Originally published Aug. 11, 2011
By Neil Schulman
Long Branch — A judge has dismissed a defamation suit filed by Mayor Adam Schneider against his former political rival Brian Unger.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge Patricia del Bueno Cleary approved a motion for summary judgement filed by Charles Uliano, Unger’s attorney, saying that because Schneider was a public figure, he would need to show clear and convincing evidence that Unger and his campaign had published the allegations with a knowing disregard for the truth.
Five days before the contentious 2010 Long Branch Mayoral election, Unger’s campaign issued a flyer saying, “Official federal court documents: Mayor Schneider bribed.”
These were based on testimony by Solomon Dwek in court, who served as a cooperating witness with the FBI in bribery and corruption cases. He made the statement during another case.
Schneider vehemently denied the claims, and held several rallies in the days before the election in an attempt to counter them.
Obviously, Dwek claims didn’t convince voters. Schneider received 54 percent of the vote, to Unger’s 35 percent.
However, Schneider still felt that the flyers were an attempt to defame his character, and filed a suit against Unger and several of his campaign advisors.
Unger said that Uliano’s motion was accepted because Schneider is a public figure, and for a defamation suit he would have needed to show malicious intent — that Unger and his team conspired with Dwek and knew that he was lying when they printed the flyer.
Schneider said he did not have any comments, referring the issue to his attorney, Vincent Manning.
Manning said that they have 45 days from when the ruling was issued to decide whether to appeal the judge’s decision.
He said the judge made the ruling was because, as a public figure, the requirement for defamation is “reckless disregard for the truth,” something difficult to prove.
But Manning says that the legal definition of “public figure” can be very broad. It’s not just a mayor, but also an elected or appointed official — and can be someone who’s not even affiliated with government.
“It’s also private citizens who are active in their community,” Manning said.
In court, Manning said he argued, “The First Amendment doesn’t mean anything goes.”
“I think (political consultant Pat) Politano and Unger crossed the line,” he said.
Manning’s firm is doing research to see if an appeal could be fruitful.
Unger said that both he and Schneider put out some nasty messages during the campaign.
“We always believed we could file a similar slander suit against Adam, as his smear campaign against my reputation was far more brutal and effective than anything we charged him with,” said Unger. “Election campaigns in Long Branch are quite brutal, gloves off, and Adam is very, very good at it. He ran an efficient campaign to try and destroy my credibility, and frankly, I didn’t help our cause with some of the idiotic comments I made.”
Unger said that has become the nature of modern politics.
“Today’s politics are football; they hit hard.”
Unger did say that he’d learned many things from the campaign, and his term on the City Council before running. While he’d been involved in politics before, it was never as an elected official, where you need to take a different approach.
“I was so used to 25 years of being an advocate and an activist,” he said. As a legislator, you must be able to work with your opponents; an activist doesn’t need to use that same skill set.
Unger said that he is still proud of some of what he helped accomplish, including getting more beach access for the elderly and the young and “really forcing the administration to pull back on eminent domain.”
While he still wishes Long Branch government was more transparent, and had allowed the public to get involved in some issues earlier, such as when the Takanassee beach club was sold, Unger said that Schneider understood the city well, and has done things he supports, like getting Pier Village constructed and working on a new pier.
“I have to give Adam credit. He knows the city like the back of his hand. He’s built a really strong coalition,” Unger said. “I don’t want to take from Adam all the great accomplishments he’s had as mayor.”
Since leaving politics, Unger has been working with his consulting firm, and is pursuing his PhD in American Literature. He’ll start teaching at a community college this fall, for the first time.
As for Dwek, whose allegations were on the flyer named in the suit, he’s currently incarcerated. Until this June, he was out on bail after pleading guilty to $60 million in bank fraud. Then, he was arrested again on charges he failed to return a rental car, and reportedly lied to the FBI about what had happened. The judge revoked his bail after the incident and sent him to jail, even though prosecutors asked he be placed under house arrest.
Dwek had testified against several of the 44 people charged with bribery and corruption as a result of his work as a cooperating witness for the FBI. Many have pled guilty or been sentenced, but a few were acquitted by juries — an unusual result in federal corruption cases. While it’s possible he could be called to testify in more of the cases, experts say it’s less likely now that he’s in prison.
Schneider had repeatedly claimed that Dwek had shown he was willing to lie about everything, and his words can’t be trusted.