A small claims court trial of Phil Rizzo has been pushed to December 19 after his lawyer argued that former congressional candidate has a conditional right to appear before the court in person.
The Morris County Republican Committee filed a lawsuit in August alleging that Rizzo stiffed them out of $1,500 that he allegedly promised to pay for a table at the GOP county convention in March.
Last Friday, Rizzo filed a $600 counterclaim contending that Morris Republicans didn’t place an advertisement he had purchased on a large screen during the convention. Superior Court Judge David J. Weaver rejected a request by Rizzo on the same date to postpone the trial for a second time.
An attorney representing Rizzo, Ronald Bertutti, also complained that an offer to settle the case that he sent to the lawyer for the Morris GOP was obtained and published by the New Jersey Globe.
That offer included a request for a confidentiality agreement “so that there is no disparagement,” but also warned that Rizzo was prepared to attack the county Republican organization if they didn’t reach a settlement.
“The fact that it’s only a $1,500 or $600 claim really is irrelevant. It’s a question of justice on my client’s constitutional right,” Berutti said.
Joseph Bell IV, the Morris GOP attorney, said that the complaint was filed in August and that there was no objection to any type of electronic trial until today. Rizzo appeared in a virtual court session on October 31 and asked for time to hire an attorney.
Weaver said that the New Jersey Supreme Court has granted permission to hold virtual trials and pushed back on the idea that it somehow violated Rizzo’s rights.
“The First Amendment of the United States, as applied to the states, to the 14th Amendment, we argue, includes a right of audience,” Berutti said. “The right of audience comes from the English Common law, which predates the First Amendment.”
Berutti and Rizzo have both alleged a photo of Rizzo taken at the October hearing was provided by an unknown observing of the proceeding.
“I would like to try to subpoena the people who were present in court the last time. We don’t know who they are yet because we’re waiting for that information,” Berutti said. “And I want to find out who, who and why this information is being put into a is being given to the press, which then puts out a hit piece on my client calling him a huckster and another false things.”
Berutti’ claim that the Administrative Office of the Courts did not respond to request was disputed by Jessica Kwasnick, the assistant manager of the civil court division in Morris County.
She said a denial for the names of all people in the virtual courtroom was emailed directly to Rizzo on Friday, since he put in the request.
“So, Your Honor, that decision has already been made that that request cannot be fulfilled at this time,” Kwasnick stated.
(Editor’s note: the photo used of Rizzo was taken virtually by the New Jersey Globe after receiving written permission from the courts to capture images of the October hearing. The same written permission was granted for today. The photo credit, which appears in Rizzo’s court filing, credits the photo to the New Jersey Globe.)
Weaver said that the New Jersey Supreme Court has authorized remote proceedings, leaving that up to the discretion of the court.
“I realize we’re in transition now, going back to in-person trials,” Weaver said. “ But just to my initial reaction is, if you’re saying that these are of constitutional dimension, basically what you’re arguing, it appears that all such remote proceedings that have occurred over the last two or two and a half years are invalid, and I think that’s a tough thing to check to prove.”
Berutti has until December 9 to file his brief on the constitutional issue and Bell has until December 13 to respond.
Berutti called the New Jersey Globe’s coverage of the lawsuit against Rizzo “smear pieces” and said the Morris GOP “has a history of smearing and damaging my client.”
The Morris Republican organization alleges that Rizzo’s political director, Daniel Laucik, Jr., agreed to pay for a table inside the convention room to distribute literature, display their signage and have “home base” during the convention. Court filings show that the Rizzo campaign had produced a copy of an online contribution for $1,500, but never hit submit on the payment platform.
Laucik, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was a no-show for today’s proceedings. He also did not appear on October 31.
Berutti wants Laucik removed as a defendant, arguing that the Rizzo campaign “does not deny that he was authorized to act for the campaign” in dealing with the Morris GOP on convention-related matters. It’s not immediately clear that Morris County Republicans have agreed to that
“Upon entry, Mr. Laucik, acting as a campaign representatives, showed our staff a picture of a donation to our organization that was not yet submitted in a successful attempt to mislead the staffer into thinking the donation has been made,” Republicans allege in their court filing.
Morris Republicans charge that Rizzo and his staff lied about their payment in a deliberate attempt to ensure the benefits of a table without having to pay for it.
“This type of behavior has no place in our party, especially when dealing with an organization that relies heavily on the generosity of donors and efforts of volunteers,” Morris GOP executive director Anthony DeSpirito said.
An email from Laucik in court filings shows an agreement to pay.
“We would love a table,” Laucik wrote. “How do we pay?”
Laucik declined comment during a short call with the New Jersey Globe.
In an email, Rizzo himself appears to have acknowledged the payment requirement.
“I will connect you with my convention team,” Rizzo said. “They will take care of all those details.”
Rep.-elect Thomas H. Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) won the Morris GOP convention on the second ballot. Kean led newcomer John Henry Isemann on the first ballot by a 48-36 vote, with 23 votes for Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Franklin); Rizzo finished fourth with just 20 votes out of 127 cast – just 15.7%.
The controversial Rizzo faced heavy criticism Rizzo for selling his Harding home to the City Baptist Church, a tiny, now-defunct storefront church in North Bergen where he had been the pastor, for $1.65 million. That allowed Rizzo to live there without paying property taxes.
The Morris County Board of Taxation revoked Rizzo’s tax-exempt status in May. He has since sold the home and moved to Somerset County.
Rizzo ran for governor in 2021 and received 25.6% of the vote in the gubernatorial primary, losing to Jack Ciattarelli by 24 percentage points. Rizzo received just 23.6% and lost to Tom Kean, Jr. by 22 points in the 2022 House primary.