After his surprise victory over former Mayor Sal Vega in May of 2011, West New York Mayor Felix Roque appeared to be on top of his game. He and his four town commissioners, who promised to clean up corruption and correct an alleged mess they said was left by the former administration, took quick action with firings, new hires, and investigations of wrongdoing. Town residents and politicians alike – even Gov. Christopher Christie, who sent Roque a letter of commendation early on in his term – seemed on board with the Cuban-born, colonel/doctor-turned-mayor.
Then Roque endorsed Republican state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos over Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez in February with no warning to his political allies, and things simply started to fall apart.
“Vega didn’t think he’d lose, Roque wins, and the Vega supporters and infrastructure is still around,” said a source closely connected to Hudson County Democratic politics last week. “Lo and behold, Roque gets himself in hot water politically by going with Kyrillos, and the Vega forces are energized.”
“What I’ve seen in the past is that indictments like this come down, and it all snowballs.” – Joe Lauro
But as it turns out, serious charges were being investigated.
On May 24, Roque and his son Joseph were arrested by the FBI for allegedly hacking into a website called “Recall Roque” and allegedly intimidating those behind the site.
Sources have said the site was set up by vocal Roque critics, but no one has publicly owned up to it.
The father and son could each face up to 11 years in prison and $600,000 in fines if convicted on several counts related to computer hacking.
Roque has no intention of stepping down, but some say that it will be difficult for him or the town to move forward with an indictment hanging over his head.
The next steps
“I’ve done crisis P.R. management before in government, and what I’ve seen in the past is that indictments like this come down, and it all snowballs,” said Joe Lauro of Strategic Media Group, who works with some local public officials. “The administration becomes paralyzed with the legal case, and it becomes very difficult to promote any positive agenda because you become consumed as the in-fighting starts in the administration, the opponents start the recall movement, and people jockey for position.”
Lauro was in negotiation with the town of West New York to become the town’s public relations spokesman right before the indictment hit.
“The unfortunate thing for the town is that it’s going to become a place that is being pulled and pushed by outside influences that want to now step in,” he added. “It wasn’t something I wanted to become involved with.”
Menendez did not return phone calls for comment, nor did neighboring Mayor and State Sen. Brian Stack or local Freeholder Jose Munoz.
The gravity of the indictment
“Hacking into computers is a serious offense in regards to national and economic security,” former West New York town attorney Julio Morejon said last week when asked to weigh in on the allegations brought up against Roque and his son. “He of course is innocent until proven guilty, which is the basis of the judicial system. From my understanding, this is a painstakingly well-investigated matter, and I know several of the victims listed [in the criminal charges] personally.”
Morejon was asked by Roque to aid in the recall election in 2010 and helped with his campaign. He served as town attorney until he was terminated in December, though his contractual term was set to end in May of 2012. He was then hired as the attorney for the Board of Education, but was let go in February.
“I don’t think the charges [against Roque] are politically motivated,” Morejon added. “Can these things be beaten? Every case is different, but I do know the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI and they investigate very thoroughly.”
Though some of Roque’s supporters believe that justice will turn out in his favor, as Roque himself has said, others believe that no matter the nature or the outcome of the indictment, the damage has already been done in the form of character assassination.
“My decision was not based on judgment against the mayor,” Lauro explained. “Quite honestly, I think everyone should view this as a real lesson in whether you want to be so involved with and conduct your politics over the internet and in social media.”
He added that a more severe example of the repercussions of internet politics can be found on the notorious Hoboken political blogger circuit.
“I think the stuff that goes on there is worse than what went on in West New York, but then again, I’m not the U.S. Attorney,” Lauro said.
What’s the harm in losing a few committee seats?
On June 11, as a testament to the divisive effects of breaking party lines, Roque lost his seat as chair of the West New York Democratic Party Committee to Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez by a vote of 44 to 10.
“This was a true team effort by a large amount of dedicated West New Yorkers who truly represent what our town is all about,” Jimenez said the day after the vote. “We will work together to rebuild our party and represent true democratic values that the registered Democrats of our town have asked for and deserve.”
Though the position is not considered a particularly powerful one (elected members choose local party candidates and hold fundraisers), the key is that if a town commissioner resigns, the committee can find a temporary replacement until a special election is held. With two out of four of his commissioners currently on the board, Roque still retains some influence as far as town matters are concerned.
The reorganization meeting came after last Tuesday’s primary election, during which the slate backed by the Hudson County Democratic Organization won 44 committee seats over Roque’s “Together We Can” slate, which won 14. Five seats were uncontested.
“We were taken off the line by [HCDO Chairman] Mark Smith in retaliation for my endorsement of Republican state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos,” Roque told the Reporter Tuesday morning. “I’m not concerned, because there is no power in the title, and this is all a process. I wish Angelica luck, and next year I’ll take it back.”
A Roque enemy gained some power through that committee. Jimenez’s chief of staff, Cosmo Cirillo, was voted in as the committee’s treasurer. Cirillo, the former president of the West New York Board of Education, was voted off that board last November by three to five by fellow trustees after the NJ Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Outside Activities of Judiciary Employees found his full-time job as a clerk with the town’s municipal court conflicted with his board membership. Roque had spearheaded the campaign to remove Cirillo, an ally of former mayor Sal Vega.
Tuesday morning, Cirillo said, “I’m very excited about these changes. I think it’s a great start, and that we’re finally moving forward to unite the Democratic Party in West New York.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org