NJ's top court orders ex-Black Panther freed after 49 years behind bars

The New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the state to free Sundiata Acoli, rejecting the state Parole Board’s claims that the 85-year-old should stay in prison for the 1973 slaying of a state trooper.

The ruling, split 3-2 along party lines, brings to a close a decades-long battle by Acoli’s supporters to release him 49 years after he first went to prison for gunning down Trooper Werner Foerster during a car stop for a broken taillight.

“We are here wiping away tears of joy,” supporter Heather Hansen told the New Jersey Monitor.

Civil rights attorney Soffiyah Elijah has advocated for Acoli’s release for years and celebrated the “freedom that is rightfully his.”

“We strongly hope that Mr. Acoli’s freedom will bring attention to the thousands of elders like him trapped in the New Jersey prison system,” Elijah said.

Acoli has been eligible for parole since 1993, but the Parole Board has denied his release eight times, claiming he poses a risk to reoffend. During arguments before the state Supreme Court in January, the state Attorney General’s Office echoed that claim.

But the state’s top court, in a decision written by Justice Barry T. Albin, declared the board’s parole denial “so wide of the mark and manifestly mistaken” that the court had to intervene to ensure the “interests of justice.”

Bound by law

The court was not motivated by sympathy or compassion, Albin said. Rather, Acoli must be released because “the statutory standards for granting parole have been met,” Albin wrote.

“However much we may abhor the terrible crimes that Acoli committed, he was sentenced and punished according to the law in effect at the time of his offenses — and he is protected by that same law, the law that we are duty-bound to uphold, the law that gives him the right to be paroled today,” Albin wrote.

Had Acoli committed his crime today, he would have been sentenced to die in prison.

In 1996, then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed a law mandating life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for anyone convicted of killing an on-duty officer. Gov. Phil Murphy and acting Attorney General Matt Platkin pointed to that law in statements saying Tuesday’s ruling “disappointed” them.

“I profoundly wish this law had been in place when Acoli was sentenced in 1974,” Murphy said. “Our men and women in uniform are heroes, and anyone who would take the life of an officer on duty should remain behind bars until the end of their life.”

A life-without-parole sentence “reflects the heinous nature of that crime,” Platkin said. “I will always stand up for the safety and well-being of our law enforcement officers, including the brave troopers of the New Jersey State Police.”

Albin acknowledged the public pressure officials face in such a “sensational” case but said the court must follow the law that was in place when Acoli committed his crime.

“Neither government agencies nor our courts can bow to public outrage in enforcing the law,” he wrote. “Even the most scorned member of our society is entitled to be sheltered by the protection of the law, no matter how hard and vengeful the winds of public opinion may blow.”

Justices Fabiana Pierre-Louis and Jose L. Fuentes joined Albin’s opinion.

Dissenters’ objections

Justices Lee A. Solomon and Anne M. Patterson dissented, with Solomon writing that they defer to the expertise of the Parole Board and would have intervened only if they were “thoroughly convinced that a miscarriage of justice has occurred.”

“We have never so jadedly scrutinized a decision by the Parole Board in the way the majority does today,” Solomon said, adding: “We cannot say we are in a better position than the Parole Board to decide Acoli’s fate.”

Acoli still regards himself as a political prisoner and has blamed Foerster’s death on the “friendly fire” of another trooper — a version of events that “is clearly fabricated,” Solomon noted.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner did not participate in the decision.

Acoli’s supporters have argued that he’s a sick old man who’s struggling with dementia and hearing loss and incapable of reoffending.

They also argue Acoli has had no disciplinary infractions in more than 25 years, has passed multiple psychological tests, has taken more than 150 educational courses in prison, and has taught a critical thinking class for other inmates on how to avoid reoffending.

In 2014, an appeals panel ruled the Parole Board failed to show Acoli was likely to reoffend if released and ordered his parole, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision on procedural grounds and ordered a full parole board hearing. The board denied Acoli parole in 2016, but Acoli’s supporters continued fighting for his release.

Tuesday’s ruling reverses the board’s denial. It’s unclear how soon Acoli will be released. He plans to live with his daughter and grandchildren.

Acoli has been in federal custody and now is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. Parole Board spokesman Tony Ciavolella said the board is “taking the appropriate steps” to carry out the court’s order.

Parole reform targeted

Reformers have held Acoli’s case up as an example of why the state Parole Board needs reform.

In a September report calling for more oversight, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender said the board routinely refuses to release parole-eligible inmates from prison, leaving many people languishing behind bars far longer than sentencing judges intended.

Joseph J. Russo co-chairs the Office of the Public Defender Parole Project and argued for Acoli’s release on behalf of the public defender.

On Tuesday, he applauded the court for recognizing the Parole Board failed to consider studies showing recidivism risks fall as people age.

“The court faithfully applied the 1979 Parole Act, which contains a presumption of release,” said Russo, the office’s first assistant public defender. “The court further recognized that the board ignored overwhelming evidence that Mr. Acoli is rehabilitated, deeply remorseful, and deserving of release. This is a major opinion.”

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Appeals court reinstates bribery indictment against former NJ assemblyman in fiery ruling

A New Jersey appellate court on Monday reinstated the dismissed indictment of former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who state investigators say took a $10,000 cash bribe from an attorney during his unsuccessful 2018 bid for Bayonne mayor.

Superior Court Judge Clarkson Fisher, writing for a three-judge panel, rejected O’Donnell’s argument that he can’t be charged with bribery because he was merely a political candidate — and not a public official — at the time of the alleged bribe. His attorney Leo Hurley had argued New Jersey’s current law applies only to elected officials already in office.

In a fiery, 21-page ruling, Fisher blasted that argument as a “mangled view” and “nonsensical conclusion.”

“To accept defendant’s argument — without some clear legislative expression to support it — would be to declare open season on the bribing of candidates for public office,” Fisher wrote. “Defendant’s interpretation that candidates are not made criminally liable for accepting bribes in the performance of some future official act would mean, if correct, that a candidate could be bribed before, during, and after being elected, right up until taking the oath of office.”

O’Donnell was a Democrat running for Bayonne mayor when prosecutors say he accepted $10,000 in a bag from a Morristown attorney who asked O’Donnell to appoint him Bayonne’s tax attorney if he got elected.

“I just wanna be your tax guy,” the attorney said, to which O’Donnell responded, “Done,” prosecutors allege.

The attorney was actually an informant working with the state Attorney General’s Office, which in December 2019 charged O’Donnell — a state assemblyman from 2010 to 2016 — with bribery.

Last June, a state Superior Court judge dismissed the bribery charge against O’Donnell, agreeing with Hurley that O’Donnell wasn’t a public official at the time and couldn’t deliver on any promises made during his campaign because he subsequently lost the election. That judge relied on the decision in an earlier case in which a different judge dismissed bribery charges against ex-Assemblyman Lou Manzo.

Manzo was running for mayor of Jersey City when he was accused in 2009 of taking $27,500 in bribes in exchange for promising to expedite real estate approvals.

In Monday’s ruling, Fisher wrote both judges — the one who dismissed Manzo’s indictment and the one who dismissed O’Donnell’s — were wrong.

Bribery is a “reciprocal crime,” with the bribe giver as culpable as the bribe taker, Fisher said. While he conceded current state law references things like “public official,” “public servant,” and “official duties,” Fisher said the law does not give candidates “carte blanche to accept bribes without consequence up until the moment they take office or if they never take office.”

“We reject this myopic view of the statute because there is nothing about this language that would suggest a requirement that the bribe receiver have the ability — at the time of the crime — to perform his end of the deal,” Fisher wrote.

Hurley and the Attorney General’s Office didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

O’Donnell’s and Manzo’s dismissed indictments spurred lawmakers to draft legislation to expand the bribery statute to include political candidates and officials-elect.

The bill languished for a decade before lawmakers passed it last month. It’s now on Gov. Murphy’s desk awaiting his sign-off.

Monday’s ruling says the bill has “no bearing” on the decision and the measure is not an admission that the bribery statute as currently written is “inadequate or ambiguous when applied to candidates for public office.”

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Second hitman pleads guilty in political murder-for-hire plot

The second hitman charged in the 2014 murder-for-hire scheme that involves a New Jersey political operative pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday.

George John Bratsenis, 73, appeared by video from a federal prison in Brooklyn to answer charges that he and a second hitman stabbed Michael Galdieri to death in his Jersey City apartment at the command of Sean Caddle, a political consultant who had employed Galdieri. Bratsenis is being held in Brooklyn for an unrelated bank robbery.

Because of Caddle’s involvement, the case has been widely watched by New Jersey’s political observers. Caddle managed former state Sen. Ray Lesniak’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign and aided the power broker in a successful takeover of Elizabeth’s school board.

Bratsenis faces life imprisonment and up to $250,000 in fines when U.S. District Court Judge John Michael Vazquez sentences him on Aug. 2 for the interstate conspiracy. He will also have to pay restitution and return the thousands of dollars Caddle paid him at an Elizabeth diner the day after he and hitman Bomani Africa carried out the May 22, 2014, slaying and set the apartment afire to hide the crime.

As part of his plea agreement, he cannot appeal his conviction nor challenge his sentence. He’s likely to die in prison, with Vazquez telling him he will have to serve 85% of his sentence before being eligible for release.

Caddle and Africa, of Philadelphia, already have pleaded guilty to the plot. The motive for the murder remains unclear.

The balding, bespectacled, bearded Bratsenis briefly answered a few questions Vazquez posed during the hourlong hearing, telling the judge he was born in Stamford, Connecticut, graduated high school there in 1966, served in the military for several years starting in 1968, and had never been treated for addiction but “saw a couple of shrinks” in the 1970s.

He otherwise sat, wearing a white undershirt in a white cinderblock cell, with his eyes cast down, saying little other than “yes, your honor” and “no, your honor” as Vazquez read him his rights, informed him what his plea meant, and shepherded the hearing along.

Thursday’s hearing ended with Bratsenis bidding Vazquez and the various attorneys goodbye with: “You all have a nice day, take it easy.”

Caddle, 44, is on home detention in Sussex County on $1 million bond and also faces life imprisonment.

He was heavily involved in politics in Union County and elsewhere in New Jersey. He also managed the doomed campaign of Oscar Ocasio, a onetime challenger to Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage, and later boosted Elizabeth Board of Education candidates backed by Bollwage using a super PAC called Committee for Economic Growth and Social Justice.

That group, which as a super PAC enjoys far laxer reporting requirements than candidates and political parties, spent hundreds of thousands backing local candidates in Union County, Newark, and Bayonne, among other places, in payments that most often went through Caddle’s consulting firm, Arkady LLC.

Nikita Biryukov contributed to this story.

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Former judge accused of groping woman insists it was 'just an accident'

A former municipal court judge suspended and criminally charged two years ago with molesting a woman in his law office testified during a disciplinary hearing Wednesday that the contact was accidental and embarrassing — and not the intentional groping the woman tearfully described.

The woman told the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct she visited ex-Judge Nino F. Falcone’s North Bergen firm in August 2019 in her role as the office and billing manager for one of Falcone’s law clients.

She testified Falcone pulled her into a hug to celebrate her birthday, during which he rubbed her back and brushed and squeezed her breasts. When she objected, she said, he grabbed her wrist, implored her to “let me touch you, let me play with you,” and then pulled out his wallet to offer her “birthday money.”

“I felt disgusted. I felt violated,” said the woman, identified in court paperwork and during the virtual hearing only as A.C.

The woman fled the office and reported the incident to Teaneck police that night. Falcone acknowledged “inappropriate” touching and repeatedly apologized to the woman during a phone call the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office secretly recorded a few weeks later.

He was arrested in September 2019 for criminal sexual contact and eventually completed a pretrial intervention program, a diversionary, rehabilitative program for first-time offenders.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Falcone denied most of the woman’s testimony, saying: “Her version of the facts are not my version of the facts.”

“It was not premeditated, and it was not for any personal gratifications or malice on my part. It was just an accident,” he added.

Falcone, now 80, appeared before the committee to respond to its June complaint that he “demeaned the judicial office” and “impugned the integrity of the Judiciary.”

The nearly three-hour hearing ended without a decision. Any discipline would have little public impact, as Falcone retired from his part-time judicial position in North Bergen, which he had held since 1987, in August 2020.

On cross-examination, Falcone’s attorney, Jeff Garrigan, asked the woman if Falcone’s hands slipped and contacted her breasts unintentionally and if she initiated the hug, as Falcone contended.

“Seriously? Seriously?” the woman responded.

The woman told the committee Falcone tried to reach her by phone several times after the encounter, which she regarded as his attempt to possibly bribe her to stay silent.

“Why else would he call my office?” she said.

In one such call, she told the committee, Falcone rebuked her for not stopping the contact, saying: “Why didn’t you smack me? Why didn’t you kick me in the ass?”

Falcone denied the woman’s characterization of the incident and said he normally never makes physical contact with people in his professional work. A hug in this instance was a mistake, he said, and he couldn’t clearly explain why he did it.

“It should never have happened. There should never have been an embrace, there should never have been a hug, because that’s not what I do,” he said.

Falcone is one of a string of New Jersey judges accused in recent years of everything from making misogynistic comments in court to battling a school over youth sports.

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

Grand jury clears cops in shooting that ended deadly anti-Semitic attack in Jersey City

A state grand jury has cleared 13 police officers who fatally shot the armed couple responsible for a 2019 killing spree at a kosher deli in Jersey City, the state Attorney General's office announced Wednesday.

David N. Anderson and Francine Graham gunned down a Jersey City detective at the Bayview Cemetery on Dec 10, 2019, before driving a mile to the JC Kosher Supermarket, where they killed the store's owner, an employee, and a customer. The couple's ensuing three-hour firefight with police ended only after officers rammed the storefront with an armored vehicle and shot them dead.

The attack was widely condemned as an anti-Semitic hate crime and act of domestic terrorism.

Killed were Detective Joseph Seals; store owner Mindy Ferencz, 31; employee Douglas Miguel Rodriguez Barzola, 49; and customer Moshe Deutsch, 24. Two other police officers also were shot but survived.

By state law, the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability investigates all fatal police encounters and presents their findings to a grand jury.

On Monday, jurors determined the actions of the 12 Jersey City officers and one Newark police detective who shot Anderson and Graham were justified and no charges are warranted against them. State law permits officers to use deadly force if they reasonably believe it's necessary to protect themselves or others from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

New federal legislation aims to hold social media platforms liable for misinformation

Four federal Democratic lawmakers will introduce legislation in the House on Friday that would hold websites and social media platforms liable for spreading misinformation and harmful content.

The focus of the bill is the use of algorithms that drive third-party content to people's feeds based on their personal information and browsing history.

The Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act would end civil immunity for Facebook and other platforms that knowingly or recklessly use algorithms or other technology to recommend content that “materially contributes to physical or severe emotional injury."

If passed, the bill would allow people to sue in cases where someone acts on misinformation or damaging content placed in their feed through personalized algorithms — for example, taking their own life.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-06), along with Reps. Mike Doyle (D-PA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), are behind the bill, which would amend the section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields social platforms from responsibility for problematic content posted by its users.

The legislation comes a week after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a Senate committee that Facebook's algorithms promote angry content to keep users engaged — and target children to ensure a lifetime of internet addiction.

The bill does not apply to search features or algorithms that don't use personalization, web-hosting or data-storage and transfer internet infrastructure, or online platforms with fewer than 5 million unique monthly visitors.

“Social media platforms like Facebook continue to actively amplify content that endangers our families, promotes conspiracy theories, and incites extremism to generate more clicks and ad dollars. These platforms are not passive bystanders — they are knowingly choosing profits over people, and our country is paying the price," Pallone said in a statement. “The time for self-regulation is over, and this bill holds them accountable. Designing personalized algorithms that promote extremism, disinformation, and harmful content is a conscious choice, and platforms should have to answer for it."

Some critics have raised First Amendment concerns about the plan. A New Jersey-based cybersecurity expert isn't a fan, calling it censorship.

“I don't believe censoring individuals through legislation on the organizations that provide a vehicle for a person's voice will be effective," said Milan Baria, CEO of Blueclone Networks. “Rather lawmakers should focus on mandating disclosure of any algorithms that promote content so that the end user is fully aware this is happening. For example, if a platform decides to personalize content, there should be a disclaimer near that content which specifies why that content was shown."

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

'People tried to destroy my life': Convicted official who sparked Chris Christie's Bridgegate scandal is back -- and seeking public office

A county clerk is the unglamorous workhorse of local government, a keeper of records who is tasked with everything from processing passport applications to maintaining property deeds.

In New Jersey, it's an elected position that doesn't typically make headlines or fill campaign coffers. But then Bridget Kelly is not your typical political candidate.

“People tried to destroy my life. Am I going to let them win?" Kelly said in an interview with the New Jersey Monitor.

Kelly wrote the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email that helped spark the scandal known as Bridgegate. She was convicted in 2016, along with another official working on behalf of then-Gov. Chris Christie, on various fraud and conspiracy crimes and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

But in May 2020, nine days before she was set to report to prison, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed her and co-defendant Bill Baroni's convictions, declaring the plot showed deception, corruption, and an abuse of power, but wasn't a crime under the federal fraud statute prosecutors misapplied.

As a woman convicted of federal crimes, Kelly couldn't even vote.

But as a woman exonerated by the nation's top court in one of New Jersey's most notorious political scandals, Kelly could be a serious contender for elected office — at least in the eyes of the man who heads up the Republican Party in Bergen County, where Kelly lives.

“Certainly, she has name recognition. People know her story," Jack Zisa said. “Frankly, candidates at every level of campaigning invest a lot of money in marketing themselves and trying to get name recognition. She has it already."

Certainly, she has name recognition. People know her story.

– Jack Zisa, chairman of the Bergen County Republican Organization

So Zisa, chairman of the Bergen County Republican Organization, asked Kelly to run for Bergen County clerk against incumbent John Hogan, a Democrat seeking his third term in the five-year post.

“She's a dedicated public servant who has served in government at different levels and is good at what she does," Zisa said. “She would make a great county clerk."

Kelly isn't shy to share how tough life was after the scandal broke and Christie fired her. A single mother of four, she couldn't land a job. She and her family went into hiding from the press camped out on her Ramsey lawn. She was on the receiving end of threats, she said.

“I couldn't sleep for seven years. I still have nightmares," she said. “Going through a trial as a mom was horrible. I joke that my kids have a good college essay now, but that's about the end of it."

But she agreed to run — her first-ever bid for elected office — because she needs to work. She was a part-time consultant for a bit before the pandemic, but said she hasn't held a full-time job since 2013 largely because “every job application asks about prior convictions." She's on Medicaid and relies on family and friends to help pay her living expenses.

More, though, she said she just really digs the government.

“I was working for one of the most powerful governors in the country, but for me, it was never about the celebrity. I'm just a nerd who would get chills every time I pulled up to the Statehouse, with its gold dome, because that is where life happens," Kelly said. “I liked being the playmaker. I liked getting people answers. I just loved figuring out government."

Long odds

Even with her name recognition, Kelly's quest for the seat seems quixotic.

Hogan has plenty of name recognition of his own, hailing from a political dynasty that spans four generations of the Hogan family. Bergen County is heavily Democratic. And the Bergen County Republican Party has struggled to regain its former dominance, a mission made tougher by the recent corruption indictment of Robert Kugler, the GOP nominee for county sheriff.

“Her odds are uphill to begin with, even if she wasn't tainted by Bridgegate," said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “She's got the name recognition, which is half the battle in a race like this, but if all voters know about you is scandal, then how much is it really helping?"

She's got the name recognition, which is half the battle in a race like this, but if all voters know about you is scandal, then how much is it really helping?

– Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics

Indeed, Hogan has pounced on Bridgegate to battle Kelly, even announcing his candidacy at the foot of the George Washington Bridge.

“What she did with that bridge makes me question her whole ethical being, and I'm not so sure she can preserve the integrity of the office, which handles a lot of personal information," Hogan said. “Bridget Kelly already has let the voters down — she participated in the largest political scandal that ever occurred in the state. She got off on a technicality. I think she's unfit to run for political office."

Yet even while he has plenty to say about Bridgegate, Hogan said he isn't happy it has become the central campaign issue.

“It's just unfortunate that my accomplishments don't become center stage," he said. “Instead, her notorious story becomes everything about the race."

Hogan is happy to tick off everything he says he's accomplished in his 10 years as county clerk. He said he modernized the office, increasing access to services by making many available online; expanded access by holding “pop-up satellite offices" in communities countywide; cross-trained many of his 55 staffers so they can perform duties beyond their assigned roles; began reporting election results and trends in real time; and stayed operational through the pandemic.

His office also handled the shift to mail-in voting largely without problems, a daunting duty in a county with the most registered voters statewide. And he said he has saved taxpayers $2 million over the past decade in election printing costs.

“Our budget and staffing is at a 30-year low, and we've maintained it that way since I've been there," Hogan said. “Our office makes a lot of money — we closed 2020 with a total revenue of over $100 million. That's phenomenal, considering the building was closed throughout most of that year."

If elected, he said he will continue to modernize the office and aims to open a historical research center where the public can access the many historical documents the office maintains.

“I've proven I can do the job. Why hand the reins over to someone who has already let down the public?" he said. “Bridget Kelly is running for this position because she needs a job. She doesn't talk about how she can benefit the office, she talks about how the office can benefit her. And that's not the reason you should be running."

A strong primary showing

Kelly, for her part, contends she would benefit the office, if elected. She vowed to improve office efficiency, “clean up" the voter rolls, and examine staffing and spending to cut waste.

She pointed to problems with mail-in ballots in Teaneck and Emerson, where Hogan's office mailed erroneous ballots last year and this year, as proof that Hogan's election oversight needs oversight itself. Hogan said both errors were corrected right away, and he has recused himself from his election duties this year because of his candidacy.

Despite Bridgegate and Hogan's efforts to remind voters of it, Kelly surprised some election observers with a strong showing in the primary. She ran unopposed but still snagged the second-most votes of any Republican in the county and 40% more than Jack Ciattarelli, the GOP nominee for governor. (She fell 5,133 votes short of Hogan's 26,044 votes.)

Kelly still stings from being “scapegoated" in the Bridgegate scandal. But she's eager to talk about it to clear her name.

“To me, it's therapy. I have nothing to hide," she said.

She's confident, despite the GOP's struggles in Bergen County, she can win the county clerk seat.

“Am I running to redeem myself? No," she said. “Once people get to know me, they know I'm a public servant at heart. This position, to me, is the ultimate public service, to facilitate the needs of residents, and it doesn't have to be about politics. It just has to be about efficiency."

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: info@newjerseymonitor.com. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.