An appellate court panel today tossed out a previously unpublicized defamation claim against the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), several of its prominent members and political consultant Rick Shaftan that dates back to the Hudson County Democratic civil war of 2007.
At issue were two flyers Shaftan authored for the HCDO that named a former aide to then-Assemblyman and Union City Mayor Brian Stack as having been arrested and convicted of selling cocaine.
One of the flyers called the plaintiff, whose name is withheld in the published version of the suit, a "DRUG DEALER who went to JAIL for FIVE YEARS for selling coke near a public school. After getting out of jail, [D.] landed a job as a highly paid "aide" to Mayor Stack."
That conviction, which was from 1993, was expunged in 2006.
The plaintiff argued that since his conviction was expunged, it legally never occurred, and that the defendants had defamed him with the flyer. He filed suit in June, 2007 against then-HCDO chairman and Senate Majority Leader Bernie Kenny (D-Hoboken), and a year later filed suit against Shaftan and his wife, CarryAnne, who together are the principals of Neighborhood Research; HCDO Executive Director Craig Guyl party operative Bud Demellier; former Union City Mayor Rudy Garcia and his wife, Nicole Harrison-Garcia.
Judge Dorothea Wefing noted that the defendants were unaware of the expungement (records of the conviction were available on the Department of Corrections Web site until August, 2008), but ruled that ultimately expungement of information from public record did not make the use of the information defamatory.
"We also agree that these flyers are, as a matter of law, not defamatory because the information they contain is true," she wrote. "…It is undisputed that plaintiff was, in fact, arrested and convicted of possession of a controlled dangerous substance with the intent to distribute it. Plaintiff contends that the subsequent expungement of the record of his arrest and conviction renders defendants' reporting of them false and defamatory. In our judgment, plaintiff's successful expungement of this record does not make defendants' statements about that record "false."
The lawsuit is a remnant of a nasty political dispute that engulfed Hudson County's dominant party two-and-a-half years ago, when Stack took on HCDO-backed Assemblyman and West New York Mayor Silverio "Sal" Vega in the Democratic primary to succeed Kenny in the state senate.
The two flyers at issue in the suit reflect a race that was often brutal, even by the notorious standards of Hudson County politics. The second flyer blames Stack for hiring the plaintiff as an side and another ally for a position at a county school.
"We all know the threat that drugs and illegal guns have in our communities," it read. "But not Brian Stack. He continues to surround himself with one shady character after another — not one but two convicted drug dealers and ex-cons, whom Stack got a high paying county job and a drugged out gun running lowlife who was his campaign
The lawsuit brought together some strange bedfellows.
Shaftan, a lightning rod conservative who lives in Sussex County, is best known for running former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan's campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. But he also frequently works with state Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen), who is also the mayor of North Bergen.
Shaftan was represented by attorney Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris Township), who is one of the state's most conservative assemblymen. Carroll worked together with attorney Bill Northgrave, who represented the rest of the defendants. Northgrave has a deep history in Hudson County and state Democratic circles, and is a former counsel to the Democratic State Committee.