A City Council member in Paterson, New Jersey, pleaded not guilty on election fraud charges stemming from last year’s municipal election.
Alex Mendez entered his not guilty plea from a Passaic County judge on Thursday. Mendez was previously indicted on seven voter fraud and election fraud charges relating to the May 2020 election.
He was indicted on fraud in casting a mail-in ballot, election fraud, unauthorized possession of ballots, tampering with public records or information, false registration or transfer, attempted false registration or transfer, and falsifying or tampering with records.
Another Paterson City Council member, Michael Jackson, faces similar charges. He pleaded not guilty to the charges on March 11.
Both Mendez and Jackson have continued to serve on the Paterson City Council amid the pending charges.
Jackson and Mendez previously objected to what they said is a lack of evidence provided by the Attorney General’s Office after the original charges were filed in June 2020.
Deputy Attorney General Eric Cohen said New Jersey state has offered Mendez a plea agreement and would offer Jackson a plea deal, as reported by Northjersey.com.
Mendez and Jackson won their races by more than 200 votes each. The two councilmembers have asserted they were charged because of their opposition to Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh and have denied the charges.
Both Jackson and Mendez have previously argued that they were charged with the crimes for political reasons, claiming that the criticism of Sayegh prompted the New Jersey attorney general’s office to convene a grand jury.
“You would like to think that local politics wouldn’t reach that far, but I guess it does,” Jackson said, according to NorthJersey.com.
“My client has maintained his innocence throughout this process and will enter a plea of not guilty to the charges and will continue to serve the citizens of Paterson,” Mendez’s lawyer, Paul Brickfield, told NJ.com in an email on March 3.
But, according to Thomas Eicher, director of the New Jersey attorney general’s Office of Public Integrity, the case is about using election fraud laws “for their intended purpose: defending free and fair elections by prosecuting those accused of seeking to undermine them.”
The state Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability started a probe after the U.S. Postal Inspection Service alerted law enforcement about hundreds of mail-in ballots that were discovered inside a mailbox in the nearby borough of Haledon. Hundreds of more mail-in ballots were discovered in a mailbox in Paterson. The election last May in the city was entirely via vote-by-mail.
Former President Donald Trump’s campaign cited the charges against Jackson and Mendez while singling out the danger of using expanded mail-in balloting for the general election in November 2020. A federal judge dismissed the campaign’s suit, arguing that there were anti-fraud measures in place to secure elections.