An Edison councilman identified two prominent Democrats as the masterminds behind a conspiracy to distribute a racist flyer during a school board campaign in 2017 aimed at instilling fear among Asian American voters in order to increase voter turnout.
Ajay Patil, a two-term Democratic councilman, identified Democratic Municipal Chairman Mahesh Bhagia and Satish Poondi, a partner at the Wilentz law firm who had chaired the state party’s South Asian American Caucus co-chairman, as architects of a “Make Edison Great Again” mailer telling voters that the “Chinese and Indians are taking over our town.”
Bhagia was selected on Wednesday as the choice of the local Democratic organization as their candidate for mayor of Edison, New Jersey’s 5th largest municipality.
Patil’s confession came in November 2020, when he met with two community leaders in advance of an interview with U.S. Postal Inspector David Comer.
“We need to have the same story telling,” Patil said on a tape of the meeting obtained by the New Jersey Globe.
The conversation took place at Chowpatty, a popular Indian restaurant in Edison which had at least one recording device in place.
Indian Business Association president Dhiren Amin and Chandrakant Patel, the restaurant owner, were at the meeting with Patil.
Patel had cooperated with postal investigators and told Comer that Poondi had requested to use his restaurant to assemble the mailing.
Patil denied being part of the plot and said the mailing was put together by Bhagia and Edison Board of Education President Jingwei “Jerry” Shi, who was a school board candidate.
“I tell you, truthfully, even I was not involved,” Patil said. “You know when I came to know? Everything was printed. thousand and five hundred were already labeled by Jerry and Mahesh. And then one night 11 o’clock. I got a call from Satish, he said, “Hey, can you stop by?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ And then he showed me.”
That was at Bhagia’s home.
“So when I told them that this is nonsense, first thing I said you know, this is not going to work. I don’t know why you guys are doing it. I didn’t look at thoroughly what actually the content was, but I said, ‘man there are three days election left,” Patil said. “Why do you have to do these things? You guys were, we all worked so hard.”
Patil told Amin and Patel that he questioned Poondi, whose law firm is the bond counsel for the Edison Board of Education, about the legality of the mailing.
“I said, ‘did you look at the legal thing? Does it violate anything? And Satish said, ‘No, everything is in good order,’ stated Patil.
Grewal role in possible probe remains unclear
Poondi’s alleged role in the scandal puts New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in a potentially precarious position since the two are believed to be personal friends.
In a letter to the Middlesex County Prosecutor, Edison Council President Robert Diehl complained that law enforcement has been slow to respond and said he was said he was “frustrated by what seems to be the lack of attention or cooperation we have received from the attorney general’s office with this matter.”
Diehl said that only the postal inspector and a municipal investigatory committee have been seeking to uncover the source behind the racist flyer.
Steven Barnes, a spokesman for the attorney general, would not say if Grewal recused himself from the 39-month-old Edison matter in order to avoid an appearance of conflict due to his likely personal relationship with Poondi.
“Our policy is we neither confirm nor deny investigations,” Barnes said. “It goes without saying that when we decline to confirm the existence of an investigation, we would also decline to confirm details of how that hypothetical investigation would be handled.”
In response to a question from the New Jersey Globe, Gov. Phil Murphy said he had “no insight” on whether Grewal had issued a recusal on the Edison issue.
But Murphy said he was aware of the mailing.
“I remember it well and it was deplorable,” he said.
Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey said that he was told an investigation has been opened, but others in the township are not sure if that’s the case – and wonder if the Grewal-Poondi relationship is the cause, although there is no evidence of that.
In an unrelated probe last year, the state attorney general claimed that a Monmouth County pharmacist was caught by an undercover investigator referring to himself as “doctor” while touting an unproven natural treatment for COVID-19 – telling the investigator to purchase vitamins and enzyme supplements and not prescriptions from a physician.
The pharmacist told the investigator that the prescription would cause cancer and recommended “natural alternatives” he was offering for sale
Poondi represented the pharmacist, Eric Sauer, who agreed not imply that he was a doctor going forward. He faced no additional penalty.
Grewal was quoted in a press release.
“It is an example of what has been believed to be,” said one individual with knowledge of local Edison politics.
Patil said he reached out to Poondi about an investigation into the flyer and came away believing the politically active lawyer was unconcerned.
“I called Satish to find out if anybody reached out to them and they gave my name somewhere. He is on his own track. He said, ‘I don’t give a shit,” Patil said. “He doesn’t believe there is any investigation, or he doesn’t believe there is any proofs, he doesn’t believe that anything can happen.”
That appeared to bother Patel too.
“You know, I trust Satish more than anyone of you, right?” Patel asked.
“Hundred percent,” Patil replied. “I know.”
“At that time, as you know, I trust, I trusted Satish more than I did anyone else, so I figure, politically whatever is good for the community, and whatever, and he is a lawyer,” Patel stated. “So, whatever he does–little give and take, within limits.”
Patil told Patel and Amin that Diehl was trying to find out who was behind the mailer, and it was later disclosed that Diehl and Councilman Alvaro Gomez accompanied Patil to his interview with the U.S. Postal Inspector.
“What Bob Diehl is looking for is who is the mastermind,” Patil said. “He just wants to know who he is. And he asked me very precisely one question” that ‘councilman, it cannot be you.’”
Patil said he complained to Poondi that news stories of the anonymous flyer could damage his reputation.
“I was telling Satish, ‘Man,’ I said, ‘my name is getting dragged,’ Patil reported. “I told you two months ago, and he said, ‘Let it go. I don’t care.’ Even today he said to me, ‘I don’t care.’
That made Patel suspicious that Poondi was up to something.
“Listen to me,” he said. “He must have put in place his own arrangement, right? What do we know at all what has he done, my friend.”
Postal inspectors reportedly found a fingerprint on the mailer belonging to a former Chowpatty employee.
The employee, Aloysius Dsouza, told the postal inspector that he remembered being asked by Patel to help with the mailer preparation.
Patil alleged that Poondi told him he wouldn’t be a target of an investigation because there was no evidence that would implicate him because his “fingerprint is not there.”
“They can bring any witness against me and I can deny,” Patil quoted Poondi as saying. “Because I am an attorney, I don’t care.”
That appeared to offend Amin, who had replaced Poondi as counsel to the Indian Business Association.
“So lawyers are allowed to do anything, even murder,” Amin said. “But he says you know what they will do.”
Patil told Patel and Amin that he was “giving the message to these there is an investigation in progress you guys just be careful.”
“No, no I told them clearly that they are doing all this to tackle me– I had told you clearly, right?” Patel asked. “That is his style, their style, Satish’s style. Dominate someone, put someone down, right? So that issue aside, what I have to say is they hustled me into this, right? Get this– so I have to protect myself in whatever way, right?”
Patel mentioned three more members of what has become known as the Edison Eight: school board member Mohin Patel; former Edison Democratic Municipal Chairman Shariq Ahmad, and Raj Bhagia, the brother of Mahesh Bhagia.
“The whole thing that happened about this flyer, ok? In that thing whatever, you all were involved in, Satish, Bhagia brothers, Shariq, ok? Mohin, all of you did whatever you all did, it came to me at the last minutes, yeah?” Patel asked. “To do this thing to it, but before that, preparation was going on fifteen days or a month ahead of time, no? A draft would have been put together, it was revised, whatever, right?
Most of the individuals involved would not answer questions about their role.
Poondi declined to comment unless he was sent a full transcript of the call.
Amin denied that he participated in the conversation in which is voice was heard on tape.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Amin told the NJ Globe.
He quickly ended the short telephone interview, saying that he was with a customer, and promised to quickly call back. He did not call back and has since been unreachable.
Bhagia was unable to discuss the matter.
“I’m in the middle of something right now,” he said.
Patil did not answer his phone, although he texted back, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now.”
He also did not respond to an email sent at 3:40 PM on Wednesday.
An employee who answered the phone at Chowpatty on Thursday afternoon said Patel would be back at 6 PM. In the evening, another restaurant employee said Patel was not in.
The NJ Globe also obtained a transcript of the meeting, conducted partly in English, Hindi and Gujarati, prepared by a translator and interpreter registered with the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts. The New Jersey Globe has independently identified the voices on the tape as Patil, Amin and Patel.