Two Paterson city council members are facing calls to step down after being charged in an alleged voter fraud scheme, including a request from the highest office in the state.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday that both Council Vice President Michael Jackson and council member-elect Alex Mendez should resign after the state attorney general's office charged them, along with two other men, with criminal conduct involving ballots during May's mail-in election, which was overshadowed almost from the start by widespread fraud allegations.
"Based on these accusations, Council Vice President Jackson and Councilmember-elect Mendez must step aside as this investigation progresses," Murphy said. "Anything else undermines the public's sacred trust in democracy."
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh agreed, saying that neither should take office because "quite frankly these are serious allegations. And you heard what the attorney general said. He called them 'criminals.'" He also added that voters' "faith in fairness was shaken" by the fraud allegations.
While City Council President Maritza Davila said that she wouldn't comment and that "everyone deserves their day in court," she did say that Attorney General Gurbir Grewal's comments may have been out of line, considering they haven't held a trial yet.
"Something about this entire process just doesn't make sense to me. The attorney general in his statement declared them criminals without their fair day in court," Davila said. "Others are also condemning them without due process."
Both Jackson and Mendez have said that they will not step down, and both said they will plead not guilty to the charges. While on Facebook Live on Friday, Mendez said he is ready to be sworn in July 1, and will be fighting the charges in court. The embattled lawmaker said that he will "continue the work that I have been doing for my community for many years."
"Every position that I have been holding in the city of Paterson, (I have) been using that position not to serve me, but to serve others," Mendez said.
All four men face multiple voting fraud charges. In addition to Jackson and Mendez, 51-year-old Shelim Khalique — the brother of Paterson councilman Shahin Khalique — and Abu Razyen, 21, were charged with vote-fraud counts.
“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,” said Attorney General Grewal on Thursday. “We will not allow a small number of criminals to undermine the public’s confidence in our democratic process.”
The Board of Elections previously said about 800 votes would be set aside and not counted, amid charges they were found improperly bundled in mailboxes in Paterson as well as at a drop box in nearby Haledon.
Jackson is accused of approaching voters in his district and collecting their mail-in ballots to deliver to the city's Board of Elections himself, a violation of state election laws. The councilman allegedly had more than three ballots on him, none of which were his, and also received a voter's ballot without it having been filled out or sealed. It was then handed over to the elections board sealed, the attorney general said in the charges.
"Jackson is a public servant and has a distinct record of public service for many years," Jackson's attorney, Theodrore Kyles, said.
Mendez was charged with similar offenses, while also being accused of submitting multiple voter registrations which he knew were fraudulent. The councilman-elect allegedly knew the person who the registration belonged to was not eligible to vote in the district, the attorney general said.
After his arrest, Mendez released a short statement regarding the accusations, and his intent on serving once his term begins.
"I am not guilty and I expect to be vindicated. I look forward to serving the citizens of Paterson on July 1," the statement read.
A request for comment from Khalique's attorney was not returned. Attorney information for Razyen was not immediately available.
If convicted, the charges could mean that Mendez and Jackson could be behind bars for decades.
After multiple recounts ordered by a judge, the Second Ward race between Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman and incumbent Shahin Khalique ended in a tie. Meanwhile, the incumbent in the city's 3rd Ward, Bill McKoy, formally contested his loss and claimed his opponent Mendez stole the election (a claim Mendez's campaign denied).
Mendez has alleged through his attorney that police personnel were used to “conduct surveillance on candidates that were not supported by Mayor (Andre) Sayegh” before election day.
(One source familiar with the investigation said Paterson police officers who speak differing Spanish dialects were asked to assist with translations for investigators with the State Attorney General’s office who were looking into the voter fraud allegations.)
At stake in the much-disputed elections is control of $300 million in city funds, in addition to hundreds of millions more in Board of Education spending and state aid.
The allegations are the latest to roil a place whose name has become synonymous with official misconduct in recent years.
Former Mayor Joey Torres went to prison in 2017 after a conspiracy conviction in a long-running corruption case. And earlier this year, the FBI arrested the eighth Paterson cop to be charged in another corruption probe.