Attorney General Gurbir Grewal denied knowing a politically connected lawyer whom an Edison councilman identified as a mastermind behind a racist flyer sent during the town’s 2017 School Board campaign in a letter to Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) Wednesday.
“I can assure you that I do not know this person and have no recollection of ever meeting him. The mere fact that we once appeared in the same group photograph at a 2018 awards ceremony does not make us personal friends,” Grewal said. “I am unsure why you and others continue to insist that Mr. Poondi and I know each other — other than the fact we are both South Asian lawyers — but I hope that this letter can put the issue to rest.”
Grewal said Peterson’s letter was spurred by “a factual inaccuracy,” saying it “relies almost entirely on several blog posts published by (New Jersey Globe editor) David Wildstein, who suggests that I have a personal friendship with one of the alleged subjects of the purported Edison investigation.”
In the final days before 2017’s November elections, voters in Edison were met with a mailer pledging to “Make Edison Great Again” and telling voters that the “Chinese and Indians are taking over our town.”
It showed two non-white candidates — Jerry Shi, who is of Chinese descent and now a councilman, and Falguni Patel, who is of Indian descent — with the word “deported” stamped across their faces.
The New Jersey Globe has reported there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Grewal, despite local officials wondering if the attorney general had intervened.
A U.S. Postal Inspector last year fingered eight individuals — Councilman Ajay Patil; Wilentz partner and Biden delegate Satish Poondi, the politically connected lawyer; former Edison Democratic Municipal Chairman Shariq Ahmad; Mohin Patel; Raj Bhagia, the brother of Edison Democratic Municipal Chairman Mahesh Bhagia; Aloysius Dsouza; Joseph Dsouza; and Shi — as being responsible for the mailer, but it’s not clear whether the matter has spawned any other investigations.
The attorney general’s office has declined to say such an investigation exists, citing department policy that bars comment on non-public matters. For the same reason, Grewal’s office has declined to say if the attorney general has recused himself from the matter over a purported relationship with Poondi, which Grewal has now denied.
Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey said that he was told an investigation had been opened, but others in the township are not sure if that’s the case — and wonder if the Grewal-Poondi relationship is the cause.
Grewal kept to his department’s policies in his response to Peterson, who urged the attorney general and Gov. Phil Murphy to hand the case over to the U.S. Attorney’s office or a county prosecutor from outside Middlesex County.
“To be clear, my office has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of this investigation — and so, consistent with our standard practice, we have nothing further to say regarding any hypothetical recusal decisions,” Grewal said in the letter. “I can assure you, however, that if an investigation were underway, our office would adhere to the same ethics rules that we apply in all other matters.”
Separately, he defended his record on recusals, saying he “erred on the side of caution and recused on several occasions even when no actual conflict existed, so as to reassure the public about the integrity of my office’s work.”
“My office takes these matters seriously, and I hold myself to the same high standards that I expect from the other members of my team,” he said. “On a handful of occasions during my tenure as Attorney General, I have learned that a matter might prompt a conflict for me personally, and I have not hesitated to consult with our Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer and, when appropriate, recuse from further involvement in the case.”
Grewal’s letter did not address a similar mailer that attacked non-white candidates in Hoboken in the final days of the 2017 election that Peterson also raised in his missive to the attorney general. That mailer attacked Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who is Sikh and was then a candidate, saying “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town.”
Grewal and the Hoboken mayor are childhood friends and, according to a 2018 New York Times report, were best men at each other’s weddings.
In an unrelated probe last year, the state attorney general claimed that a Monmouth County pharmacist was caught by an undercover investigator referring to himself as “doctor” while touting an unproven natural treatment for COVID-19 – telling the investigator to purchase vitamins and enzyme supplements and not prescriptions from a physician.
Poondi represented the pharmacist, Eric Sauer, who agreed not imply that he was a doctor going forward but faced no additional penalty. Grewal was quoted in the release, and at least one individual with knowledge of local politics in Edison cited it as an incident confirming their beliefs about the apparently long-dormant case.