Montclair, NJ – During public comment at a February 21 Montclair Township Council meeting, three residents made statements alleging that Councilor at Large Peter Yacobellis has a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from all votes, discussions and related communications connected to the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment. On Monday, two of those residents, Martin Schwartz and David Herron, learned they were being sued by Yacobellis, who alleges the two defendants engaged in a “self-interested, defamatory smear campaign designed specifically, as threatened, to damage Yacobellis’ reputation.”
In an 18-page complaint filed in Superior Court of New Jersey, Yacobellis alleges defendants Schwartz and Herron engaged in defamation and false statements in a concerted scheme to pressure Yacobellis into recusal on the Lackawanna Plaza redevelopment plan. As a result of “outlandish and false statements” made by defendants Schwartz and Herron, Yacobellis stated he has suffered and will continue to suffer “material and reputational damage.”
The complaint also alleges that residents Anson Pope and Cathy Renna acted as “co-conspirators,” joining defendants Schwartz and Herron in defaming Yacobellis and demanding that Yacobellis meet with them or else they would “reveal” information that would be damaging to his reputation.
On January 13, 2023, Schwartz sent Yacobellis an email, with Herron, Pope, and Renna, among others, signed and copied, stating there was a pending “information reveal and political legal demand that is about to go out to the local media concerning the Lackawanna Redevelopment” that “would be very damaging to your reputation and standing with all our various leadership positions” in the town council and Out Montclair.
In the email mentioned in the complaint, Schwartz stated his goal was to help Yacobellis “preempt this media reveal,” if Yacobellis would meet with him. Yacobellis says in the complaint that he “did not give in to their extortion attempt.”
Schwartz and Herron are also alleged to have made defamatory and false statements to third parties concerning Yacobellis, including but not limited to corruption and bribery through Yacobellis’ candidate committee and Out Montclair; Yacobellis soliciting or receiving funds from those with a financial interest in the Lackawanna Redevelopment while being compensated by the organization; and conflicts of interest due to Yacobellis’ involvement with Out Montclair.
As a result of the false and defamatory statements by defendants in public forums, Yacobellis claims suffering of material losses including but not limited to loss of email subscribers, loss of financial support, and injury to his reputation.
In the complaint, Yacobellis states he has lost a significant amount of subscribers from his mailing list since Defendants and co-conspirators have allegedly defamed him. Yacobellis also states he has” seen a decrease in attendance at his events and contributions to his candidate committee” and has had to field a substantial number of calls or messages from constituents who are worried about what they heard.
Yacobellis cites examples on social media where one constituent accused him of being corrupt and demanded he leave Montclair (the comment was removed by a group’s administrators) and another occasion, where a homophobic slur was used against Yacobellis, and subsequently reported to Facebook as “hate speech.”
Yacobellis states that defendants’ statements placed him in a false light and imply that he engaged in “wrongful, improper, dishonest, and/or criminal conduct.”
The complaint also cites as background Schwartz’s unsuccessful attempts to remain on the Planning Board after not being re-appointed by Mayor Sean Spiller and a proposal to the council to create a consulting role where he would provide grant writing and government lobbying for a Montclair Office of Economic, Community and Arts Development (MOECAD).
The complaint states that, in his proposal, Schwartz also noted several members of the community that he would bring together for MOECAD, including Save Montclair Founder Linda Cranston, co-defendant David Herron for the Advisory Board and, “ironically, BDP Holdings principle David Placek” for a “project focused committee.” Yacobellis says the town council never seriously considered Schwartz’ proposal and Schwartz has since allegedly “regularly attacked members of the town council privately and publicly, including through the local press and on social media.”
In an email to local press Monday, Schwartz and Herron sent the following joint statement:
“We have not read the complaint yet. However, it’s shocking that an elected official continues to try to stifle and chill, constitutionally protected free speech. Speech that exposed what we believed was a conflict of interest. Therefore, Councilor Yacobellis acting inappropriately over the Lackawanna project.”
In a statement Monday, Yacobellis said:
“It is fair game — in fact it is a requirement of members of the public to question if their representatives have any conflicts of interest in conducting official business. It’s also a requirement in a healthy democracy to debate differences of opinions on policy with one’s representatives and for representatives to debate among themselves. But being in a democracy means that sometimes we don’t get our way and that needs to be respected. The comments identified in my complaint unfortunately crossed a serious line. In the interest of protecting myself personally, as well as the integrity of our institutions and processes, I’ve decided to pursue this civil action.
On the matter of recusal, I continue to keep my options open while I listen to attorneys who understand ethics law. I’m not inclined to unilaterally create a new standard for recusal where one doesn’t already exist. Existing case law does not suggest I have any conflict of interest. My fear is that setting a new precedent could potentially cripple our government’s ability to function when you start to apply these standards consistently. The public can be assured that I take all of these issues very seriously and will remain guided by my conscience, my counsel, and my employer’s strict conflict of interest policies, to ensure I’m always coloring within the lines. I also think it’s important that my constituents understand that I have perspective here — delivering record affordable housing and a supermarket for my neighbors in the Fourth Ward, is much more important than me.”
Schwartz also sent an individual statement:
The Councilor’s seeming claims about my Montclair community service background are sadly laughable in their distortion. Peter himself even once invited me to and introduced me to speak at one of his own fundraisers, as someone very involved here with good government. I had been a strong supporter then. And some of his other former political supporters also actually tried to help him do the right thing and recuse himself, which he now says is somehow “extortion.” Until his actions over Lackawanna became apparent, the Councilor even privately continued to tell me that he wanted me back on the Planning Board to help protect our resident’s interests. In fact, he’s the one official here who actually fully supported setting up a needed hybrid, non-profit-public grants and economic development office to generate supplemental, non-taxpayer revenues for Montclair, from the 30 page proposal I drafted. That was after I had helped the Township secure a $5 million federal transportation grant to redo Montclair’s crossings and traffic lights on Bloomfield Avenue. So it’s a topsy-turvy world according to Peter today and unfortunately, his true political persona within now appears to be coming out.