Hudson County View reporter Corey McDonald wrote on Sept. 18 that Bayonne Council candidate Peter Franco was convicted of having sex with a minor on Aug. 13, 2008, according to a court-martial at U.S. Army Headquarters in Fort Hood, Texas.
McDonald said he received the document from a Freedom of Information Act Request filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Franco is one of four candidates running in a special election on Nov. 5 for the First Ward Council seat, against incumbent Councilman Neil Carroll III, real estate broker and former candidate John Cupo, and first-time candidate Paul Hagdorn.
Franco was convicted after being found “guilty of having sex with a child who had attained the age of 12 but was under the age of 16, by force and without consent in July 2007,” McDonald wrote.
According to the court-martial order, Franco was convicted of having sex with a minor between the ages of “12 and 16,” referenced as “J.I.T.,” on July 7, 2007. He was found not guilty in two separate incidents involving “J.I.T,” according to the court-martial order.
Franco pleaded not guilty on all three charges.
He said he appealed his conviction for as long as he could afford to do so, but failed to reverse the guilty verdict.
The report McDonald provided said that Franco received a reduction in rank and a bad-conduct discharge. He was sentenced to three years in prison and served most of that term. McDonald wrote that sources in the federal government told him that Franco appealed his conviction twice in 2010.
The details of the court-martial order that McDonald posted online are consistent with a purported court-martial document that had been circulating online by anonymous sources for years, which couldn’t be traced to an attributable source.
McDonald is the first person to say on public record that he received the report directly from the USDOJ.
Prior to the report, Franco never publicly admitted to having any criminal conviction on his record. He maintains that he is innocent of all charges.
Franco says lawsuit is pending
After McDonald reported on Franco’s 11-year-old conviction, Franco deemed the story “specious and unscrupulous.”
A day after the story was published on Hudson County View, Franco said in a statement that he plans to sue the news outlet over McDonald’s report.
While Franco acknowledged that he was convicted of a sex offense and received a bad-conduct discharge, as McDonald reported, he said that the story missed details that were not included in the court-martial order. Hudson County View reported that it attempted to reach Franco for comment multiple times but did not receive a response.
“Late yesterday afternoon, Hudson County View, a politically-financed webpage, ran a salacious story attacking my service to this community and our nation,” Franco said. “Their story was filled with inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims. The issue of their irresponsible reporting has now become a legal matter.”
Franco said it would take “a separate press release” to list the factual errors he accused the Hudson County View of making.
When the Bayonne Community News asked him which factual statements he took issue with in the HCV story, he said, “I am not making any further statements about HCV’s misreporting at this time. There are legal issues involved and a pending lawsuit.”
Franco accused HCV of writing the story on behalf of his political opponents.
“Public officials with political motivation to derail my campaign also had the financial means to influence HCV to carry out the establishment’s dirty work with this piece of reporting,” Franco said.
HCV owner John Heinis defended McDonald’s report as factually accurate, and denied that his company received incentives of any kind from outside sources in exchange for writing the story.
“This was in the rumor mill in Bayonne for many years,” Heinis said in a broadcast. “We spent many weeks on this. We did everything we could to vet our information. You know how we obtained our information, we named the folks from the government we spoke with. You can see the Freedom of Information Act request on our web page, and you can come to your own conclusions, but as of today we stick by this 110 percent.”
Heinis provided the Bayonne Community News with a copy of the response he received from the Department of Justice, and contact information for Pentagon Public Relations Officer William Sharp, and Army Court of Criminal Appeals Government Information Specialist Jeronimo Guzman, who he said provided HCV with an account of Franco’s Army service, and summary of the appeals he made against the conviction, respectively.
Franco alleged that HCV violated his privacy rights. He cited sex offender registry law. The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office and the Bayonne Police Department are legally barred from notifying the public about Tier 1 sex offenders, who are deemed to be “low risk” by law enforcement.
While law enforcement agencies may be barred by law from disclosing the identities of low-risk sex offenders, public record of Franco’s conviction was accessible through federal sources.
Hudson County View said it obtained the record through the federal Freedom of Information Act, which is a public channel.
Franco disputes conviction
Now that Franco’s conviction was widely reported on, he argued in a public statement that the conviction was false.
“[HCV’s] irresponsible decisions have now put me in the position of having to explain my past, even though I remain under no legal or moral obligation to do so,” Franco said.
He said that the court martial lasted less than two days, and that he would have been found innocent if the trial had not been allegedly expedited.
“In addition to problems with the investigation and prosecution of the case, the proceedings were rushed, and key witnesses were subsequently unable to testify on my behalf,” he said.
Franco alleged that his stepson, a teen at the time, filed false charges stating that he had sexually assaulted him.
Franco was married in 2006. His former wife and stepson moved in with him at Fort Hood, Texas, where he was stationed at U.S. Army headquarters. The couple divorced in 2007.
In Texas, making a false accusation of sexual assault or rape is considered a felony. Franco alleged that his stepson filed the false charges as “retribution” for the divorce.
“All pending charges were dismissed in 2007,” he said. He posted a photo of a memorandum online that said his charges were dismissed without prejudice.
“Those charges later resurfaced after my ex-wife submitted photographs taken before we met, which were then used to cast doubt about my sexuality in the mindsets of my superiors,” Franco said.
He alleged that the climate of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy motivated the court martial to reopen the case and falsely convict him.
At press time, Franco had not taken legal action against Hudson County View. He made it clear that, despite his conviction having surfaced on multiple news publications, he plans to move ahead with the campaign.