Gov. Phil Murphy’s re-election campaign has disassociated itself from the co-chairman of South Asians for Murphy after learning that he was the target of a sexual harassment complaint in 2019.
Former Edison Democratic Municipal Chairman Shariq Ahmad was accused of harassing a state employee while he was serving as chief of staff to Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Edison).
An investigation led to a finding against Ahmad, who was banned from the statehouse during his final year working on a legislative staff.
“In light of information recently made available, Mr. Ahmad will have no role as a volunteer supporter for the Murphy for Governor campaign,” said campaign manager Mollie Binotto. “The Governor has made it clear that this campaign will be a safe and inclusive environment that sets a best-in-class standard for progressive workplaces, including a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment or discrimination.”
Four days ago, Murphy headlined a virtual Democratic State Committee fundraiser led by Ahmad.
Karabinchak was notified of the accusations leveled against his staffer in 2019 and the outcome of the internal probe. While Ahmad stopped going to Trenton with his boss, he remained on Karabinchak’s staff until he left last summer to work on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
“I’m not going to have any comment,” Karabinchak told the New Jersey Globe.
The complaint was filed under a new sexual harassment policy adopted after legislative hearings into the firings of Al Alvarez, a Murphy campaign staffer who joined the administration despite allegations that he had raped a campaign volunteer in 2017.
Four sources familiar with the probe, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the events that led to Ahmad’s ban from the state capital.
An investigator obtained a series of text messages that laid out a series of unwanted overtures by Ahmad that frightened the victim.
Additionally, Ahmad allegedly entered the victim’s vehicle and left a present for her as a pretext to contacting her, despite requests that he not.
No charges were filed against Ahmad, who was accused of harassment but not assault.
“It was classic manipulation. It was classic predatory behavior,” said one of the individuals with knowledge of the allegations against Ahmad.
In a statement, Ahmad denied that he sexually harassed anyone.
“The facts are incorrect and under dispute. I strongly deny any wrongdoing, and an appeal is still pending. It’s unfortunate that these things come out before it is finalized in what is supposed to be a secure and apolitical process,” Ahmad told the NJ Globe. “Additionally, I have never held a role in the Governor’s campaign.”
Ahmad identified himself as co-chair of South Asians for Murphy in an email related to the February 25 event he held with the governor.
Anjali Mehrotra, a 21st district State Assembly candidate, confirmed that she co-chaired South Asians for Murphy with Ahmad.
“It wasn’t so much the Murphy campaign as it was me reaching out to Shariq,” Mehrotra said. “I had talked to the governor’s office about turning South Asians for Biden into South Asians for Murphy. They were very happy to have me head it since the rest were men.”
Mehrotra, who also serves as president of the National Organization for Women – New Jersey, said she was unaware of sexual harassment claims filed against Ahmad.
She said she contacted Ahmad because of the need to diversify the South Asian coalition beyond Indian Americans. Ahmad is a Pakistani American.
“We don’t want other groups to feel left out,” Mehrotra said. “It was all boxes checked.”
Ahmad is also tied to the ongoing Edison Eight scandal that continues to rock local politics in his hometown.
Ajay Patil, a Democratic councilman, has accused Democratic Municipal Chairman Mahesh Bhagia and Satish Poondi, a partner at the Wilentz law firm, of being the masterminds behind a racist flyer during a school board campaign in 2017 aimed at instilling fear among Asian American voters in order to increase voter turnout.
An U.S. Postal Investigator listed Ahmad as one of the Edison Eight, alleging that he purchased $4,000 worth of stamps prior to the mailing, but there is no evidence that Ahmad played a role in the racist flyer.
The Murphy campaign has taken steps to avoid some of the pitfalls that led to allegations of sexual assault and misogyny during the governor’s 2017 campaign.
The campaign manager and deputy campaign manager are women, and they have hired a firm to develop a campaign code of conduct and polices, develop a structure to report and investigate complaints, and help the campaign resolve workplace environment issues, if any develop.