Both sides gave their opening arguments and Hoboken political operative Matt Calicchio took the stand after a federal grand jury was selected in the vote-by-mail fraud trial of developer, former mayoral hopeful and council candidate Frank Raia.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
The 12-person jury was empaneled shortly after 1 p.m. and the government, represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sean Farrell and Rahul Agarwal, was the first to give their opening arguments around 2:30 p.m.
“The defendant, Frank Raia, tried to rig an election …. he tried to rig an election by bribing voters,” Farrell stated, indicating Raia targeted low-income voters who lived in public housing authorities by having his “captains” offer them $50 in bribes in exchange for their vote.
Back on Halloween, Raia was indicted in connection to an alleged vote-by-mail scheme in connection to the 2013 mayoral race.
Farrell made it clear to the courtroom that Raia was a part of the “One Hoboken” ticket headed by then-4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti (Raia was running for a council-at-large seat) during this election cycle.
More importantly, campaign finance records for this group, as well as the Let the People Decide super PAC, exposed how the illegal VBM operation worked, Farrell exclaimed.
“The defendant kept close tabs on VBM reports. People would go to the housing authorities and bring ballots back to the social club and they came up with a fake cover story that involved people signing declarations that said they were campaign workers,” he stated.
” … The captains acted at the direction of Raia: he was the mastermind … The defendant bribed voters: he checked their ballots to make sure the bribes were paying off.”
Farrell also mentioned that Raia tried to hide some of this from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission by hiring a political consulting company to pay workers out of their account.
Alan Zegas, a well-established criminal defense attorney in New Jersey, argued that the written declarations should be taken at face value and that there was no conspiracy like the one the government has charged.
“There was no bribery or rigging an election. He paid people to work on Election Day, declarations were signed,” Zegas said.
He further stated that “there’s not on shred of evidence” Raia participated in a crime, noting that most of the government’s witnesses are cooperating in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
“It’s in their own self interests to say things against Mr. Raia so they could personally benefit,” Zegas added.
Calicchio, the government’s first witness, pleaded guilty to participating in vote-by-mail fraud last month in connection to the 2013 and 2015 municipal elections in Hoboken.
He said that he worked at Raia’s direction in 2013 and that a different candidate for office directed him in 2015, but the government moved the line of questioning along before he could state who that was.
Calicchio faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison along with a $250,000 fine and noted that he’s required to tell the truth as part of his cooperation agreement with the government (the agreement will be voided if he is caught lying under oath).
Testifying in front of U.S. District Judge William J. Martini, the 29-year-old lifelong Hoboken resident detailed that the first campaign he ever worked on was Raia’s 2005 mayoral campaign, followed by supporting Peter Cammarano in the 2009 mayoral contest.
Calicchio said that Raia, who was the chair of the Let the People Decide PAC, had the entity opened at his direction “for realtors to make donations and loosen the rent control” laws in Hoboken via the 2013 ballot question.
While it had nothing to do with VBM fraud, Calicchio also stated that Raia made sure a third ticket was in place to ensure that then-Assemblyman Ruben Ramos would lose to incumbent Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
“Tim [Occhipinti] entered to make sure Ramos didn’t win … Whoever received the most votes wins since there were not runoffs: the Old Hoboken vote would be split [with a third ticket],” he said, though didn’t explain why Raia had sought such an outcome.
Zimmer and her three-person slate ended up sweeping the election.
Furthermore, “The Raia Club,” the name many had for an office Raia used at 520 Jefferson St., was apparently the destination where the captains brought the vote-by-mail ballots – which were always kept open in order for the voter to be paid, according to Calicchio’s testimony.
“He didn’t want them voting on the machines and he knew they needed the money,” Calicchio explained when asked why Raia was insistent on targeting low-income residents in the VBM scheme.
He also testified that if the ballots came back to the Raia club sealed, those voters would not be paid, further stating that Raia was present when this was all taking place.
While Raia allegedly gave the orders, Dio Braxton, who was indicted on the same day as the defendant, and Freddie Frazier were the ones who primarily oversaw the unsealed ballots.
Calicchio testified that the duo would routinely use the same color pen that the voters used on their ballots in order to check “yes” on absentee ballots that had already voted “no” for the rent control changes.
This would void their vote and was a tactic designed by Raia, Calicchio stated while on the stand.
Liz Camis, another Hobokenite who pleaded guilty to VBM fraud, was observed routinely bringing “bags full of ballots” to the Raia Club that were not filled out beyond having a voters signature, Calicchio also said in sworn witness testimony.
Martini adjourned the court just before 4 p.m. and the trial is set to reconvene in his court room tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.