After Losing Court Case, Akhtaruzzaman Faces More Troubles
Friday, September 14, 2012 • 8:06am
PATERSON, NJ – The lawsuit that resulted in the annulment of Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman’s election has cost him more than just a seat on the City Council. Four months after making history as the first Bengali to win elected office in North Jersey, Akhtaruzzaman has endured a fall from grace that has taken many forms.
The case brought to light the fact that the Akhtaruzzaman’s daughter continued to attend Totowa schools for more than six months after the family moved to Paterson. During his trial, the ousted councilman acknowledged he would have to pay penalties to the Totowa school district as a result of that.
The trial also exposed that Akhtaruzzaman improperly collected $668 in emergency food stamps during last year’s historic floods. Testimony in the trial showed he was not entitled to the food stamps because he did not live in the impacted area. Officials said he likely will have to pay that money back as well.
Moreover, acting on a referral from Superior Court Judge Thomas Brogan, the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office is planning to investigate discrepancies in various official documents submitted by Akhtaruzzaman, including his voter registration form. Brogan, in issuing his ruling on Wednesday, cited an inaccurate address on Akhtaruzzaman’s voter registration form as the basis for voiding his election.
“We’re going to make sure that they’re reviewed, that’s for sure,’’ said Jay W. McCann, chief assistant prosecutor, referring to the documents in question.
“We have to make some decisions with regard to that,’’ said McCann. Those decisions, McCann said, involve the “structure of the investigation” and not the facts of the case.
In the moments after the ruling, Akhtaruzzaman seemed resolute in saying that he would appeal the court decision. If the appeal were not successful, he said he would run in a special election to regain the 2nd Ward seat. But in a brief interview on Thursday, Akhtaruzzaman said he didn’t know whether he would appeal. “We’re exploring all options,’’ he said.
The cost of appealing the court decision could be a factor. During his trial, Akhtaruzzaman was looking to retain a second attorney, but apparently did not have his own resources to pay for it. So, about 100 members of Paterson’s Bengali community agreed to raise the money for him. Will they cover the costs of an appeal? That’s not clear.
One of the leaders of the group, Aziz Rahman, said Paterson’s Bengali community would have to meet to discuss the next steps. Rahman had been Akhtaruzzaman’s campaign treasurer. His fund-raising operation generated more than $30,000 in contributions for the May election, a war chest that was greater than that of any of the other 21 candidates for city council seats.
His campaign manager, Henry Sosa, said Akhtaruzzaman should not be counted out. “He hasn’t lost any support within his community,’’ said Sosa of Paterson’s Bengalis. Sosa also said that member of the 2nd Ward’s Latino and African-American community also have offered their help to get Akhtaruzzaman elected again.
Sosa said Akhtaruzzaman’s supporters consider the discrepancies in his voter registration and other documents as simple errors and not as wrong-spirited attempts at deception. “These were honest mistakes,’’ said Sosa.
The ousted councilman’s campaign manager said he was disappointed with Brogan’s ruling. “Judges are supposed to bend over backwards to protect the will of the people,’’ said Sosa. In particular, Sosa objected to Brogan decision to allow Aslon Goow to amend the lawsuit against Akhtaruzzaman after the trial had started.
At first, Goow’s entire case was based on the argument that Akhtaruzzaman did not live in the city for a year prior to the election, which would have made him ineligible to run. But after several days of testimony, Goow’s lawyer, Michael DeMarco, successfully convinced Brogan to let me expand the complaint, adding the argument that Akhtaruzzaman’s voter registration form was invalid because it listed an address where he was not living at the time.
Brogan never ruled on the residency question, saying there were compelling arguments on both sides. But he annulled Akhtaruzzaman’s victory on the grounds that he was ineligible to run for council because the registration form was invalid.
City officials likely will have to hold a special election to fill the vacant seat. When that will be is unclear. DeMarco said he thought it would happen either in May or November of next year. It’s also not clear when Akhtaruzzaman would be eligible to run again, depending on when he filed a new voter registration form.
Goow, a 12-year incumbent beaten in May by almost 500 votes, has said he would welcome another contest with Akhtaruzzaman. The veteran political leader said his campaign was caught off guard by Akhtaruzzaman’s strength. “This time, I’ll be ready for him,’’ Goow said.