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Palisades Park Councilwoman Stephanie Jang. (Photo: Stephanie Jang).

Did a judge put his thumb on the scale just two weeks before Election Day?

Judge makes ruling on politically charged 2020 election complaint while Palisades Park voters have already begun voting

By David Wildstein, October 25 2022 1:21 pm

Either unwittingly or deliberately, a municipal court judge has become a pawn in a contentious race for mayor of Palisades Park just two weeks before Election Day when he held a probable cause hearing on a citizen complaint filed by key supporter of one of the candidates.

Bergen County Presiding Municipal Court Judge Anthony N. Gallina determined on Monday that there was probable cause to refer a two-year-old allegation that Republican mayoral candidate Stephanie S. Jang helped voters at a local senior housing facility fill out vote-by-mail ballot during the 2020 primary election.

The Bergen County superintendent of elections had investigated allegations against Jang but declined to prosecute.

Shortly after Jang, who scored an upset victory for a borough council seat in in 2021, announced her candidacy for mayor in April, controversial borough administrator and local political boss David Lorenzo filed a citizens complaint in municipal court against Jang, claiming that she violated a state vote-by-mail law by exceeding the legal limit of assisting voters.

Lorenzo led the efforts to dump the incumbent mayor, Christopher Chung, from the Democratic organization line and replace him with his own candidate, Paul Kim.  Kim defeated Chung in the June primary.

“David Lorenzo has no rules,” said Jang, who spent fifteen year as a local activist before entering the political arena in 2020.  “He’s ruling over this town as a king.  No one can prevent him, except me.”

Gallina had originally scheduled a hearing on August 4 but pushed it to September 15 and again to October 20 – nearly a month after some Palisades Park voters began casting mail-in ballots — because he did not have a full set of documents in front of him, records show.  He found probable cause exists; it’s now up to the Bergen County Prosecutor to decide if the want to pursue the matter against Jang.

Still, the judge’s decision to wade in to a local political fight while voting is underway could be viewed as an attempt to influence the election.

“We are living in a time when the fairness of elections is being questioned constantly, and our democracy can ill afford that, which is why it’s essential for every official to avoid even the appearance that they might be putting their thumb on the scale,” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

But one North Jersey political insider who knows the judge doesn’t think Gallina’s to hold a hearing on a citizen complaint was politically motivated.

“I would not call him the most politically astute person on the face of the earth,” said the insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said of the 68-year-old judge.   “He has a level of political cluelessness.”

Jung told the New Jersey Globe that while running off-the-line in the Democratic council primary in 2020, she requested access to a local senior citizens housing center to pursue vote-by-mail ballots.  She said that the manager of the facility was Kim, who opened the door for her and allowed her in.  Not long after, Jang said, Kim returned with a police officer and a videographer.

John Azzarello, an attorney representing Jang, alleged that Lorenzo “obviously concluded that the best way to guarantee he retains his current position as the borough’s business administrator is to file a groundless complaint against Ms. Jang.”

According to Azzarello, the citizens complaint filed by Lorenzo was done without the involvement of law enforcement and relates to “conduct both the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and Bergen County Superintendent of Elections Office extensively investigated over two years ago—with the assistance of a forensic expert—and declined to prosecute.”

“The evidence underlying the Bergen County investigation, totaling 100 pages, is a matter of public record and has been available to Mr. Kim’s allies long before the citizen’s complaint was filed. Why Mr. Kim’s associates waited to file the complaint until Ms. Jang announced her run for mayor is no mystery,” Azzarello said.   “Ms. Jang’s campaign poses a challenge to Mr. Kim and those aligned with him who have mismanaged Palisades Park’s funds for decades.

Rasmussen said that he was troubled by the appearance of a judge becoming a player in a local campaign squabble.

“This is not the first case this year in which a New Jersey judge has completely ignored the election timetable.  I have long believed we would benefit from guidance set by the Legislature or the Chief Justice that all election-related matters should be decided on an emergent basis, since every decision can have a decisive impact on an election outcome,” stated Rasmussen.  “I don’t expect we will get that, which leaves our elections completely exposed to the calendars of every judge.”

Law enforcement typically avoids becoming involved in campaign matters just before an election, unless they involve legal issues involving voter disenfranchisement or the counting of votes.

Gallina was a political ally of the late Richard Mola, a Republican who served as mayor of Elmwood Park for 45 years before his death in 2016.  Mola had named Gallina as the municipal court judge.

In 1984, Gallina sought a seat on the Bergen County Charter Commission, which later recommended a change to the county executive form of government.   He finished 33rd in a field of 40 candidates for seven seats.

Lorenzo played prominently in a 2021 state comptroller report that skewered his job performance and found that his five-year contract improperly limited the ability of the borough council to remove him.

“Thankfully, the baseless allegations contained in the citizen’s complaint are not the last word in this matter. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office must now review this political operative’s complaint and make an independent determination if a crime was committed,” said Azzarello.  “We are confident that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office will reach the exact same conclusion it reached two years earlier.”

The Bergen Record first reported the results of the court hearing, although they mistakenly identified Gallina as a Superior Court judge.

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