It’s déjà vu all over again in West New York. Four years ago, Mayor Felix Roque, the doctor and Army colonel who ran against machine candidate Sal Vega, was elected to reform town government. As he began doing so, he was accused of practicing his own brand of old-time politics. In spring of 2012, he and his son were indicted by the federal government for allegedly hacking into a political opponent’s web site.
In 2013, Roque was acquitted on the charge (his son was found guilty of a misdemeanor). Around the same time, other allegations surfaced. The state Department of Education released a damning report accusing Roque of meddling in the school system’s personnel decisions for political reasons. Despite the harsh report, no charges were filed.
Roque was re-elected this past May after running against a slew of opponents.
But just one month later, this past Tuesday, June 9, the state of New Jersey’s Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman and the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor (OIFP) announced that he was indicted again – this time for allegedly taking $250,000 cash bribes between 2007 and 2012 (the year of his first indictment).
According to a press release, “Roque was indicted for referring patients to the medical imaging company Diagnostic Imaging Affiliates in exchange for cash bribes and other kickbacks. The 59-year-old Roque, who operates the Pain Relief Center medical practice in West New York, was indicted by a state grand jury on three charges: second-degree healthcare claims fraud, second-degree commercial bribery and third-degree running.”
The indictment alleges that Roque agreed to refer patients needing MRI and CT scans to medical diagnostic imaging centers controlled by Rehan Zuberi in exchange for cash.
The indictments do not refer to any actions Roque may have taken as mayor, but some of the payments were alleged to be in the form of election campaign contributions. Zuberi allegedly delivered cash kickbacks to Roque each month, some at Town Hall.
Zuberi, 46, of Boonton, pleaded guilty last month to charges that he paid several million dollars in bribes and kickbacks to various doctors from 2008 to 2014. Zuberi’s plea agreement calls for him to receive a 10-year state prison sentence with a four-year non-parole eligibility stipulation.
Acting Attorney General Hoffman said, “By allegedly taking approximately a quarter-million dollars in bribes, Mayor Roque put his personal wealth and political career ahead of his patients’ needs.”
Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree crimes carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $15,000.
Tuesday evening, Roque’s attorney, Christopher D. Adams, released this statement: “Mayor Roque is innocent of the charges and looks forward to once again clearing his name from what are ridiculously false charges.”
Adams said of Zuberi, “The state’s case rests entirely on the word of a convicted liar and cheat, who the Attorney General’s Office has incentivized to make more lies in exchange for a reduced sentence.”
Adams added, “I wouldn’t trust Rehan Zuberi if he told me his name – in fact, the State knows that he has [allegedly] lied about that in the past too.”
West New York has seen its share of positive and negative governmental news. It suffered a wide-ranging police scandal in the 1990s, but managed to wrest itself free of the tarnish and rebuild the department. The town boasts a diverse population including the largest population of Cuban immigrants outside of Miami, and high-earning residents in the new condo complexes glistening along the Hudson River.
A commenter on the Reporter’s website asked how residents of this waterfront town could re-elect someone with such blemishes on his record.
Perhaps it was due, in part, to low turnout and few alternatives. Roque’s main opponent in the May election, Count Wiley, a former ally of his, also had to answer questions about investigations. Wiley was indirectly touched by a law enforcement investigation, although not directly implicated. In 2012, Wiley admitted that some town employees from neighboring North Bergen had painted his office the previous year. Wiley’s father, James Wiley, had been the head of public works in North Bergen at the time.
James resigned in 2012 and pleaded guilty to state charges of having North Bergen employees do personal chores at his home while being paid by the township. The younger Wiley said that the painting of his office by North Bergen employees was part of a “shared services” agreement with the other township. No charges were brought in the matter.
The recent May election between Roque and Wiley got so heated that there were allegations of at least one fistfight among sides on election day.
Roque did face a field with several other candidates, including members of a reform group. But they did not have the political muscle and finances to make a big dent. In the election, Roque amassed 2,871 votes. Wiley garnered 2,144. Anthony DeFino, the son of the town’s former mayor, ran as an alternative and drew 613 votes. The other rival candidates got no more than 370 ballots each.
In West New York’s form of government, voters elect five part-time commissioners (often on a slate together) and those commissioners choose a mayor from among themselves. It’s generally obvious who the mayor is going to be.
Former County Freeholder Chairman Jose Munoz, whose website was allegedly hacked into and who supported Wiley in the May election, said last week that people were calling him to discuss the latest indictment.
“I have received dozens of calls, emails, and texts with a common theme,” he said, “that I have been vindicated. I look at it differently. First, he is innocent until proven guilty and if he is guilty, then he must atone for his actions. Second, I feel bad for his family and for those that believed in him and continually gave him their support and trust. We all make mistakes. It’s part of being human. The difference is whether it’s premeditated. If premeditated, it will surely affect others in a negative way. That type of mistake doesn’t deserve an ‘Oh I’m sorry’ understanding. Time will tell.”
An indictment is a grand jury decision that there is enough evidence to bring a matter to trial. It is not a decision on guilt or innocence.
Caren Matzner can be reached at email@example.com.