TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A Paterson city councilman, a councilman-elect and two other men face criminal voting fraud charges stemming from the May 12 special election in the city, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Thursday.
The investigation began when the U.S. Postal Service's law enforcement arm told the attorney general's office about hundreds of mail-in ballots located in a mailbox in Paterson, along with more found in nearby Haledon, Grewal said.
It's unclear what about the ballots tipped officials off to the possibility of a crime, as well as how the alleged wrongdoing unfolded.
Grewal doesn't say whether the allegations affected the outcome of the election.
But he cast the charges as part of a warning ahead of the July 7 primary, which like the May 12 election, will be mostly done by mail-in ballots.
“Today’s charges send a clear message: if you try to tamper with an election in New Jersey, we will find you and we will hold you accountable,” Grewal said in a statement. “We will not allow a small number of criminals to undermine the public’s confidence in our democratic process.”
Facing charges are Paterson Council Vice President Michael Jackson, Councilman-elect Alex Mendez, Shelim Khalique, of Wayne, and Abu Rayzen, of Prospect Park.
Grewal alleges that Jackson violated state election law because he approached voters in the city about collecting and delivering their ballots to the county election board, which is prohibited for candidates. The ballots that Jackson delivered also lacked the required identifying information for the “bearer,” who under law must complete a certification in the presence of the voter for whom he or she is delivering the ballot. Jackson also had more than three ballots, which is the limit under the law, according to the attorney general.
Theodore Kyles, Jackson's attorney, said his client would plead not guilty and will contest the charges.
Mendez, also a candidate, collected voters' ballots in the city where he was running and delivered them to county election officials, Grewal said, despite a law barring that. The ballots lacked the required information naming the official bearer, he said. He also faces a charge that he procured at least one voter registration application, which he knew to be false, Grewal said.
A message seeking comment was left with Mendez's attorney.
Khalique is charged with collected and delivering ballots from voters without information identifying the bearer.
Khalique's attorney, Joseph Rotella, said his client denies any allegations of wrongdoing.
Rayzen procured more than three mail-in ballots that were not his own and for which he was not identified as an authorized bearer, according to the attorney general.
A message seeking comment on Rayzen's behalf was left with his attorney.
Gov. Phil Murphy mandated the May 12 election be conducted by mail because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The July 7 primary, which includes president, Senate and House candidates, will also be done mostly by mail.