Political operative pleads guilty

Federal investigation into Hoboken vote-by-mail scheme continues

The second of five people charged in relation to a Hoboken vote-by-mail scheme has pleaded guilty.
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The second of five people charged in relation to a Hoboken vote-by-mail scheme has pleaded guilty.

A second person has pleaded guilty for his involvement in a vote-by-mail bribery scheme in which five people have been charged so far.

Matthew Calicchio, 28, pleaded guilty in Newark federal court last week to using mail to promote voter bribery in the 2013 and 2015 municipal elections, according to U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito.

Calicchio faces a maximum of five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

History

In September the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Hoboken resident, Lizaida Camis, 55, with using the mail to promote a “voter bribery scheme.”

The complaint alleges that she promised voters $50 if they applied for and submitted vote-by-mail applications in a 2013 municipal election, as well as allegedly instructed them how to vote.
This charge marks the first public charge for voter fraud in Hoboken since 1997.

The following October The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the indictment of longtime Hoboken political player Frank “Pupie” Raia, a former councilman, mayoral candidate, and current real estate developer, for his alleged involvement in a vote-buying scheme in Hoboken in 2013.

Raia, 67, has been involved in Hoboken politics for decades. He was charged with “conspiracy to violate the federal Travel Act for causing the mails to be used in aid of voter bribery” along with Hoboken resident and 2013 campaign worker Dio Braxton, 43.

In November, Camis pleaded guilty to Count 2 of an indictment charging her with conspiracy to use the mail to promote a voter bribery scheme during the 2013 municipal election in Hoboken. She awaits sentencing.

In January, Hoboken resident William Rojas, 68, was indicted on the charge of allegedly promoting a voter bribery scheme by use of the U.S. mail in 2015.

Raia and Braxton have pleaded not guilty. Their trial begins in June.

The case

In 2013, 13 candidates ran for six ward council seats.

Raia was a candidate for the Hoboken City Council and was on the ballot for the Nov. 5, 2013, municipal election on the slate “One Hoboken” with former Board of Education Trustees Peter Biancamano and Britney Montgomery, backed by former Councilman Tim Occhipinti, who was running for mayor.  No one else from the “One Hoboken” slate has been charged. 

The winners of the election were Mayor Dawn Zimmer and council members James Doyle, Ravi Bhalla, and David Mello. A third group also ran, with Councilman Ruben Ramos for mayor at the head of that slate.

Raia also chaired the Let the People Decide PAC, which worked to loosen the rent control laws in town. A referendum was held to loosen those laws, but residents voted to maintain their rent control laws.

According to court documents, Raia allegedly directed Calicchio in 2013 to promise residents $50 if they applied for a vote-by-mail ballot and voted as directed. This money was allegedly drawn from the PAC account and then paid to the voters.

Under New Jersey law, a registered voter is permitted to cast a ballot by mail rather than in person. In Hudson County, to receive a mail-in ballot, a voter completes and submits to the Hudson County Clerk’s Office an Application for Vote By Mail Ballot. After the VBM Application is accepted by the clerk’s office, the voter receives through either the U.S. mail or by hand delivery a mail-in ballot, a Certificate of Mail-in Voter, and a ballot envelope.

Calicchio admitted doing the same in 2015 for a Hoboken City Council Candidate who is unnamed and referred to as “Candidate 1.”

“The candidate [allegedly] told Calicchio that the candidate wanted to win at all costs, and the candidate further indicated that everyone who voted by mail would get paid,” the state charged.

During the 2015 election, candidates for six ward council seats and three Hoboken Board of Education seats were on the ballot.

According to court documents, this candidate allegedly directed Calicchio and Rojas to arrange payments for voters. The payments were allegedly made from a second unnamed 2015 council candidate campaign committee’s account.

According to the complaint, this second candidate was the chair for his or her own campaign account.

According to ELEC documents, most of the candidates did not declare who chaired their account.

Officials condemn voter bribery

“The cash-for-votes scheme as outlined by the U.S. Attorney’s office is an unfortunate reminder that corruption and dark special interests still play an outsized role in our municipal elections,” said Mayor Ravi Bhalla in a statement after the announcement of Calicchio’s guilty plea. “It’s shameful that candidates for public office have been accused of bribing voters, and if true, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I commend all law enforcement personnel for their continued efforts at holding corrupt candidates and elected officials in Hoboken accountable for any and all crimes that were committed.”

“This most recent conviction represents yet another example of the intentional abuse of our vote-by-mail system,” said State Senator Sam Thompson. “Our elections and our very democracy will continue to be undermined until we implement better safeguards and deterrents, including stronger penalties like those I have proposed, to combat this type of voter fraud.”

He sponsored legislation that would increase penalties for extreme cases of voter fraud to a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The legislation was formally introduced Oct. 29, 2018.

For updates on this and other stories check http://www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.