An Edison councilman identified two prominent Democrats as the mentors behind a conspiracy to distribute a racist pamphlet during a school board campaign in 2017 aimed at instigating fear among Asian American voters in order to increase voter turnout.
Ajay Patil, a two-term Democratic councilor, identified Democratic city president Mahesh Bhagia and Satish Poondi, a partner at the Wilentz law firm who chairs the South Asian American co-chairman of the state party, as architects of a “Make Edison Grande” project Again “mailer telling voters that” Chinese and Indians are taking care of our city “.
Bhagia was chosen on Wednesday as the choice of the local Democratic organization as her candidate for mayor of Edison, New Jersey’s fifth largest city.
Patil’s confession came in November 2020, when he met with two community leaders before an interview with American postal inspector David Comer.
“We need to have the same story told,” said Patil in a tape of the meeting obtained by the New Jersey Globe.
The conversation took place at Chowpatty, a popular Indian restaurant in Edison that had at least one recording device installed.
Indian Business Association president Dhiren Amin and Chandrakant Patel, the restaurant owner, were at the meeting with Patil.
Patel cooperated with postal investigators and told Comer that Poondi had asked to use his restaurant to set up the mail.
Patil denied being part of the plot and said the correspondence was made by Bhagia and the chairman of Edison’s Board of Education, Jingwei “Jerry” Shi, who was a candidate for the school board.
“I tell you, honestly, not even I was involved,” said Patil. “Do you know when I came to know? Everything was printed. fifteen hundred have already been labeled by Jerry and Mahesh. And then one night at 11 o’clock. I got a call from Satish, he said, “Hey, can you come by? ‘I said,’ Sure ‘. And then he showed it to me.”
This was at Bhagia’s house.
“So when I told them that this is absurd, the first thing I said, you know, it is not going to work. I don’t know why you are doing this. I didn’t fully analyze what the content really was, but I said, ‘man, the election is three days away,” said Patil. “Why do you have to do these things? You were, we all worked so hard. “
Patil told Amin and Patel that he questioned Poondi, whose law firm is the Edison Education Council’s title attorney, about the legality of direct mail.
“I said, ‘Did you look at the cool thing? Does that violate anything? And Satish said, ‘No, everything is in order,’ said Patil.
Grewal’s role in the possible probe remains unclear
Poondi’s alleged role in the scandal puts New Jersey’s attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, in a potentially precarious position, since the two are considered personal friends.
In a letter to the Middlesex county prosecutor, Edison’s chairman, Robert Diehl, complained that law enforcement was slow to respond and said he was “frustrated by what appears to be the lack of attention or cooperation we received from the attorney -general office on this matter. ”
Diehl said that only the postal inspector and a municipal investigation committee are trying to find the source behind the racist pamphlet.
Steven Barnes, a spokesman for the attorney general, did not say whether Grewal withdrew from the 39-month Edison case to avoid an appearance of conflict due to his likely personal relationship with Poondi.
“Our policy is not to confirm or deny the investigations,” said Barnes. “Needless to say, when we refuse to confirm the existence of an investigation, we also refuse to confirm details of how that hypothetical investigation would be handled.”
In response to a question from the New Jersey Globe, Governor Phil Murphy said he “had no idea” about whether Grewal had issued a refusal on the Edison question.
But Murphy said he was aware of the correspondence.
“I remember it well and it was deplorable,” he said.
Edison’s mayor Thomas Lankey said he was informed that an investigation has been opened, but others in the county are unsure whether this is the case – and wonder if the Grewal-Poondi relationship is the cause, although there is no evidence of this.
In an unrelated investigation last year, the state attorney general claimed that a Monmouth County pharmacist was caught by an undercover investigator who referred to himself as a “doctor” while promoting an unproven natural treatment for COVID-19 – tell the researcher to buy vitamins and enzyme supplements and not a doctor’s prescriptions.
The pharmacist told the investigator that the prescription would cause cancer and recommended “natural alternatives” that he was offering for sale
Poondi represented the pharmacist Eric Sauer, who agreed not to imply that he was a doctor going forward. He did not face any additional penalties.
Grewal was quoted in a press release.
“It is an example of what it is believed to be,” said an individual with knowledge of Edison’s local policy.
Patil said he contacted Poondi about an investigation into the pamphlet and left believing that the politically active lawyer was not concerned.
“I called Satish to find out if anyone had contacted them and they gave my name somewhere. He’s on his own path. He said, ‘I don’t give a damn, “said Patil.” He doesn’t believe there is an investigation, or he doesn’t believe there is evidence, he doesn’t believe that anything can happen. “
It also seemed to bother Patel.
“You know, I trust Satish more than any of you, right?” Patel asked.
“One hundred percent,” replied Patil. “I know.”
“At that time, as you know, I trust, I trusted Satish more than anyone else, so I imagine, politically everything that is good for the community, and everything, and he is a lawyer,” said Patel. “So everything he does – little giving and receiving, within limits.”
Patil told Patel and Amin that Diehl was trying to find out who was behind the suitcase, and it was later disclosed that Diehl and councilman Alvaro Gomez accompanied Patil in his interview with the US Postal Inspector.
“What Bob Diehl is looking for is who the mentor is,” said Patil. “He just wants to know who he is. And he asked me exactly one question “that‘ councilman, it cannot be you ’.”
Patil said he complained to Poondi that news from the anonymous pamphlet could damage his reputation.
“I was saying to Satish,‘ man, ’I said,‘ my name is being dragged out, ’reported Patil. “I told you two months ago, and he said, ‘Never mind. I do not mind. ‘Even today he said to me,’ I don’t care. ‘
This made Patel suspicious that Poondi was up to something.
“Listen to me,” he said. “He must have made his own arrangement, right? What we know, after all, what he did, my friend. “
Postal inspectors allegedly found a fingerprint on the direct mail belonging to a former Chowpatty employee.
The official, Aloysius Dsouza, told the postal inspector that he remembered being invited by Patel to help prepare the suitcase.
Patil claimed that Poondi told him that he would not be the target of an investigation because there was no evidence to imply that his “fingerprint is not there.”
“They can bring any witnesses against me and I can deny it,” said Poondi, citing Patil. “Because I’m a lawyer, I don’t care.”
This seemed to offend Amin, who had replaced Poondi as a lawyer for the Indian Business Association.
“So lawyers can do anything, even kill,” said Amin. “But he says you know what they are going to do.”
Patil told Patel and Amin that he was “getting the message across to them that an investigation is underway, guys, be careful.”
“No, no, I told them clearly that they are doing all this to face me – I said it clearly, right?” Patel asked. “This is his style, their style, Satish’s style. Dominate someone, put someone on the floor, right? Leaving this issue aside, what I have to say is that they pushed me towards it, right? Take this – so I have to protect myself anyway, right? “
Patel mentioned three more members of what became known as Edison Eight: school board member Mohin Patel; Edison’s former democratic municipal president, Shariq Ahmad, and Raj Bhagia, brother of Mahesh Bhagia.
“The whole thing that happened about that pamphlet, okay? In this thing, whatever it may be, you were all involved, Satish, brothers Bhagia, Shariq, ok? Mohin, you all did everything you did, you came to me in the last few minutes, right? “Patel asked.” To do this with him, but before that, the preparation was fifteen days or a month ahead of time, wouldn’t it? I would have done a draft, it was revised, I don’t know, right?
Most of the individuals involved did not answer questions about their role.
Poondi declined to comment unless he received a full transcript of the call.
Amin denied having participated in the conversation in which his voice was heard on tape.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Amin told NJ Globe.
He quickly ended the short phone interview, saying he was with a client, and promised to call back quickly. He didn’t call back and has been inaccessible ever since.
Bhagia was unable to discuss the matter.
“I’m in the middle of something right now,” he said.
Patil did not answer the phone, although he replied, “Sorry, I can’t speak now.”
He also did not respond to the e-mail sent at 3:40 pm on Wednesday.
An employee who answered the phone in Chowpatty on Thursday afternoon said Patel would be back at 6 pm. In the evening, another restaurant employee said Patel was gone.
The NJ Globe also obtained a transcript of the meeting, conducted in part in English, Hindi and Gujarati, prepared by a translator and interpreter registered with the New Jersey Courts Administrative Office. The New Jersey Globe independently identified the voices on the tape as Patil, Amin and Patel.