and others came to court. Many waited for him to come out of court to hug him. Many more gathered outside city hall later, crying on the steps.
“I’ve had to clear my voicemail several times because so many people have left me messages wishing me the best,” he said. “When you get that kind of support, it makes you feel strong. My lawyers were more than lawyers, they were like relatives. They were crying for us.”
Glad to have the whole situation behind him, Roque said he intends to move on and continue to work hard for the people of West New York.
“I believe in this county, I have faith in the justice system, and I am incredibly happy,” he said. “I will continue to serve the resident of West New York as I have always done.”
A recall movement has started against Roque, by a political opponent, former ally Count Wiley, who is one of the five town commissioners.
Roque was elected in 2011, beating the machine candidate, Sal Vega. Hailed as a reformer, Roque has had to face charges of his own – and not just from the federal government. The state released a report last year saying he has been unfairly involved in hirings and terminations in the school system.
Munoz puzzled by verdict
The chief witness against Roque and the man who founded the Recall Roque website under a fictitious name, Freeholder Jose Munoz, said he believes the verdict is wrong.
“The evidence was there,” he said. “But I was prejudged by the jury as a politician from Hudson County and the jury believed Mayor Roque was a victim.”
During the course of the trial, federal prosecutors pressed Roque on a meeting between the mayor and Munoz after the website was taken down. Munoz wore a recording device for the FBI during that meeting.
In the conversation, Roque apparently pretended that the CIA was going to investigate Munoz. Prosecutors made their case that this amounted to harassment. The jury did not agree.
Munoz said he believes his taking the case to federal authorities was the right thing to do after the site had been hacked.
“I did the right thing,” he said. “They threatened me. It was all on tape. But the jury didn’t believe it. I think this would have been different if I hadn’t been a politician.”
Munoz said he will continue to fight for the people of West New York.
Roque maintains that he had tried to put his political differences aside with Munoz during their meeting about the website.
“I met with him and told him that we should do what we got elected to do and work together to help the people of West New York,” Roque said. “I still believe that.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.