Early on August 3, telephone messages issued to various public officials alerted them that the Hudson County office issuing passports and birth certificates had been closed by the U.S. State Department at the end of the business day on Aug. 2, pending an investigation.
"Its closure is indefinite," the message said. "Additionally, no passport acceptance agency will recognize a Hudson County-issued birth record as proof of U.S. Citizenship. Birth records must be requested from the state office of vital statistics. No further comments, due to an ongoing investigation."
On Tuesday, County Clerk Javier E. Inclan called a news conference on Aug. 3 to go over the details of the closing, but the press conference was canceled.
Richard Boucher, spokesperson for the State Department, confirmed the closing of the office in a telephone interview, saying that the Department of State has stopped accepting passport applications processed by the Hudson County Clerk's Office, as well as birth certificates issued by the county as proof of citizenship.
He said that this was pending the outcome of an ongoing corruption investigation involving the sale of documents. He declined to comment whether this also may be related to a terrorism investigation.
Second raid in a year
This is second time this year that the Hudson County office was prohibited from issuing such documents. In February, federal agents removed records from the Hudson County office dating back to 1902 as part of a Homeland Security investigation and a probe into a phony passport racket.
The U.S. State Department's latest actions were independent of the February incident, and officials contacted by telephone said they were unaware of the prior action - indicating that another federal investigatory body may also have probed actions at the Hudson County office.
The state also has had questions about activities in Hudson County. In 2003, the state attorney general's office indicted 16 people, many residents of Hudson and Passaic counties in conjunction with supplying false information in order to obtain valid U.S. passports. They were accused of using fictitious names or presenting false documents including birth certificates, Social Security cards, New Jersey Motor Vehicle documents and other government documents.
Most of those who included residents from Jersey City, Union City, and other parts of the state, plead guilty and were either deported or sentenced to jail.
Richard Pike, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said the details behind the Aug. 2 closing could not be revealed in detail, partly because of the continued investigation. But he said the State Department is concerned about the accuracy of information used in obtaining the documents.
"We cannot rely on the accuracy of the information on the applications that have been submitted to that office," he said.
The state department has about 6,000 places nationwide that serve as processing centers for applications, places where identification of the people applying is verified. These include public libraries, state and county offices, and even post offices.
"These places operate on the behalf of the State Department and verify the information on the application for us," Pike said. "But in this case, we cannot be confident in the verification done at this office."
"It's a highly unusual action, but we took the action of discontinuing the acceptance of passport applications at the Hudson County Clerk's Office in Jersey City, New Jersey, as a result of a joint Department of State and Department of Justice investigation," said Boucher. "The Department of State closed this acceptance facility to maintain security of the passport application process. We've also stopped accepting county records as evidence of U.S. citizenship until the investigation is concluded. The investigations developed facts indicating that we cannot rely on the accuracy of information on passport applications that were processed by the County Clerk's office."
Boucher, however, refused to comment whether or not fraudulent documents actually had been obtained.
Although widely reported that the action was not terror-related, other sources said the sale of phony identifications could aid terrorists, as well as people seeking to live or work illegally in the United States. One source inside the U.S. State Department said, "We're giving you two and two. It is up to you to make it add up to four."
Records can be obtained elsewhere
Boucher said that passport applicants who were born in Hudson County will be asked to present an official birth certificate issued by the New Jersey Bureau of Vital Statistics in Trenton. But they can submit passport application to any of the several other facilities within a 10-mile radius.
Inclan said the main post office at 69 Montgomery St. and the Hudson Station at 392 Central Ave. in Jersey City, the main post office in Hoboken at 89 River St., the main post office at 4608 in North Bergen, the main post office at 301 30th St. in Union City, as well as the main post office at 64 Midland Ave. in Kearny all take and verify applications for post office.
Inclan said residents also have options as to requesting copies of birth records by mail to the state treasurer's office. Vital records cost $4 for the search and $2 for additional copies and take about 7 to 10 days. Request should be mailed to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, Office of Vital Statistics, corner of Warren and Market streets, Trenton, NJ 08625-0370.
People can use the online service www.vitalchek.com which has fax, telephone and other information year round. Obtaining information could be charged to a major credit card with a $10.95 service fee. Documents could take eight to 12 business days. For same-day service, people must appear in person at the state's Office of Vital Statistics in Trenton.