Four years after being convicted on a federal charge of hacking into a political opponent’s website, West New York Mayor Felix Roque’s son Joseph has been elected to run the town's Democratic committee.
The committee held its annual reorganization meeting on June 13, at which time the members voted for Roque as chair. The committee helps choose Democratic candidates for local and statewide offices.
Roque was convicted of the federal hacking charge, considered a misdemeanor, in 2014. He was sentenced to probation, community service, and a fine.
Roque was 23 when convicted. His father was charged with similar crimes but ultimately acquitted in a jury trial.
The words “federal charges” and “Hudson County politics” might seem made for each other, given how many local officials have faced governmental run-ins and spent time in jail (including four mayors in the last eight years). But not many have fulfilled their sentences and then run the local political party.
The government’s complaint said that in 2012, Joseph Roque gained unauthorized access to a website, recallroque.com, set up by a political rival of his father, former Freeholder Jose Munoz. The complaint also alleged that the two identified, harassed, and intimidated others who worked with the recall website.
The West New York Democratic Committee unanimously elected Joseph their chairman at their June 13 reorganization meeting.
Last week, the Reporter asked the young Roque if he could be trusted not to undertake a similar interference again in the future, particularly with power in the local party.
“That’s actually a fair question,” Roque said. “I want to stress that people make decisions when they’re young. Sometimes, those decisions aren’t the right decisions. I own up to that, obviously. I’ve been able to serve the community hours that were imposed on me . I’m just thankful for a second chance; that’s all I can say.”
He added, “I think that what happened in the past is done and over with. I’ve actually been involved with many things in the community way before that whole misdemeanor thing even happened. I believe that this country is about second chances.”
Committee seats are not government positions but are influential volunteer jobs that help pick and publicly endorse candidates for elected office. Roque said the committee is focused on working together to help elect Phil Murphy, the Democratic Party nominee for the 2017 New Jersey gubernatorial election.
Although Roque’s criminal charge was for “hacking” and the complaint goes into extensive detail, he asserts that “hacking actually did not occur.”
Asked to elaborate on that claim, Roque stated that the statute under which he was charged is obscure in its details and considers a wide variety of internet activity as hacking.
“It’s actually one of the more controversial statutes that exist,” he said. “There’s a lot of old things in that statute that pretty much anybody can be prosecuted for, as a matter of fact.”
He offered an example of what he meant. “Your friend logs into Facebook on your computer and he forgets to log out,” Roque said. “You’re on your computer and your friend’s still logged in. You put up a status on his thing. Technically, under the statute, you can be convicted of a misdemeanor, because it’s unauthorized access.”
“I was charged with what they considered to be unauthorized access,” he said.
The complaint from an investigator says that Roque “received an email notice…based on my training and experience investigating computer intrusions, only an attempt to reset the password of the West New York News Account (the email account used to set up recallroque) by a person with access to the…account would have generated this email notice.”
Roque said his attempts were more along the lines of initiating password resets to gain access, as opposed to using a password cracker such as Ophcrack, which hackers use.
The complaint also says he used his laptop to research “How to hack a [Provider1] password” and “How to hack a [Provider1] account.” (The brackets appear in the complaint.) He also used Google to search, “hacking a GoDaddy site” and “html hacking tutorial.”
Mayor defends son
As one might expect, Mayor Roque also spoke in defense of his son.
He said that Joseph was used as a conduit for federal officials to try to take him down.
“It’s a fresh start for a young man who was involved with this crazy ordeal, at no fault of his own,” the older Roque said. “The reason I say that is because even though the government went after him, the reality wasn’t that they wanted him; they wanted to get me. In my opinion, they were trying to use him as leverage to get him to succumb and plead guilty.”
He also seemed to support Joseph’s account that what he did didn’t necessarily constitute hacking.
“If you read the charges, you can see that on a daily basis, hundreds and hundreds of teenagers are doing this on the internet,” Roque said. “That’s what they accused him of. I’m glad to give my son a fresh start in life, and guide him to become a better citizen of this great country.”
As mayor, Roque had the authority to recommend Joseph’s appointment to the committee.
Though Mayor Roque managed to escape charges in the hacking case, more legal troubles found him two years later, in connection with his private pain management practice in West New York. In June 2015, acting state Attorney General John J. Hoffman and the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor announced another indictment against Roque for allegedly receiving $250,000 in cash bribes from 2007 to 2012 from a doctor who was referred work by Roque. That doctor himself had been implicated in a scheme and turned state’s evidence by implicating others.
A state grand jury indicted Felix Roque on second-degree healthcare claims fraud, second-degree commercial bribery, and third-degree “running.” However, last December, he was acquitted on all of the charges after a jury trial.
Others speak out for Roque
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto – who also leads the Hudson County Democratic Organization – failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.
But Phil Swibinski, a spokesman for several local political leaders, also spoke up in Joseph’s favor.
“I know Joseph a little bit, personally,” Swibinski said. “I think that he’s really turned his life around. Obviously, he paid for the issues he had in his past and he’s really made an effort to make a positive impact in the community. I think a lot of people are proud of him for making these steps.”
Colleague Jonathan Castenada, who was elected as the committee’s treasurer at the reorganization meeting, echoed Swibinski’s sentiment.
“This is a gentleman who embodies Democratic values,” Castenada said. “Whatever happened in the past is in the past. He’s somebody who embodies the values of what our team is all about.”
He added, “In a time when these challenges are coming, specifically from Washington – issues on health care, issues about where we should be spending valuable tax dollars, issues on access to education – it’s important that we have somebody who has the capacity to speak about the issues, for young people between the ages of 18-25. He’s somebody who represents that community.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org