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INVESTIGATION: Cliffside Park Council candidate involved in MetroCard fraud says it isn’t what it seems

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

ONLY ON CLIFFVIEW PILOT : Cliffside Park Council candidate Eric Soto was caught in a massive fraud involving forged MetroCards while working as a subway clerk in New York City 10 years ago, records obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT show. Soto, in turn, said he was pressured into participating and didn’t fight the charges in court in order to protect his young son.

ERIC SOTO: I was protecting my son

A judge later released Soto from all liability, allowing him to run for office, he said.

“The bottom line is that I did not have the resources to fight these accusations and of course did not wish to risk putting my son through this,” Soto told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “Should I not be able to vindicate myself, my son would potentially not have a mother or father to care for him.

“Thus I bowed to pressure and what I thought was putting this behind me and doing the best for my son.”

The Bronx-born Soto dropped out of high school and was left to raise the boy he fathered, at 20 years old, after the mother abandoned custody.

He and the then-4-year-old were living on 187th Street in the Bronx when Soto was arrested around 10:30 p.m. Oct. 11, 2000 at the Metropolitan Transit Authority station at the corner of Canal and Varick Streets, according to court records.

Detectives had questioned Soto a month earlier in what turned out to be a much larger fraud involving other MTA workers.

“The MetroCards had been altered to destroy one of the variable fields on the magnetic stripe of the card that records its value and therefore ‘tricks’ the computer into thinking there is value on the card,” wrote Assistant District Attorney William Beesch.

A Manhattan grand jury indicted Soto on 110 counts of criminal possession of a forged instrument, which authorities said cost the MTA $1,857 in lost revenue. Another agent was charged with skimming $300,000.

Soto pleaded guilty in February 2001 to two counts of possession of a forgery and four counts of grand larceny and paid a fine of $155, court records show. Judge Charles Solomon placed him on probation until April 2006, then later issued a declaration releasing Soto from his liabilities, allowing him to run for office.

“I was instructed by a supervisor to exchange non-working Metro cards for new cards,” Soto told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “I did this, the same as many others who were also instructed to do so, also by their supervisors.

“When the MTA uncovered a sophisticated fraud surrounding these cards I, along with dozens of others, were questioned. I told them the truth, saying I recognized that something was not right, but when I asked my supervisor I was told to proceed with the transaction.

“The supervisor who gave me verbal instructions denied ever telling me to exchange the cards. This left me with no options as I did not have funds for a lawyer. Legal aid pressured me to plead guilty before even hearing the facts.”

Soto filed for Chapter 7 three years ago, claiming a personal debt of more than $46,000, records from U.S. Southern District Bankruptcy Court of New York show. His 2000 Mitsubishi Galant had been repossessed and he was taken to court for not paying his rent, additional records show.

An Oct. 15, 2001 order signed by a federal judge, and obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT , discharged Soto of his debts.

Soto eventually moved to Cliffside Park and took a job with “an international shipping company” in Secaucus, according to his biography, posted on his web site and on Facebook. He attended St. Peter’s College in Englewood Cliffs and made the Dean’s List, but the bio doesn’t say whether he graduated.

It does say that he became active in politics in 2008, doing volunteer work for John McCain’s campaign in North Jersey.

Soto and fellow Republican Michele Talamo are challenging Democrat incumbents Thomas Calabrese and Kenneth Corcoran for the two available three-year council seats in Cliffside Park.

“He is not just another name on the ballot,” Soto’s bio says. “Instead, he is a real person just like each and every one of you.”

Being forced to explain the MetroCard fraud “reduces a campaign to ‘mud slinging’ and takes the focus off the real issues,” Soto maintained.

“I have always been honest with my employers and friends on this issue,” the candidate told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “Although I am not proud of having put myself in a circumstance to blindly trust my superior, I have learned a valuable lesson from that experience.

“While I did nothing wrong, if one views my track record in the years following, they will no doubt see a pattern of success, self-reliance and devotion to my son. That should point to my character and the truth.”

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