A political whodunit in Hoboken

A year later, no one charged in election flyer 'bias crime'

One year later, the police say they’re not giving up. They say they’ve questioned “dozens” of people in connection with the flyers
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One year later, the police say they’re not giving up. They say they’ve questioned “dozens” of people in connection with the flyers

When anonymous campaign flyers were placed on car windshields around Hoboken last November, linking mayoral candidate (now mayor) Ravi Bhalla with “terrorism,” the subsequent police investigation was significant not only because it might determine which of the six candidates was spreading hate to get elected, but also because it might bring down a major New Jersey consultant or political player and perhaps help put an end to such dirty, decades-old campaign tactics.

No such luck.

But without having named any suspects a year later, the police say they’re not giving up. They say they’ve questioned “dozens” of people in connection with the flyers.

In an interview last week, Hoboken Police Captain Charles Campbell – the head of the probe into the anonymous flyers — said that although the investigation has gotten quiet, he believes the case will pick up near the anniversary of the Nov. 7 election and more people may come forward.

The flyers appeared on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, four days before a heated mayoral election. Six candidates were competing to replace popular Mayor Dawn Zimmer.

The previous May, Zimmer had endorsed Councilman Ravi Bhalla to succeed her. Two former Zimmer allies were unhappy with the endorsement – both with how Zimmer released the news unexpectedly, and with her choice of Bhalla. Former Zimmer allies Councilwoman Jen Giattino and Councilman Michael DeFusco ran for mayor themselves, as did longtime Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Romano and two long-shots: business owner Karen Nason and local activist Ronald Bautista.

The campaign occurred a year after the election of Donald Trump, and in several New Jersey towns, flyers appeared that appeared to be taking advantage of national anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric. While Bhalla was born and raised in central New Jersey, the turban he wears as a Sikh Indian apparently made him ripe for targeting as an “other.” The flyers bore his photo and said, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town.” They were placed on car windshields a week after a deadly terrorist attack in Manhattan.

Whoever created the flyer took previous campaign literature and doctored it, including pasting language to make it seem like candidate DeFusco had produced it.

Once DeFusco found out about the flyers, he contacted police. As the city’s first openly gay councilman, he had experience with prejudice, and he openly denounced the flyers.

The flyers made national news. Several Reddit threads became heated, speculating who had created the flyers and whom it might help or hurt.

The local Police Department told the media that it could investigate the spread of the flyers as a bias crime. Those responsible for the flyer could be charged with bias harassment, a fourth degree offense punishable by up to 18 months in jail. It’s also a violation of New Jersey election law to release campaign materials without including language saying who paid for them.

In Hoboken, the spread of “midnight flyers” close to an election, containing false information to scare voters, is an old practice. But in past instances, the flyers were spread in low-income housing, claiming that a candidate (often a newer resident of the city) was going to take away public housing.

Campbell said that even with the past history of election tricks, “This flyer crossed a line.”

In the end, Bhalla won the election by fewer than 500 votes, beating DeFusco 5,041 to 4,557. Bhalla ultimately got elected with 33 percent of votes cast.

Some have said in a tight and crowded race, the flyer may have influenced the election one way or another.

DeFusco’s sister started a GoFundMe account to raise money to hire a private investigator to find out who distributed the flyers, and to offer a reward for information.

The fund raised $9,130; DeFusco hired investigator Michael McMahon, who produced a report on Jan. 1 of this year. Hoboken police investigated as well.

In February, Chief of Police Ken Ferrante gave an update to the City Council, saying four people were brought in for questioning. He said that two people were interviewed by police and two others “lawyered up” and declined to respond to questions.

Captain Campbell said last week, “Some people have outright refused to speak to us without the presence of their attorney, and they have every constitutional right to seek legal counsel.”

When asked which town or towns the four people were from, and whether any were from Hoboken, Ferrante said he could not comment.

Police say the investigation in still open, but in a town in which illegal political attacks typically go unpunished (see sidebar), it’s unclear whether this will join the annals of another unsolved political whodunnit.

Recently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office released some results of an investigation into a 2013 Hoboken election. The election had included a referendum on changes to the city’s rent control laws. A low-level campaign worker was indicted for her role in that election last week (see sidebar). The charges were one count of use of the mails to promote a voter bribery scheme and one count of conspiracy to use the mails to promote a voter bribery scheme. But no information has been released so far about whom she was working for.

But the specter of fraud is raised in almost every contentious Hoboken election, with investigations rarely bearing fruit.

Rumor mill churns

In Hoboken, a densely populated, mile-square city with 55,000 residents – many of them wealthy commuters who work in Manhattan – an elected official has a lot of power and influence over lucrative development decisions. Elections become heated and tensions run high.

These days, everyone in town seems to have a different opinion about who was behind the flyer. Political observers have spread theories on why each of the top vote-getters, or their personnel, may have been involved, but no one has presented proof.

Since the top vote-getters all employed well-paid consultants, the optimists in town believe that a consultant or PAC may have been behind the flyers without their favored candidate even knowing.

When asked who they thought was behind the flyers, DeFusco and Council President Ruben Ramos, who supported DeFusco, wouldn’t offer a theory. Meanwhile, Mayor Bhalla, Councilwoman Jen Giattino, Freeholder Anthony Romano, and Romano consultant Pablo Fonseca declined to offer any comment for the story.

Bhalla told another publication in May that he would not comment further on the flyers.

DeFusco said in an interview, “Whoever did it is a despicable human being who potentially decided to impact the election by spewing negativity and hate against Ravi, as well as an independent candidate challenging the status quo [meaning DeFusco]. Obviously this person or people didn’t want change.”

Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, a co-chair of Giattino’s campaign, said she only knows one thing for sure. “I would say that under no uncertain terms did Michael DeFusco have anything to do with that flyer,” she said. “He’s been traumatized by that flyer.”

Ramos said, “That flyer tainted these people’s good names, both Councilman DeFusco and Mayor Bhalla, and it is unfair to them that the case still hasn’t been solved. It’s an ugly cloud hanging over everything and everyone — because no one’s been absolved.”

“People had to plan together, go to a printer, and print it out.” – Captain Charles Campbell

“If DeFusco has done the flyers,” said one longtime political player, “it would’ve been a stupid thing to do, and he’s not stupid.” He added that he had heard about an incident at the annual League of Municipalities convention – which draws politicians from throughout the state to Atlantic City each November — in which someone became intoxicated and boasted about who was behind the flyer. But he could not provide proof or give the name of the person who talked.

 The investigation

Det. Campbell said last week that the distributors started on River Street and zigzagged between Second and Seventh streets, heading far west to Clinton Street.

Ferrante said no mayoral campaigns have been cleared. He said, “The case is not proactively being investigated [but] it will remain open for as long as I’m chief. I’m not closing it.”

By not being “proactively” investigated, he said the police have exhausted leads and are waiting for new evidence to be brought to light.

But he noted that as recently as last week, the department received another tip that they’re probing. He said the department has interviewed “dozens” of people, some more than once.

Five people were seen on video footage from buildings in Hoboken, appearing to distribute the flyers. This footage was broadcast across major media networks, newspapers, and sent to homeless shelters and police departments across the state within 48 hours of the flyer distribution.

Ferrante said he was astonished that no one was able to positively identify the people, which leads some observers to believe that they were hired from outside the county.

Ferrante said he received “heat” from several campaigns because of the release of the footage so soon, because they felt it gave Bhalla and DeFusco more press.

“I’m supposed to sit on evidence that could’ve broken the case?” said Ferrante. “We can’t hold this until after Tuesday. The voters and residents need to know.”

DeFusco’s private investigator, McMahon, interviewed local business owners near where the flyers were distributed, as well as the current head of Hoboken’s local Democratic Party, Phil Cohen, a Bhalla supporter. McMahon also tried to interview a local blogger who often takes aim at Bhalla’s critics, who was paid $1,200 by the Bhalla campaign for “Printing Literature (Handouts-Flyers/ Palm Cards.)”

The Jan. 1 report states, “Phil stated he had no idea who was behind the distribution of the fliers and hopes they are caught. Phil said he was informed about the fliers when his brother in law saw them on a car at Fifth and Sinatra and took a photo.” McMahon added that he was unable to reach the blogger at home.

The investigator also “made contact with a confidential source who” said he or she knew the names of people in the video, and that they lived in the town’s housing projects and were paid $200 to help with the flyers. One woman living in that area did resemble a person in the video, even down to her clothing.

McMahon went to talk to the woman, who acknowledged, “I even thought the person was me.” But she said she wasn’t involved.

Ultimately, McMahon gave the names of five people to the police whom he thought should be interviewed.

However, Campbell said last week that DeFusco’s names “were not fruitful.”

Ferrante said they were able to confirm that some of them were out of state at the time.

Ferrante shook off complaints that the police had not found the source of the flyers.

“No other police department is putting this much time and effort into an investigation into a fourth-degree crime,” he said.

Someone will talk

Campbell said that he believes many people were involved and that at some point, someone will come forward.

“There’s that saying, ‘Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead,’ ” he said. “Sooner or later there will become a squeaky wheel. More than two people know about this. People had to plan together, go to a printer, and print it out. Someone found five people to distribute the flyers for three hours… with that many people being involved, someone at some point will come forward.”

He said he believes the case will be solved when there is more political dissension and “someone in some faction” decides to talk, or if someone is brought in on an unrelated crime and uses their information to bargain for more lenient sentencing.

Campbell said due to the upcoming election and anniversary, he expects the investigation to ramp up as more people decide to come forward.

Anyone with any information or evidence is asked to contact Campbell at

campbellc@hobokenpd.org or (201)420-5103.

 

 Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com or comment online at Hudsonreporter.com

 

——–SIDEBAR——

 

A history of unpunished offenses

Hoboken has had its fair share of election scandals, often with evidence given to the state attorney general, county prosecutor, or local police. But rarely have these investigations borne fruit, with a few exceptions. Here is a short list of some of the mini-scandals:

1997: The late Councilman Andrew Amato was indicted for allegedly paying $40 to seven campaign workers to vote by absentee ballot in a past county executive’s race. Amato ran for mayor months later against then-Mayor Anthony Russo, but lost.

OUTCOME: The charges were dropped.

2007: A homeless man, who said he was from Jersey City, was caught trying to vote in a Hoboken council election under the name of a Hoboken resident who had moved away.

He told police he had been offered $10 to vote under the other person’s name.

This is one of the few instances of voter fraud, cited in the Aug. 6, 2014 Washington Post Article, “A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast.”

OUTCOME: Since he hadn’t actually voted, police said he couldn’t be charged with a crime. They spoke to him and released him.

2009: A Washington, D.C. based political action committee sent out attack ads against Hoboken mayoral candidates and got funding from a statewide carpenter’s union and a local development company. According to an Aug. 2009 Reporter article, the PACs called themselves “Citizens for the Future” and the “Building America Committee.” They sent out mailers and left phone messages attacking certain candidates. At the time, all three Hoboken mayoral candidates denied knowing where the attack ads came from.

IRS records show that two local development groups gave $25,000 and $49,976 each to the PACs, which could have been in violation of campaign laws.

OUTCOME: Nothing came of it.

2010: Following a November special council election, Ravi Bhalla (then-councilman and lawyer) filed a lawsuit on behalf of candidate Michael Lenz against then-4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti, who beat Lenz in the race. Lenz claimed that out of 79 vote-by-mail ballots delivered by Occhipinti’s campaign to the Hudson County election office a month before the election, 77 allegedly happened to have been filled out by residents who were later paid $40 by the campaign to work on Election Day.

OUTCOME: The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office told the Reporter in December 2010 that it was going to refer the investigation to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. The attorney general has never released any results of the investigation.

2018: This month, Hoboken resident Lizaida Camis, 55, was indicted on two charges: conspiracy to use the mail in a voter bribery scheme, and using the mail in a voter bribery scheme. She allegedly promised voters $50 in relation to vote-by-mail applications in a 2013 municipal election.

OUTCOME: Yet to be determined.

For more information on Hoboken election scandals go to https://tinyurl.com/legacyofvote.