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Assemblyman Erik Peterson. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Peterson demands Grewal recuse from racist flyer investigation

Assemblyman wants U.S. Attorney to step in to solve cold cases

By Nikita Biryukov, March 09 2021 3:23 pm

Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) demanded Attorney General Gurbir Grewal recuse himself from an investigation into a racist mailer in Edison in letters to Grewal and Gov. Phil Murphy Tuesday.

“I am writing to demand that you recuse yourself from this matter as it appears you may have a conflict which may be why you have not taken all necessary action to investigate and prosecute these politically motivated hate crimes,” Peterson said in his letter to Grewal. “Additionally, I demand that you advise the Governor of your conflict and ask that the Governor request that the U.S. Attorney take over.”

In the final days of the November 2017 campaign, Edison voters were met with a mailer that promised to “Make Edison Great Again,” telling voters that “Chinese and Indians are taking over our town.” The literature targeted school board candidates of Chinese and Asian descent.

A U.S. Postal Inspector probe pointed to eight individuals, including Edison Board of Education President Jerry Shi, who was one of the school board candidates targeted by the mailer, as being responsible, and the New Jersey Globe later obtained an audio recording of Councilman Ajay Patil, one of the eight, saying he witnessed attorney Satish Poondi assembling the mailer at the home of Democratic Municipal Chairman Mahesh Bhagia and current mayoral candidate in 2017.

The attorney general’s office has declined to say whether there is an investigation into the mailer in Edison, citing department policy that bars comment on such matters.

Steve Barnes, a spokesman for Grewal, also would not say if the attorney general has recused himself from the 39-month-old matter to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Poondi and Grewal are believed to be personal friends.

“Political motivated hate and bias crimes are destructive to our form of government and our election process and must be properly and timely investigated even if a crime has been committed by a politically connected friend,” Peterson said.

The dormant case in Edison largely resembles another in Hoboken. In the final days before the city’s November 2017 election, voters there were sent a mailer attacking Mayor Ravi Bhalla, then a candidate, saying “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town.”

Bhalla is a Sikh American and wears a turban.

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 his letter to Murphy, the assemblyman asked the governor to request an investigation — conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s office or a county prosecutor from outside Middlesex County — into the mailers and into whether Grewal acted improperly to stifle a state investigation into the matter.

“In my humble opinion, the Attorney General’s apparent conflict coupled with his failure to interview witnesses after nearly four (4) years disqualifies him and his office from retaining this case,” Peterson said. “Your credibility on whether you truly believe in the rule of law and the importance of deterring future politically motivated incidents of hate and bigotry will be determined on how you handle this situation.”

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