Fernandez gets five years in absentee ballot fraud case

Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa announced that an Essex County man was sentenced to state prison today for submitting fraudulent absentee ballots while working for the 2007 campaign of Teresa Ruiz for the New Jersey Senate in the 29th District. 

John Fernandez, 61, of Belleville, was sentenced to five years in state prison by Superior Court Judge Robert C. Billmeier in Mercer County.  Fernandez, who worked for the Essex County Department of Economic Development, was ordered to forfeit his job with the county and be permanently barred from public employment in New Jersey.  On Sept. 28, Fernandez was found guilty at trial by a Mercer County jury of charges of conspiracy (2nd degree), election fraud (2nd degree), absentee ballot fraud (3rd degree), tampering with public records or information (3rd degree), and forgery (4th degree).

Deputy Attorneys General Cynthia M. Vazquez and Victor R. Salgado tried the case and handled the sentencing for the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau.  The jury found by its verdict that Fernandez fraudulently tampered with documentation for absentee “messenger” ballots in the Nov. 6, 2007 general election, submitting such ballots on behalf of voters who never received the ballots or had an opportunity to cast their votes.

“This prison sentence should stand as a strong deterrent to anyone who would tamper with ballots in New Jersey and impede the fundamental right of our citizens to have their votes counted in fair and open elections,” said Attorney General Chiesa. “We will continue to prosecute those who interfere with the electoral process.”

“This successful prosecution is a testament to the hard work of the attorneys and investigators in the Division of Criminal Justice and Essex County Prosecutor’s Office who carefully combed through election records and interviewed numerous voters to pursue every allegation of fraud in this race,” said Director Stephen J. Taylor of the Division of Criminal Justice.  “They did an outstanding job.”

Fernandez was charged in 2009 along with other defendants in an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office Corruption Unit.  The defendants were charged in multiple indictments related to absentee ballots they collected and submitted as workers for Ruiz’s 2007 campaign for the New Jersey Senate.  Four other defendants previously pleaded guilty, and another three forfeited their public positions and were admitted by the court into the Pre-Trial Intervention Program.

The state presented testimony and evidence at trial that Fernandez participated in a conspiracy in which he and others solicited applications for messenger ballots from individuals not qualified to receive them and fraudulently designated themselves as the authorized messengers or bearers.  They 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.

At the time of the Nov. 6, 2007 general election, messenger ballots were only for voters homebound due to illness, infirmity or disability.  Such voters could complete an application designating a family member or a registered voter in the county as a messenger or bearer.  The bearer was 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.

The investigation was led for the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau by Deputy Attorney General Vincent J. Militello, Sgt. James Scott and Sgt. Lisa Shea.  It was conducted for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Corruption Unit by Chief Assistant Prosecutor Clara Rodriguez, former Assistant Prosecutor Brandon Minde, Lt. David Sanabria and Detective Elizabeth Cassidy. Valuable assistance was provided by Analyst Kathleen Ratliff and all of the detectives in the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau North. Deputy Attorneys General Vazquez and Salgado were assisted at trial by Analyst Catherine Lodato and Detective Robyn Greene.

On March 3, 2010, another defendant, Gianine Narvaez, 39, of Belleville, a former data processing technician for the Essex County Commissioner of Registration and Superintendent of Elections, pleaded guilty to third-degree charges of absentee ballot fraud and tampering with public records or information.  She has forfeited her job and public pension, and she will be permanently barred from public employment in New Jersey.  She is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 11, 2013. 

Two other defendants, Rocio Rivera, 53, of Washington, N.J. (Hunterdon County), and Edwin Cruz, 51, of Newark, pleaded guilty last year.  Rivera pleaded guilty to third-degree absentee ballot fraud, and Cruz pleaded guilty to third-degree tampering with public records or information.  Rivera was sentenced on March 14 to three years of probation and was ordered to forfeit her job in the Essex County Sheriff’s Office.  Cruz is awaiting sentencing. The state will recommend that he be sentenced to probation.  Angel Colon, 50, of Newark, pleaded guilty to second-degree election fraud and was sentenced in January to five years of probation. The state has appealed his sentence, arguing that he should have been sentenced to five to 10 years in prison based on his guilty plea.

Ruiz’s husband, former Essex County Freeholder Samuel Gonzalez, was also charged in the case.  In March 2011, he agreed to forfeit his seat on the freeholder board and his job as an aide to a Newark city councilman, and he was admitted into the Pre-Trial Intervention Program (PTI).  Two other defendants forfeited jobs with the City of Newark or Essex County and entered PTI.

"He evolves like any other politician who knows how to flip a foe into a friend when necessary. He’ll do whatever it takes to survive."
—Bergen Record columnist Charles Stile, on Gov. Christie's sudden embrace of the way unemployment data is collected