The City of Linden has settled a lawsuit filed by Senate President Nicholas Scutari alleging that political foes, including Mayor Derek Armstead, conspired to retaliate against him for not backing their candidacies, for malicious prosecution, and for defamation, libel and slander.
The settlement, obtained by the New Jersey Globe, effectively debunks a politically motivated investigative report written by a law firm hired by Armstead, Calcagni & Kanefsky. The mastroesque probe, paid for by the city, accused Scutari of “serial absenteeism.”
Scutari spent fifteen years as Linden’s municipal prosecutor, topping out at a salary of $85,000-per-year. While the report found that Scutari did not attend about 40% of municipal court hearings between 2014 and 2018, it ignored the long-standing practice across the state of part-time prosecutors taking responsibility for covering municipal court sessions at their own expense. Scutari personally paid substitute prosecutors.
In his lawsuit, Scutari pointed to a 2005 memorandum from the city authorizing him to secure coverage when he didn’t personally appear in court, as long as he bore the cost. He accused Armstead and others of “deliberately” concealing that document.
Later, the report appeared to be leaked to The Bergen Record. Scuatri dismissed it as an attempt by Armstead to smear him, but it led to a subpoena from the state Office of Public Integrity and Accountibility more than two years ago.
Scutari had alleged that Armstead, Councilmen Alfred Mohammed and Ralph Strano, and embattled former Councilman Peter Brown retaliated against him by “providing false and misleading information” to a private consulting firm retained by a “Confidential Municipal Council Investigative Committee.” That process led to a report by Gazaleh Consulting which Scutari claimed “was the product of the feeding of defamatory and slanderous comments and information” by the Linden officials.
In exchange for Scutari dropping his $10 million lawsuit, the city agreed to be legally bound “from the beginning of time” until the settlement date, to drop accusations against Scutari for “breach of contract, conversion, breach of good faith and fair dealing, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, improper waste of taxpayer funds, defamation, libel and slander.”
The terms of the settlement resolution prevent public comment and do not include any monetary damages.
“The parties agree that they have not and will not disparage any other individual or entity named in or covered by this settlement agreement by marking or soliciting comments, statements or the like to the media, on social media, or to others,” the agreement stated. “Nothing in this provision limits the rights of the parties to engage in public civil discourse regarding any specific matter that may arise in the future.”
Records show that the Linden City Council passed a resolution authorizing the settlement on April 19.
Superior Court Judge Mark P. Ciarrocca dismissed the case on April 28 because it had been “settled before trial date,” court records show. That came two weeks after Ciarrocca had scheduled a settlement conference for early May. A counter complaint filed against Scutari by the city was also dismissed.
In addition to the settlement, there appears to be political peace in Linden for the first time in nearly a decade.
Armstead, Strano and Mohammed are unopposed in the Democratic primary after Scutari, the Union County Democratic Chairman, gave them the organization line. There are no contested primaries for any of Linden’s ward council seats, or against City Council President Michele Yamakaitis.
Despite the Linden shenanigans, Scutari emerged as the second most-powerful person in state government last fall following the unexpected defeat of Senate President Steve Sweeney in his own re-election bid. Within three days, Scutari had secured enough votes to become the new Senate President.
Armstead was first elected mayor in 2014, ousting incumbent Richard Gerbounka, an independent by 228 votes on his second try. He had won the Democratic primary by just 140 votes.
Following the death of Assemblyman Gerald Green (D-Linden) in early 2018, Scutari ran to replace Green as the Union County Democratic Chairman. Armstead, who had initially committed to Scutari, later became a candidate for vice chair on a slate with another candidate, Colleen Mahr.
But Armstead still emerged as the winner of the 2018 Democratic mayoral primary, even though Scutari gave the organization line to Councilwoman Gretchen Hickey. He won off-the-line by 1,443 votes.
The following year, Armstead and his council majority dumped Scutari as the prosecutor.
In Linden, where Scutari launched his political career as a 26-year-old school board candidate in 1994, the local political wars with Armstead has not hurt him with voters. Last fall, he won 68% of the vote in his hometown, running 21 votes ahead of Gov. Phil Murphy.