Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Perry Belfiore defends his comments and double downs with a ELEC complaint against Ravi Bhalla

Perry Belfiore says four years of political conflict with Councilman Ravi Bhalla to continue with ELEC campaign complaint

In a broad ranging interview, Perry Belfiore, a decades long player in Hoboken politics who's served  as a Hoboken Housing Authority commissioner and BoE trustee announced further action in his four year political battle focused on Councilman Ravi Bhalla. The latest, a NJ ELEC filing targets a new complaint stemming from campaign expenditures back in early 2013.

The recent controversy surrounding his heated fall 2013 election remarks surprised Belfiore who said the judge has never met him but, "the language against me is stark" suggesting his being "discriminatory against Asians." Belfiore repeatedly insisted it wasn't the case and couched the voicing as strictly political.

He explained his commentary where he said last September to reform members, "control your animal" in a political context. "I should have called him a monster. Was I chastising the council more than him? You best your ass."

A defense was offered to the core of the long running political dispute with the reform movement and Councilman Bhalla. "My theory is there is nothing trivial when it comes to an elected official. If they get away with these actions, they accelerate."

Referencing contracts Bhalla's former law firm won in Newark and Union City when he was a private citizen back in 2008 where he made local political contributions, Belfiore pointed to that as morally problematic. "He got away in Newark... you can be unethical everywhere but the town you are in." Councilman Bhalla has backed the updated pay to play laws in Hoboken in 2011 but New Jersey has no applicable laws statewide.

Turning to the local arena, often described as toxic inside Hoboken and within the rough and tumble world of Hudson County politics, Belfiore admonished further. "The council should hold the council responsible. They were letting him get away with his unethical behavior because they needed his vote." Without elaborating, he said, "It continues to this day... (and) he's going to do something stupid and get indicted."

If the comment was a warning, many in Hoboken may not agree viewing Belfiore's offering as highly partisan. The split between the Old Guard and Reform is hot with election cycles and likely to see further skirmishes. The battle lines are set in the Board of Education race with two Old Guard slates taking on a new district parents slate backed by some reform activists called Parents for Progress. In November 2015 all six ward seats will be up for election on the nine member City Council.

The ethics complaint filed originally in 2010 is not final. A board decision in the next 45 days may agree, overrule or take no action since the judge's withering comments were published in full. Belfiore said he offered to speak to Judge Geraghty but his office declined the request.

The political context of the original complaint is not clear. Belfiore signed his name to the ethics charges and they were published in full here on MSV. Evidence however points to extensive coordination with longstanding Beth Mason political operatives and the release of a hit piece, one in a series on Councilman Bhalla on the notorious censored website Hoboken411. The Hudson Reporter has also written stringent and questionable stories directed at Ravi Bhalla with one pointing to traffic tickets in a June 2012 feature story. (The tickets were later all thrown out largely due to mistakes in computer records but saw no follow up piece.) Last fall, an expensive political campaign targeting Bhalla failed to stop his re-election.

The funding for those efforts to unseat Bhalla in 2013 and overturn a reform minded council majority came from the Mason family. Councilwoman Beth Mason has been a long time antagonist of Bhalla but has declined comment with the release of the judge's remarks from last July's administrative hearing.

There's been no update by the state agency watchdog NJ ELEC on the extensive complaint and potential million dollar fines the Mason family faces for hundreds of campaign violations in her 2009 and 2011 election campaigns filed early this year. A longtime Mason supporter and political operative claimed the matter is settled with a small fine but NJ ELEC at press time has not confirmed that claim and declined to offer any comment in its investigation.

Belfiore for his part has not publicly criticized any Old Guard political allies including Beth Mason's alleged campaign violations or more recently ally Carmelo Garcia who saw his contract in the Hoboken Housing Authority terminated. He was a staunch supporter of the controversial massive expansion of the HHA presented by Garcia called Vision 20/20.

Looking forward, Belfiore made clear he would have to fight the perception of being viewed as a bigot "for the rest of my life." He didn't see himself retreating from the rough and tumble Hoboken political arena saying he planned to be at the next City Council meeting and put forward his case. "I'm considering what appeal (for the ethics complaint) may be available" then dropped another bombshell. "I've filed an NJ ELEC complaint against Ravi Bhalla."

Belfiore offered no legal specifics but said, "ELEC is considering it." Technically this may be true but there's not likely to be any cloud hanging with the allegation. NJ ELEC has limited bandwidth so whatever case can be made may only come from Belfiore and political allies in the near term.

The latest complaint revolves around a ballot challenge of now Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia back in the Democratic Primary for that seat in early 2013. A group of Hoboken residents filed a claim saying Garcia was in violation of the Hatch Act precluding federal employees running for partisan office. Initially, they won the case in Hudson County Superior Court based on a ruling by Judge Peter Bariso but later saw it overturned on appeal.

Belfiore said Bhalla funded the legal action to knock Garcia off the ballot to the tune of more than $40,000 from his campaign funds when he was looking to benefit personally considering a second run for Assembly himself. He didn't specify the reasons why use of campaign funds might fall outside NJ ELEC rules on campaigns. "I'm going before the council to show the complaint I put in with ELEC. That is what happens with unethical people. This council is turning a blind eye to his behavior."

Expect Perry Belfiore to follow through and appear in public portion of the City Council Wednesday night. He's not retreating from the public square; he's doubling down.

Perry Belfiore, once described as the jovial opposition seen here in 2010 being subjected to locks inspection by Grafix Avenger.
He's less jovial after a judge threw out his ethics complaint against Councilman Ravi Bhalla.
He's hinted at seeing the decision overturned and announced he's filed an ELEC complaint against Bhalla as well.

Talking Ed Note: Will another media campaign be ramping up against Ravi Bhalla courtesy of Beth Mason? No email was sent to Mason inquiring on her plans but she almost always ignores such requests. Typically she answers questions in council chambers and at City Hall.

In a phone call a detective in the Hoboken Police Department told MSV to "stay away" from Councilwoman Mason when she filed a harassment charge against this editor the week of September 15th after her avoiding service of a subpoena. A request for Beth Mason's criminal complaint via an OPRA request was denied last week. An unknown Hoboken Police Department source said through the City Clerk's office the denial was due to an "ongoing investigation." The Hoboken Municipal Court previously moved the case out of the Mile Square on a change of venue order.

As for Perry Belfiore, he's clearly not taking a back seat since Judge Geraghty's remarks were made public. The Old Guard rivalry with Reform will see him remain a political player. He's one of the strategists backing Patricia Waiters, Brian Murray and Lynn Danzker for the Hoboken BoE election slated in three weeks.

Belfiore lays claim his remarks perhaps offensive to some can be couched within the context of political speech. Was he reckless in extending it to what critics would call a less than coded bias? It's a matter of interpretation and people will draw their own conclusions but Belfiore vehemently disagrees.

In the end, Belfiore made one additional correction of the judge's remarks saying, "I'm not a gadfly." Overall, he'd likely accept debate on that designation versus the question marks elevated around his other controversial remarks during the last election cycle.

The original remarks made in September 2013 by Belfiore are seen in a video with a related story by MSV available here.