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Influence Peddling In Municipal Court? Prasad Emails Raise Questions

Township Councilman Rajiv Prasad at a recent council meeting.


A Township Councilman appears to have tried to influence a Municipal Court judge – over whom he has reappointment power – to help a local landlord evict tenants from her property, according to emails reviewed by the Franklin Reporter & Advocate.

The councilman, Rajiv Prasad (D-At Large), steered the landlord to Municipal Court Judge Hector Rodriguez in an email sent last year, in his mistaken belief that eviction actions are handled at the local level. Prasad has nominated Rodriguez for both of the terms he has served as one of Franklin’s two municipal court judges.

Prasad told the landlord to say he sent her, and that the judge would probably tell her that she should ask the court administrator to schedule her case on a day Rodriguez was presiding, according to the emails. There was no indication in the email of how Prasad knew what Rodriguez would tell her.

The landlord told Prasad in an email that when they met, Judge Rodriguez told the landlord to file a claim in state Superior Court in Somerville, after which he would represent her. It was not stated why Rodriguez would not file the claim for the landlord.

The emails also show that after that agreement was made, Rodriguez, whose current term ends in 2019, was prepared to preside over a municipal court case brought against the landlord by the township zoning department, even allegedly telling her that she would not need an attorney during the proceeding.

The relevant emails, obtained by the Franklin Reporter through an Open Public Records Act request, span the period from about February to June, 2017.

Neither Rodriguez nor Prasad have responded to requests for comment.

The landlord, a Hillsborough resident the Franklin Reporter is referring to as T.G., emailed Prasad on April 1, 2017, and, referencing a conversation they had in February, asked him for the name of the judge she said Prasad told her would help her with her eviction action. The landlord owned a property on Girard Avenue.

“You will have to file an eviction case for non-payment of rent in the Franklin Township Municipal Court,” Prasad responded in an email the same day. “You should ask for their immediate eviction, payment of all back rent and the full term of the lease till it expires. You should also ask for any damages to the property and the security deposit to recover it. You will also need time to clean and re-rent the house.”

“The Presiding Judge is Hector Rodriguez,” Prasad wrote. “He has a law practice in New Brunswick … Give him my reference and ask him advice on how to proceed in the Court. He will probably tell you what days he has court and for you to ask for those days from the Court Administrator.”

“Please let me know how you progress,” Prasad wrote.

Prasad nominated Rodriguez for the judge’s position in 2014 and 2017. Rodriguez served as the township prosecutor from 2007 to 2013, according to Township Clerk Ann Marie McCarthy.

“We met Mr. Hector Rodriguez yesterday evening and explained about the situation and provided your reference,” T.G. wrote Prasad on April 6, 2017. “He asked me to pass his regards to you.”

T.G. told Prasad in that April 6 email that Rodriguez advised her to file an eviction action in state Superior Court in Somerville, and said “when the court date is issued to inform him so he can represent us to resolve the issue.”

T.G. wrote Prasad on April 11, 2017 that when she told Rodriguez the court date for her eviction action was May 5, 2017, Rodriguez told her that he had another commitment that day, and that he would send an associate to represent her.

At the same time she was trying to evict her tenants, T.G. was locked in a battle with the township Zoning Department over her running a rooming house.

On the same day she met with Rodriguez, April 5, 2017, T.G. said she received a March 30 citation for failing to eliminate an illegal rooming house. T.G. told Prasad in that April 11, 2017 email that she had spoken to Rodriguez about the citation, which was to be heard in his court on April 19, and that he told her that because he is the judge, “he mentioned that he should not be talking to us about the ticket and to handle it ourselves on April 19th.”

Prasad in a response later that day told T.G. to “ask Hector to recommend a lawyer for April 19.”

Responding to that email, T.G. wrote, “I did ask Mr. Hector and he mentioned that I should be able to handle it myself in court without a lawyer.”

According to the state Code of Judicial Conduct, judges are required to disqualify themselves from cases where a relationship with a party in the case “would give rise to partiality or the appearance of partiality.”

This was not T.G.’s first brush with the Zoning Department over the rooming house. In December 2016, she was hit with six citations relating to its operation.

Five of the charges were dismissed, and T.G. paid a $300 fine and court costs on the remaining one on Feb. 15, 2015, according to court records.

Referencing the earlier matter, and by way of updating Prasad on her pending situation, T.G. wrote on June 7, 2017, “Just wanted to keep you updated. I sincerely appreciate the help you had provided and thank you for talking to the township officials in February in resolving amicably and getting the time till August so the students can leave once their semester and lease ends.”

It is as yet unclear as to how it came to his attention, but Judge William T. Kelleher Jr. on July 14, 2017 ordered that the court case on the March citation be transferred out of Franklin Municipal Court and heard in Bridgewater Municipal Court, where he presides, “on the grounds that it would be in the best interests of justice that the Franklin Township Municipal Court not hear the matter(s) involved …”

At the time, T.G.’s case was scheduled to be heard in municipal court on July 13, 2017.

Kelleher was not available to respond to a request for comment, according to Audrey Lipinski, the clerk for Bridgewater/Somerville municipal courts.

Kelleher is also the presiding judge in the Superior Court Municipal Division for Vicinage 13, which includes courts in Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren Counties.

Kelleher’s written order, also obtained through an OPRA request, cited a rule of the courts governing the disqualification of a judge on the motion of a court, rather than a party involved in the litigation, including when there is a reason “which might preclude a fair and unbiased hearing and judgment, or which might reasonably lead counsel or the parties to believe so.”

Kelleher found T.G. not guilty of the charge on August 23, 2017 because “(T)he evidence presented to the court fails to support a conclusion that the defendant was in violation of the ordinance on the charged date,” Kelleher wrote in an Aug. 28, 2017 opinion.

Prasad’s ties to Rodriguez go back to at least 2014, when the councilman first nominated Rodriguez to the three-year municipal court judge’s position.

That nomination was opposed by one for Michael Fedun made by former Township Councilman Brian Regan. Regan, Councilman Ted Chase, former Councilwoman Roz Sherman and then-Councilman Phil Kramer voted for Fedun, according to the minutes of the Jan. 1, 2014 reorganization meeting.

In 2017, Prasad’s nomination for Rodriguez as judge was approved unanimously, according to minutes of the Jan. 3, 2017 reorganization meeting.


Rodriguez and Prasad did not respond to requests for comment. Their comments will be added when they are received.

 

 

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