Seeking “justice and clarity,” seven elected officeholders in Edison – all Democrats — have admonished Attorney General Gurbir Grewal for his failure to solve a 40-month-old cold case involving racist flyers in a 2017 local election.
Mayor Thomas Lankey and six of the seven members of the township council said that a detective from the Attorney General ‘s office met with Chief of Police Thomas Bryan on January 23, 2018 and advised him that the state would be taking over the investigation.
The mailer promised to “Make Edison Great Again,” by telling voters that the “Chinese and Indians are taking over our town.” It targeted school board candidates of Chinese and Indian descent, with the word “deported” stamped over their photos.
“For three years, we have been requesting information about the investigation from you and the Middlesex County Prosecutor, no avail,” Lankey said in a letter to Grewal. “Despite what your office assured us in 2018, there has been no evidence that law enforcement has taken steps to get to the bottom of who was behind these inflammatory mailings, which have continued to promote turmoil and division of our community.”
In addition to Lankey, six councilmembers signed the letter: Council President Robert Diehl, Vice President Sammy Joshi, Alvaro Gomez, Joyce Ship Freeman, Richard Brescher, and Joseph Coyle.
Only Ajay Patil, the councilman captured on a tape recording fingering Democratic Municipal Chairman and mayoral candidate Mahesh Bhagia and Wilentz law firm partner Satish Poondi as the masterminds behind the flyer, did not sign the letter.
Grewal has steadfastly refused to comment on the Edison cold case, or on an eerily similar flyer distributed the same week in Hoboken that also targeted a South Asian candidate.
There are no signs that the attorney general is investigating either of unsolved mysteries despite considerable attempts by the respective communities to find out who was behind the flyers.
Instead, local elected officials worry that Grewal has become a strategically underzealous prosecutor whose office has told local law enforcement to stand down.
“You will not confirm that an investigation exists, although your own detective informed us that your office was investigating more than three years ago,” the Edison leaders told Grewal in a letter obtained by the New Jersey Globe.
Lankey and Diehl have reached out the Middlesex County Prosecutor, Yolanda Ciccone, with a plea for help, but there is no indication of any probe.
Diehl, who chaired the council’s initial probe of the flyer, said that no interviews have been conducted and prosecutors have not asked for any of the evidence gathered over the last three years.
After Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin) told Grewal in a letter that he should recuse himself in Edison, the attorney general responded within a day denying that he knew Poondi, a former co-chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee South Asian Caucus and a Joe Biden delegate in 2020.
That move offended the Edison Democratic officeholders.
“We believe that we deserve a response to our myriad of questions at least as quickly as you responded to a legislator in Hunterdon County,” Lankey and the councilmembers told Grewal.
The letter, sent to the attorney general on Tuesday, has not yet received a response.
Steven Barnes, a spokesman for Grewal, told the New Jersey Globe that he was declining to comment on the letter from the Edison mayor and councilmembers.
Edison officials have said they refuse to give up until law enforcement solves the cold case.
“Our community cannot move on until we determine who is behind these divisive tactics,” the local elected officials said. “We cannot afford to sweep this incident under the rug, lest our constituents think that racist rhetoric will be allowed to go unpunished.
Grewal’s reputation isn’t the only thing at risk if the whodunit caper isn’t solved.
With Murphy trying to ward of a 44-year curse – despite New Jersey being one of the bluest states in the nation, a Democratic governor hasn’t been re-elected since 1977 – he can’t afford to infuriate local elected officials from his own party.
Edison is the fifth largest town in New Jersey and delivered Gov. Phil Murphy a 3,861-vote plurality, 58%-39%, in the 2017 gubernatorial election.
The massive suburban township of nearly 100,000 residents, which was 44% white and 43% Asian American in the 2010 census, is exactly the kind of municipality Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli needs to flip if he wants to defeat Murphy in November.
Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that while Grewal has established some repute as attorney general, his lack of action could be a political liability for Murphy.
“Sometimes public confidence requires more, and this may be one of those times,” Rasmussen said. “In might behoove everyone – himself, his boss, and the public – to shed some light on the prosecutorial findings in a case with such a high degree of ongoing public interest, which is not going away without a better understanding of what happened.”
Grewal’s letter to Peterson referenced only Edison and not Hoboken, which was also addressed in Peterson’s letter.
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.
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 identified a group of individuals now known as the Edison Eight —former Edison Democratic Municipal Chairman Shariq Ahmad; Board of Education President Jerry Shi; school board member Mohin Patel; Raj Bhagia, the brother of local party; Aloysius Dsouza; Joseph Dsouza; Patil and Poondi— as having some involvement in the mailer, but it’s not clear whether the matter has spawned any other investigations.
Diehl said he and Gomez attended a November 5 meeting with U.S. Postal Inspector David Comer where Patil admitted his role.
“Councilman Patil told us that he knew who was responsible for the creation and distribution of the flyer,” Diehl said. “The meeting lasted approximately thirty minutes in which Councilman Patil described the operation and named ‘the architects or masterminds.’”
According to Diehl, Patil “has tried to walk back some of what he told us.”
“This has created a good bit of confusion with regard to his involvement and participation,” Diehl said.