EDISON – The details of the racist flier that was distributed by mail during the 2017 Edison Township Public Schools Board of Education election may be heard before a state grand jury, according to Township Council Vice President Sam Joshi.
Joshi, along with Council Vice President Bob Diehl, relayed that the New Jersey Attorney General’s (AG) Office has requested the information the Committee of the Whole has garnered since it formed in 2019 by April 5.
“This is encouraging,” Diehl said at a council meeting on March 22. “After all this time we have been asking for help for years … we are hoping we can bring this to a close and be able to turn this over to law enforcement so they can close this up.”
Early on in the investigation, Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan had said the investigation was in the hands of the AG’s office and a public information officer for the AG had said the office’s policy “is that we neither confirm nor deny investigations.”
In January, Diehl said Mayor Thomas Lankey received a letter from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office informing the township the state AG’s Office had picked up the case and has assigned a detective to the case.
Since May 2019, the Township Council, through a Committee of the Whole, has been conducting its own investigation through fact-finding public meetings, questioning candidates from the 2017 Board of Education (BOE), Township Council and mayoral elections, people who helped with the campaigns, and people involved in the investigation. All of the people have been subpoenaed to appear before the committee.
One main question remains – who distributed the racist flier by mail on Oct. 31, 2017, which had the faces of the two candidates, Jerry Shi and Falguni Patel, who are of Asian descent. The flier stated “Make Edison Great Again” and underneath each photo was the word “Deport.”
Joshi said the Committee of the Whole spent approximately $25,000 during its investigation, which included subpoenaing people for interviews and finger print analysis of the fliers.
“We have zero ability to prosecute anyone,” he said. “It is very encouraging law enforcement is taking on the investigation.”
At a Committee of the Whole meeting in November 2020, the committee read United States Postal Inspector David Comer’s report verbatim, which named six members of the community who were allegedly involved in assembling or mailing the flier: Satish Poondi, the legal adviser for the Indian Business Association who previously served on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Community Relations in Edison; Raj Bhagia; Mohin Patel, who is now an Edison BOE member; Councilman Ajay Patil; BOE member Jerry Shi; and Shariq Ahmad, the former chairman of the Edison Democratic Organization (EDO).
Since the meeting, Shi, Patil and Ahmad have denied their involvement with the racist fliers.
Lankey called for a press conference on March 4 after an audio recording obtained by the media was released of a conversation among Patil; Chandrakant Patel, founder of Chowpatty Restaurant in Iselin; and Indian Business Association president Dhiren Amin.
Patel had named the six members of the community after a meeting with Comer in September 2020. He said he was an active member of the community since the 1990s and allows members of the community to use his restaurant for community-related activities.
Patel said each of the six individuals came into his restaurant carrying boxes that included large postcards, according to reports. He reportedly asked Aloysius and Joseph Dsouza, who were working at the restaurant, to help them with the mailing. Aloysius Dsouza’s fingerprints were found on one mailing that was sent for testing at the forensic laboratory, according to reports.
In the audio, Patil said he was not involved and learned about the fliers three days before the November election in 2017 after Poondi asked him to come by Mahesh Bhagia’s home. He alleged Bhagia and Shi had already put 1,500 labels on the fliers and Poondi, in the recording, told him they were moving forward with distributing the flier.
In the recording, Patil told them he thought the whole idea was “nonsense” and questioned the legality of the flier. He alleged Poondi claimed there was no violation.
Diehl had said Patil told them the architects of the racial flier were allegedly Poondi, Raj Bhagia and Mahesh Bhagia, who was not named in the report. In the recording, he said Shi was aware of the fliers.
Mahesh Bhagia, who has been endorsed by the EDO for mayor in the November election, claimed potential suspects in the case are running the investigation. He called the racial flier “shameful and deplorable” and said he was personally offended when he saw it.
“For nearly three-and-a-half years, I have watched with disgust as the Edison Township Council fumbled around and took part in a politicized witch hunt instead of searching for facts and the truth,” he said. “For the record, I have testified, under oath, before the Committee of the Whole, and answered all the questions posed to me.”
Bhagia, who is the current chair of the EDO, further said in 2017, he was not on the ballot and had no reason to participate in the creation of the fliers.
Township Council members unanimously approved the formation of the Committee of the Whole at a meeting on Feb. 27, 2019. Forming the committee allows council members to meet outside the parameters of a typical council meeting without violating Robert’s Rules, which determines how governing bodies operate.
Diehl has spearheaded the committee with Gomez and Joshi.
For now, Diehl said the Committee of the Whole will remain in place in case they need to assist the AG’s office in their investigation.