Two city council members in Paterson have been indicted for allegedly interfering with a special election last year, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Wednesday, in a case cited by then-President Donald Trump in his unsuccessful lawsuit to try and invalidate voting by mail in New Jersey.
Alex Mendez won the special election to fill a council seat on May 12, but voter fraud claims soon surfaced. The state attorney general's office initiated a probe after U.S. Postal Service inspectors said they found hundreds of mail-in ballots located in a mailbox in Paterson, along with more found in nearby Haledon.
Ultimately, the Passaic County Board of Elections decided not to count 800 ballots cast in the race and a judge ordered a new election for last November.
Mendez, 45, and Councilman Michael Jackson, 49, were originally charged in a criminal complaint last June. Despite the pending criminal charges, Mendez won a tight race in November.
The indictments handed up last month charge Mendez and Jackson with multiple counts including election fraud, unauthorized possession of ballots and falsifying or tampering with public records. The state attorney general’s office alleged the men collected ballots from voters and delivered them to county officials, which candidates are prohibited from doing.
The ballots also allegedly lacked 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.
Election fraud is a second-degree crime, punishable by a prison sentence of up to 10 years upon conviction.
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Paul Brickfield, Mendez's attorney, said Wednesday his client intends to plead not guilty and "has maintained his innocence from day one and looks forward to clearing his name."
Jackson's attorney, Theodore Kyles Jr., said he was reviewing the indictment and declined to comment.
Two other men, Shelim Khalique of Wayne, and Abu Rayzen of Prospect Park, also were charged by criminal complaint last year and their cases are pending.
"These indictments are an important step in our prosecution of these two sitting city councilmen on charges including second-degree election fraud," Grewal said in a statement. "As we have seen all too clearly in recent months, public confidence in our democratic process is critical."
New Jersey’s elections were conducted primarily by mail-in ballot last year, due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Trump's campaign sued the state to try and stop the mail-in program, and cited the Paterson case as evidence of potential widespread fraud.
A federal judge dismissed the suit in October, two weeks before the election, calling the allegations "highly speculative fear."