Union County Lawmaker Resigns During Child Porn Investigation

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TRENTON – Longtime state Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union) resigned Monday. Cohen is currently the subject of a child pornography investigation, though as of Monday no charges had been filed.
Cohen has reportedly been in a hospital under psychiatric evaluation since authorities seized his office computer last week.

Cohen submitted his one-sentence resignation letter to clerk of the Assembly at 9:24 a.m., said Derek Roseman, spokesman for the Assembly Democrats.
It read: “Please accept this letter as my formal resignation from the General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, effective immediately.”

Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D-Camden) said he accepted Cohen’s letter of resignation.

“The allegations made against Assemblyman Cohen, if true, are sad and indefensible,” Roberts said in a written statement.

“Assemblyman Cohen was a respected legislator who dedicated his life to the Statehouse and whose legacy would have been great. Unfortunately, all of that will now be forever overshadowed,” Roberts said. “While law enforcement reviews these allegations, we sincerely hope he receives the help he desperately needs.”
Gov. Jon Corzine said the allegations against Cohen are “deeply disturbing.”
“All of us who have worked with him are shocked by the reports. Child pornography reflects a horrible debasement of children that is totally intolerable,” Corzine said. “Creating, distributing and using child pornography should be pursued vigorously by law enforcement wherever it is found.”
Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce said Cohen made the right choice in resigning.

“Given the gravity of the allegations he faces, relinquishing public office is the right thing to do for his constituents. These are serious charges,” DeCroce said. “The people of New Jersey deserve a Legislature that is untainted by scandal.”

A staffer at Cohen’s Union Township office allegedly discovered a computer printout of a nude girl that was traced back to Cohen’s computer. State Sen. Ray Lesniak and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, who share the office with Cohen, informed the Legislature’s Office of Legislative Services. They, in turn, notified the Attorney General’s Office.

Last Thursday, Lesniak and Cryan issued a statement. “While it was our proactive steps that led to the investigation to this point, we are appalled at what has transpired,” the two lawmakers said. “Both of us have known Neil Cohen for more than two decades. We know him as a compassionate caring individual but if the allegations prove true, clearly there was a side to him neither of us knew. We have been instructed to not make any further comments regarding this very serious matter.”

The investigation is being handled by the State Police’s official corruption unit and its digital technology investigations unit, law enforcement officials said. They are reporting directly to the Attorney General’s Office and have been ordered to secrecy due to the sensitive nature of the case.

Cohen also submitted letters of resignation for his positions as a convention delegate pledged to Barack Obama, general counsel to the Union County Utilities Authority and attorney to the Union County Planning Board.

Cohen served in the state legislature for more than 15 years, representing a district that includes Elizabeth, Kenilworth, Roselle and Union Township. Local Democratic committee members have until late August to choose Cohen’s replacement.

Several prominent Elizabeth and Roselle Democrats have expressed interest in Cohen’s seat.

“The replacement will be a minority,” said Lesniak, one of the most influential power brokers in Union County. “Hispanics and African-Americans make up a majority of the district,” the senator said. “Now that there’s an opening, it’s only right that it be filled by a minority.”

There is strong sentiment that Cohen’s replacement should come from Roselle. Councilwoman Cecilia Dallis-Ricks appears to be the early front-runner, though some question whether she has the necessary political experience for the job. Dallis-Ricks is a former school board member and longtime Cohen supporter who is currently serving her first borough council term.

Mayor Garrett Smith is the highest-profile contender from Roselle, but he has not endeared himself to the Union County Democratic Party by twice running successful off-the-line campaigns for mayor against Cohen’s handpicked candidates.

Smith said that his primary battles were with Cohen, who was Roselle’s Democratic Party chairman. “He was really the person who was the issue, other than that there is no issue,” said Smith. “I’m still trying to grasp the whole thing, but I’m open. I want to try to find a way for Roselle to be fully represented.”

Elizabeth Councilwoman At-Large Patricia Perkins-Auguste is also seeking Cohen’s seat. The 16-year City Council veteran has the backing of Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage. “I am interested in it, but there are a lot of other people I need to speak to,” Perkins-Auguste said.

Union County Freeholder Angel Estrada has also thrown his name into the ring. “I very much care about the needs of people, especially poor people in this district,” said Estrada, who has lived in Elizabeth since he was 10. “I’m making myself available, I am interested, and beyond that there’s nothing much I can do. It’s not up to me.”

Other names being floated as replacements included Elizabeth council members Frank Cuesta and Manny Grova.


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