New Jersey Libertarian Party Open Government Advocacy Project: Stratford Mayor Gentless files defamation suit against former Council members
On March 25, 2010, John Gentless, Mayor of Stratford Borough (Camden County) filed an eight-count civil complaint against the Stratford Republican Club, Club president Joan Trexler, former Stratford Council members William Grover and Steven Venuto and Stuart A. Platt, Esq. of the firm of Marrazzo & Platt, P.C. who served as Stratford's "Conflict Solicitor." Gentless is represented by John B. Kearney of Kearney and Associates, P.C. of Haddon Heights. The lawsuit, which is captioned Gentless v. Stratford Republican Club, et al, Docket No. CAM-L-1586-10, is on-line here.
Gentless' claim primarily pertains to an "Investigation Report" that Platt had prepared and sent to the Borough Council on December 24, 2009. The report, which is attached as Exhibit A to the lawsuit and is available at the above link, accused Gentless of various improprieties and suggests that the Council may wish to file ethics charges against Gentless, remove him from office and/or refer the matter to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. The report concludes that "it seems clear that [Gentless] has used his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself and others and has violated his duties as an elected official."
Platt's firm billed the Borough $7,843.09 for the report, which was in excess of the $6,000 that the Borough had authorized. Platt explained why he went over the authorized amount in a January 14, 2010 letter to the Council. It is unknown at the time of this writing whether the Council paid him the extra $1,843.09. Platt's letter and legal invoices are on-line here.
Grover and Venuto, upon being served with the suit, sought defense and indemnification from the Borough and its insurers. The insurers, however, denied coverage and refused to provide either Grover or Venuto with legal defense. The Borough Council, however, passed a resolution on May 25, 2010 in which the Council "expressed a desire to assist" Grover and Venuto and "agreed to fund 10% of the total legal representation fees not to exceed $5,000, $2,500 to each" Grover and Venuto. The resolution also committed the Borough to "fund 10% of any damages against both of them, not to exceed $5,000, $2,500 to each of them . . . on condition that the jury does not rule against either of them" on the Defamation count of Gentless' lawsuit. It appears from a draft release on file with the Borough that the Borough's insurer--Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund--may have paid the Borough $2,500 in exchange for the Borough not contesting the denial of insurance coverage. The denial letters from the insurers, the Council resolution and the draft release are all on-line here.
According to Gentless' lawsuit, Platt's report was publicly discussed at the Borough Council's December 28, 2009 meeting. He claims that the allegations contained in the report are false, defamatory and exposed him to "hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy." He claims that the report was "published by Defendants with malice, hatred and ill-will . . . and the desire to injure [Gentless] in that Defendants expressed a desire to 'get' [Gentless]."
By way of example, Platt's report accuses Gentless of "facilitating the cutting down of a curbside tree located within the Borough right-of-way at property located at 100 Webster Ave, which is owned by Barbara, John and Vincent Gentless, without prior authorization from the Shade Tree Commission." In his complaint, however, Gentless claims that he "did in fact receive the permission of the Shade Tree Commission to remove the tree at his own expense, which he did" and that he "has documentation to prove his actions complied with the direction of the Shade Tree Commission."
As another example, the report accuses Gentless of "enabling the 'email forwarding' setting on the Borough Clerk's e-mail account such that e-mails sent to the Borough Clerk" were forwarded to Gentless' personal e-mail account. In his complaint, Gentless "admits that he did in fact have the Borough Clerk's emails forwarded to his own email account." But, he claims that he had "drafted a form and the chief of police signed it, permitting [Gentless] to sign out the Clerk's computer."
Interested readers should review both the complaint and the report, at the link above, to see the other accusations and Gentless' response to them.
Gentless' suit also refers to a four page document that was allegedly distributed to Stratford residents and allegedly contained false and libelous claims against him. It also refers to a Notice of Intention to Recall John Gentless, Mayor of the Borough of Stratford, which Gentless claims contains false accusations against him. These two documents are exhibits to Gentless' lawsuit and are available at the above link.
Finally, Gentless' suit claims that Grover "posted defamatory and false statements" on an online public forum and that Gentless filed a harassment complaint against Grover that was assigned to the Pine Hill Municipal Court. Gentless claims that Grover agreed to retract his statements and eventually did so by issuing a "formal letter of retraction" on February 11, 2010.
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