There are two cold cases Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is having trouble solving, even though they are inextricably linked.
Both took place in during the final days of the November 2017 campaign and involved racist flyers that took aim at South Asian candidates.
In Hoboken, the literature targeted then-mayoral candidate Ravi Bhalla, a Sikh American wearing a turban, saying, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town.”
It included a disclaimer that it was “Paid for by Team DeFusco for Hoboken,” in a deliberate attempt to blame Bhalla’s opponent, Councilman Michael DeFusco. DeFusco denounced the flyer and there is no evidence that his campaign was involved.
The same week, a mailer began showing up in Edison that was remarkably similar.
That literature 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.
Grewal has been unable to solve either of the capers.
“I haven’t heard anything for some number of years,” said Bhalla. “It was under investigation then. Various people were interviewed. I was interviewed. My observation is it appears dormant.”
The latest development in the Edison part of the cold case file came last week when the New Jersey Globe obtained an audio tape of a local councilman, Ajay Patil, saying he witnessed attorney Satish Poondi assembling that racist mailer at the home of the Democratic Municipal Chairman, Mahesh Bhagia, in 2017.
Poondi has ties to Hoboken politics, but there is no evidence that he was involved in the nearly identical tactic as the one he’s been accused of pulling off in Edison.
Bhalla said that Poondi played no role in his mayoral campaign, other than a modest personal campaign contribution.
“I know him. We’re acquainted. He’s politically active in the Democratic Party,” Bhalla said. “We don’t have a rapport, like a friendship.”
Poondi, a partner at the Wilentz firm, did not immediately respond to a telephone message and email sent at 11:47 AM today.
Bhalla and Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey have confirmed that investigations were launched, and both have complained that law enforcement has been unable to identify the culprit.
“It’s a little disappointing that nothing has come of it, given how offensive it was,” Bhalla said.
Hoboken Police Chief Ken Ferrante said that the case is currently closed, and that the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office was aware of that. He said he would reopen the probe if new evidence emerged.
“The amount of hours our detectives put into this was extraordinary,” Ferrante said. “We could never pinpoint a suspect.”
Bhalla said he’d like to know if Poondi played any role.
“Maybe the police department should give him a call,” he said.
Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that there’s a concern that law enforcement’s inability to solve the Edison and Hoboken antics could lead to copycat situations down the road.
“New Jersey’s political class is keenly attuned to prosecutorial appetites, or lack thereof. Any time we turn a blind eye to a dirty trick, we run the risk of encouraging it,” Rasmussen said. “The public’s confidence in our campaigns and elections needs to be an across-the-board priority we are all scrupulous about.”
Bhalla, who is seeking re-election to a second term this year, said that the Wilentz law firm gets no legal work from his city.
City records show no contracts to the once politically potent Central Jersey firm that was founded by former New Jersey Attorney General David Wilentz, the undisputed boss of Middlesex County Democrats for parts of seven decades before his death in 1988.
Still, the Wilentz firm touts its representation of Hoboken on their website.
“Our policy is no comment at this point,” the Wilentz managing partner, Lisa Gorab, said prior to any actual questions being asked of her.
It’s still not clear whether Grewal is actually probing the controversy. His office has repeatedly declined to comment on the Edison case.
It is also unclear whether the attorney general has personally recused himself from the Edison investigation, if there is one.
While the relationship between Poondi and Bhalla are tenuous, the relationships between Poondi and Grewal are allegedly less so.
Grewal and Bhalla are childhood friends and were best man at each other’s weddings, according to a 2018 New York Times report.
The attorney general’s spokesman refused to say if Grewal has recused himself from the Hoboken probe, which law enforcement has publicly acknowledged.
“Our standard policy is that we neither confirm nor deny investigations, and, as part of that policy, we don’t confirm details about how a hypothetical investigation would be handled,” said Steven Barnes, Grewal’s communications director. “We’re neither confirming nor denying the involvement of the Attorney General’s Office in whatever matters others are discussing publicly.”
The public can help solve cold cases like the ones in Edison and Hoboken by using the attorney general’s online confidential crime tip reporting form or by calling 800-277-2427.