Incoming Port Authority Chairman Still Being Sued for Defamation

Kevin O'Toole claimed a fellow Republican threatened to kill him. A defamation lawsuit ensued.

Kevin O’Toole. JT Aregood for Observer

As former state Sen. Kevin O’Toole prepares to start a new job as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he continues to deal with a defamation lawsuit filed by Bergen County Republican Chairman Paul DiGaetano.

The discovery deadline for the case is today, according to court records. If the case is not settled or dismissed, it likely would go to trial. Court records from June 1 indicate that a six-member jury would be seated in Essex County for such a trial.

The case revolves around an eye-popping accusation: O’Toole once charged that DiGaetano threatened to kill him.

In December 2016, DiGaetano filed a lawsuit in Ocean County alleging that O’Toole had defamed him by making those comments to Politico in an interview. O’Toole claimed the incident occurred more than 10 years ago, when DiGaetano was seeking the Republican nomination for governor and the county line from the Essex County GOP. At the time, O’Toole was the Essex County Republican chairman.

“I don’t remember the exact words, but paraphrasing it, it was, ‘I’m going to have you killed if you don’t give me the line.’ Something like that,” O’Toole told Politico in June 2016. “I took it so seriously I called the attorney general … had a couple discussions, met with one of their investigators and left it in their hands.”

DiGaetano denies that the incident ever took place. When O’Toole’s claims surfaced, DiGaetano called them “laughable.” O’Toole has a reputation in state politics as something of a firebrand. He often denounced state Democrats at legislative hearings. On the other hand, he also has a history of working closely with Democratic leaders on major issues. He is one of Gov. Chris Christie’s closest allies.

According to New Jersey Superior Court data available online, the suit is pending and has been transferred to Essex County, where pre-trial motions have been heard by Judge Bridget Stecher.

On April 7, O’Toole filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and that request appears to be pending. The former senator also requested a hearing on his motion to dismiss.

On April 24, DiGaetano filed an “offer of judgment,” which basically means that he offered to settle the case. The request appears to be pending. If O’Toole declined that offer and then lost the case on less favorable terms than DiGaetano offered to settle for, O’Toole would face certain additional penalties.

The docket includes what appears to be a ruling by a judge on one part of O’Toole’s motion to dismiss, and a subsequent “motion for reconsideration” by DiGaetano. The online records kept by the New Jersey courts provide only a limited glimpse into the proceedings.

DiGaetano’s attorney Donald Burke declined to comment. DiGaetano and O’Toole did not respond to requests for comment.

O’Toole replaced Chairman John Degnan in a move by Govs. Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo to reorganize the massive transit agency.

Update (Aug. 3): The Port Authority board met Thursday and confirmed O’Toole to be its new chairman. This story previously said the board would meet Sept. 28, its next scheduled meeting, to approve the change.

Incoming Port Authority Chairman Still Being Sued for Defamation