Five people, including Essex County Freeholder Samuel Gonzalez, the husband of state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), were indicted Tuesday for election fraud in connection with absentee ballots they collected and submitted as workers for Ruiz's 2007 Senate campaign.
Five other campaign workers for Ruiz were charged in four prior indictments.
State Criminal Justice Director Deborah L. Gramiccioni said a state grand jury returned two indictments Tuesday. One indictment charges Gonzalez, 39, and Joaquin Caceres, 50, both of Newark. Gonzalez is also an aide to Newark Councilman Anibal Ramos. Caceres is a senior program development specialist on the staff of Newark Mayor Cory Booker.The second indictment charges Jonathon Kowalski, 32, of Newark, John Fernandez, 58, of Belleville, and Edwin Cruz, 48, of Newark. Kowalski works in fund-raising at the North Ward Center, and Cruz and Fernandez both work for the Essex County Department of Economic Development.
Each of the five defendants is charged with 2nd degree conspiracy, 2nd degree election fraud, 3rd degree absentee ballot fraud, 3rd degree tampering with public records or information, and 4th degree forgery.
According to Gramiccioni, Gonzalez, Caceres, Kowalski, Fernandez and Cruz are charged with tampering with documentation for messenger ballots, which are absentee ballots intended for use by homebound voters. They are charged with fraudulently submitting such ballots as votes in the Nov. 6, 2007 general election. The charges stem from an ongoing investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau and the Essex Prosecutor's office corruption unit.
"We charge that these campaign workers fraudulently submitted absentee ballots on behalf of residents who never received the ballots or had an opportunity to cast their votes," state Attorney General Anne Milgram said. "Election fraud is a serious crime, particularly when voters are disenfranchised."
At the time of the election, messenger ballots were for use only by those who were homebound due to illness, infirmity or disability. Such persons could complete an application designating a messenger or bearer who is a family member or a registered voter in the county. The bearer was thereby authorized to obtain an absentee ballot from the county board of elections, take it to the voter, and return a completed ballot to the county board. New rules regarding such ballots have since been adopted.
Gonzalez, Caceres, Kowalski, Fernandez and Cruz allegedly solicited applications for messenger ballots from individuals not qualified to receive them and fraudulently designated themselves as the authorized messengers or bearers. They allegedly obtained messenger ballots from the county clerk and submitted them to the board of elections as votes on behalf of voters who, in fact, never received or voted the ballots.
"This alleged voter exploitation was brought to our office's attention by the Essex County Superintendent of Elections," said Essex Prosecutor Paula Dow. "We will aggressively pursue any evidence of criminal interference in the voting process."
"We are continuing our investigation into allegations of fraud in the November 2007 general election in the 29th District," Gramiccioni said. "The Division of Criminal Justice and Essex County Prosecutor's Office are pursuing all leads concerning tampering with absentee ballots."
The investigation was led for the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau by Deputy Attorney General Vincent Militello, Sgt. James Scott, and Sgt. Lisa Shea. It was conducted for the prosecutor's office by Assistant Prosecutor Brandon Minde, Det. David Sanabria and Det. Elizabeth Bazan. Militello and Minde presented the case to the grand jury.
Second-degree crimes carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $150,000 fine, while third-degree crimes carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $15,000 fine. Fourth-degree crimes carry a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The indictments were handed up to state Superior Court Judge Gerald J. Council in Trenton, who assigned the cases to Essex County, where the defendants will be ordered to appear in court at a later date to answer the charges.
Five other campaign workers for Ruiz were charged in four prior state grand jury indictments obtained by the Division of Criminal Justice.
Four of the workers were charged with tampering with documentation for messenger ballots and fraudulently submitting such ballots as votes in the 2007 election.
One of them, Rocio Rivera, 50, of Lebanon Township, was indicted on Aug. 18. The other three were charged in two separate indictments on Aug. 4. One indictment charged Gianine Narvaez, 36, of Belleville, a data processing technician for the Essex Commissioner of Registration and Superintendent of Elections, with official misconduct and other charges. The second indictment charged Angel Colon, 47, of Newark, an employee of the Newark Office of Affirmative Action, and Colon's fiancée, Sorinette Rosario, 31, of Belleville, an employee of the Newark Welfare Department.
In addition, Ruiz campaign worker Antonio Santana, 58, of Newark, was indicted on March 23 on charges he fraudulently changed votes on absentee ballots during the election. That indictment alleges that Santana changed the votes on three absentee ballots that he collected from members of one family in October 2007.
The charges against Rivera, Narvaez, Colon, Rosario and Santana are pending.
The Division of Criminal Justice has established a toll-free corruption tipline for the public to report corruption, financial crime and other illegal activities.
The number is 1-866-TIPS-4CJ. Additionally, the public can log on to the Division of Criminal Justice web page at: www.njdcj.org.
— TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM