Essex County Freeholder Indicted For Ballot Fraud

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TRENTON – Five people, including a freeholder who is the husband of state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, were indicted today for election fraud in connection with absentee ballots they collected and submitted as workers for Ruiz’s 2007 campaign for the New Jersey Senate in the 29th District, Attorney General Anne Milgram announced.  Five other campaign workers for Ruiz were charged in four prior indictments.

According to Criminal Justice Director Deborah L. Gramiccioni, a state grand jury returned two indictments today.  One indictment charged Ruiz’ husband, Samuel Gonzalez, 39, and Joaquin Caceres, 50, both of Newark.  Gonzalez is an Essex County freeholder and an aide to Newark City Councilman Anibal Ramos. Caceres is a senior program development specialist on the Newark mayor’s staff.

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The second indictment charged 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 conspiracy (2nd degree), election fraud (2nd degree), absentee ballot fraud (3rd degree), tampering with public records or information (3rd degree), and forgery (4th degree).

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 County 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,” said Milgram. “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 County 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,” said  Gramiccioni.  “The Division of Criminal Justice and Essex County Prosecutor’s Office are pursuing all leads concerning tampering with absentee ballots.”

Five other campaign workers for Ruiz were charged in four prior state grand jury indictments obtained by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau.

Four campaign workers were charged with tampering with documentation for messenger ballots and fraudulently submitting such ballots as votes in the Nov. 6, 2007 general 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 County 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 City of 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.


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