As Hoboken prepares for the November mayoral election, unanswered questions loom from the last, because an investigation into an anonymous midnight flyer distributed just days before the 2017 election remains unsolved.
The City Council is seeking the help of the New Jersey Attorney General and Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.
At the center of the investigation is a midnight campaign flyer, which appeared on car windshields just days before the mayoral election in which now Mayor Ravi Bhalla, Councilman Michael DeFusco, Councilwoman Jen Giattino, Commissioner Anthony Romano, and residents Karen Nason and Ron Bautista vied for the office.
Emblazoned with the words “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town,” the flyer bore a picture of Bhalla, who wears a turban as a Sikh, doctoring previous literature from DeFusco’s campaign.
It appeared to take advantage of national anti-immigration and racist rhetoric following the election of President Donald Trump and fears after the Oct. 31 terrorist attack in Manhattan in which eight people were killed by a careening truck driven by Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipov.
The Police Department began an investigation into the flyer as a possible bias crime. Those responsible 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.
On April, 7 the City Council adopted a resolution with a 7-1 vote calling on the state Attorney General’s Office and the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office to take over the investigation
According to Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who sponsored the resolution with Council Vice President Jen Giattino, the resolution was inspired by a grand jury investigation into a similar situation in Edison in 2017.
Councilman Phil Cohen was the lone dissenting vote, stating during the meeting that the resolution was “a joke.”
“This is a resolution that questions the integrity of the Hoboken Police Department and their outstanding investigations unit,” Cohen said. “It suggests that there’s conflicts of interest, that they can’t do an adequate job of investigating this. It’s outrageous to even suggest that.”
He said he believes those who created the flyer should be brought to justice, but the resolution doesn’t help achieve that goal.
He further questioned money DeFusco raised through GoFundMe for a reward and to hire a private investigator asking if the money would then go toward the HCPO or AG’s investigation.
“At every turn, Councilman DeFusco has tried to make himself the focus of this incident that primarily and disgustingly targeted Mayor Bhalla as a so-called ‘Terrorist’,” Cohen said. “In the midst of a current wave of violence and harassment targeting members of the AAPI community, the City Council should not be scapegoating the HPD or facilitating Councilman DeFusco’s desire to turn this spotlight on himself — once again — with respect to the unsolved racist attack on Mayor Bhalla in 2017.”
Fisher was quick to note that DeFusco was not a sponsor of the resolution and added that she spoke with Police Chief Ken Ferrante, who she said was supportive of the potential help.
“This resolution is meant to be handed up to the state Attorney General’s Office and the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office to step in and help our Hoboken police, and Chief Ferrante is okay with that,” said Fisher. “They have a lot of information that they’ve been able to track down, and they want the additional resources from the state.”
DeFusco did not comment during the meeting but released a statement the following day.
“Having my name associated with a racist and bigoted flyer that I had no involvement in was devastating to me and my family,” he said. “It’s unfathomable that nearly four years later we have yet to bring justice to those responsible, and this case deserves to be investigated by the highest level of authorities to protect the integrity of future elections. I have stood against this rhetoric since day one, and my family and I welcome a new, more thorough investigation to finally vindicate my name from this hateful act.”
“Councilman Cohen’s theatrics last night were unprofessional, disrespectful and frankly outright insulting,” he added. “The fact that every other councilperson put politics aside to vote in favor of a proper investigation speaks volumes to Councilman Cohen’s character.”