BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The defense attorney for a Bloomfield councilman says an Essex County magistrate has found probable cause against his client on three criminal complaints made by a township resident stemming from a Town Hall parking lot altercation.
Attorney Pasquale Giannetta, of Newark, said Judge Anthony Frasca, the presiding municipal court judge in Essex County, found probable cause for complaints of aggravated assault, simple assault and criminal mischief brought against Councilman Joseph Lopez by Bloomfield resident Daniel Chalet.
Complaints of stalking, retaliation and harassment were made against Chalet after the same incident. These complaints were made by Lopez, his wife and father, and private citizens. But Frasca only found probable cause for the harassment complaint. He sent his decisions, made at a probable cause hearing in Newark Superior Court on Monday, Feb.21, to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office for investigation and possible prosecution.
The altercation occurred Monday, Jan. 4, following the annual Bloomfield Council reorganization meeting.
At the meeting, Lopez proposed a council resolution asking for Councilman Elias Chalet’s resignation. Chalet had allegedly been recorded in November 2015 by the New Jersey State Police accepting a $15,000 bribe in return for his political influence in a land purchase. He was arrested Nov. 16, and has since been indicted by a state grand jury for bribery in an official capacity. He is free on $100,000 bail and attends council meetings in his capacity as a councilman.
Lopez received no council support for his resignation proposal. But according to his complaints against Daniel Chalet, a nephew of the councilman, Lopez alleged that he, his wife and father, were followed to their car by Daniel Chalet and other members of the Chalet family, who surrounded the vehicle. Using a cell-phone camera, Daniel Chalet recorded Lopez in the driver’s seat. The camera had a bright light that lit Lopez’s face. The councilman kicked open his car door which apparently struck the person holding the camera. Exiting the car, Lopez knocked the camera from the hand of the person holding it. All this was recorded by the cell phone camera. The video was widely disseminated through social media.
In a telephone interview Monday, Giannetta said because the incident occurred in Bloomfield and involved Bloomfield residents, the hearing was at a neutral location with a neutral judge with only the complainants present. He said the burden of proof, or prima facie — Latin for “first impression,” is very low at a probable cause hearing. A judge takes the word of a complainant and makes a decision. From what he hears, if there is probable cause, the judge gives the complaint to a prosecutor.
Giannetta said the simple assault complaint against Lopez was because Daniel Chalet said the councilman punched him in the face.
“The judge has to take Chalet at his word,” Giannetta said. “Proving it is different. It was just Chalet standing up there to say he was assaulted.”
Giannetta said he has ample evidence contradicting this complaint.
Altogether, there were 15 complaints and counter-complaints that involved members of the Chalet and Lopez families, according to Giannetta, who said the incident was being handled at the municipal level because it was between civilians. Had any charge been made by a police officer, the proceedings would have gone to Superior Court. Giannetta said the case could still go to Superior Court if a complaint was upgraded to a felony.
“But at this point, a felony is far off,” he said.
He also said the case would not go to a grand jury unless the prosecutor thinks a felony charge can be substantiated.
Chalet brought the aggravated assault complaint against Lopez because when the car door was kicked open, it allegedly struck him in the knee, Giannetta said. The criminal mischief complaint was because Lopez is alleged to have knocked Chalet’s cell phone from his hands, breaking it.
Regarding Lopez’s complaints against Chalet, Giannetta said the judge did not find probable cause for the retaliation complaint at this time. But Lopez can press the issue later.
“The judge advises Mr. Lopez that he could bring that charge back,” Giannetta said. “We do intend to prosecute on retaliation. We’re not finished with that charge.”
Lopez had brought the retaliation complaint against Chalet because he believed Chalet was reacting to his resignation proposal at the council meeting.
Giannetta said a stalking complaint made by Lopez’s father and wife, because Chalet followed them to their car, was dismissed.
“Stalking has to be more than two times,” he said. “The charge didn’t rise to stalking.”
The judge found probable cause of harassment against four Chalets, according to Giannetta. In addition to Daniel, the names of those Chalets are Christopher, Rami and George, he said. Some of the complaints were made by people who said they had been harassed inside Town Hall. Giannetta said harassment includes threatening or intimidating behavior.
Giannetta said he was only a spectator at the probable cause hearing because it was not a court hearing so no one had the right to an attorney.
Chalet and Lopez, when contacted for this story, would not comment.