An attorney in New Jersey, as well as ethics experts back in Washington, are in shock after one of the most powerful members of Congress — Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) — sent a fundraising letter to a woman's employer describing her as a “ring leader” in a local activist group.
Saily Avelenda resigned from her job as a senior vice president at the local bank soon after, saying the letter was part of the reason she left her job. “When it first came to my attention, I thought: ‘No. No one would do that,’” she told The Fix on Monday. “But the more I think about it, the more I could tell this was a concerted, directed effort to target me.”
Here's the operative paragraph in the March letter that Frelinghuysen, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, wrote to the bank's director:
Let's be clear that there are organized forces — both national and local* — who are already hard at work to put a stop to the agenda of limited government, economic growth and stronger national security.
The “local” was starred in blue ink, a flag to jump down to the bottom of the letter, where, next to the congressman's hand-signed signature, there is a handwritten note:
“*P.S.: One of the ring leaders works in your bank!”
The letter was first reported on Monday by WNYC.
Two nonpartisan ethics experts told The Fix that the letter was a clear attempt at intimidation that crosses ethical lines and potentially even legal ones.
“Certainly it comes across as a pretty blatant attempt at intimidation,” said Meredith McGehee with the Campaign Legal Center. “We already know that many businesses feel like if they don't contribute to a campaign, something bad will happen. I've heard businessmen go as far as to call it a 'protection racket.' … But this takes it to a whole different level.”
“I'm pretty flabbergasted,” said Melanie Sloan, director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “If you took that to the logical conclusion, no employer could ever hire someone who was opposed to a particular member of Congress.”
Sloan said the Office of Congressional Ethics should look into this as a potential abuse of power and that Avelenda could even sue the congressman for potentially damaging her relationship with the bank.
“There ought to be an investigation,” Sloan said, adding this letter has echoes of one of Washington's most infamous abuse-of-power scandals: In 1998, then-Rep. Tom Delay (R-Tex.) told a manufacturing trade association that had just hired a Democrat as its top lobbyist to hire a Republican — or else. DeLay was later convicted of violating election law for an unrelated case.
Frelinghuysen's office did not respond to a request for comment. His campaign sent this statement to WNYC:
The Congressman wrote a brief and innocuous note at the bottom of a personal letter in regard to information that had been reported in the media. He was in no way involved in any of the bank's business and is unaware of any of the particulars about this employee's status with the bank.
According to campaign finance records, the bank's director, who has been a regular contributor to Frelinghuysen, gave the congressman $250 six days after the letter was dated.
Avelenda said she cleared her volunteer political activist work with counsel at her job before she started, so she was surprised when her boss called her in with the Frelinghuysen's fundraising letter in hand to ask her about it. She had to write a statement to explain what she was involved in and declaring that she was a “friend” of the bank.
“It is a little scary that he would do that,” she said. “I think the whole point of this was to intimidate me and to intimidate the group.”
Count Frelinghuysen among the many members of Congress who have declined to hold town halls because, they claim, there's been a concerted effort on the left to hijack them. WNYC reported that in a recent telephone town hall (which lets lawmakers have more control over whom they talk to and what questions they answer), Frelinghuysen said, “For people who have jammed our lines, it would be nice for you to back off. … Some of this has been highly orchestrated, and it's unfortunate.”
The national liberal advocacy group on the receiving end of most of the finger pointing from Republicans, Indivisible, denies orchestrating any protests. The group, set up by former congressional staffers after President Trump won the election, gives residents tools on how to best be heard by their congressman or congresswoman.
“Aside from that, they are out there talking about the things that matter to them, and we're not directing to anyone,” said Angel Padilla with Indivisible.
Avelenda, who has lived in the congressional district for seven years, said that after the presidential election, she joined a local activist group, NJ 11th For Change. NJ 11th has pressured Frelinghuysen to hold town halls. The group has more than 7,000 Facebook members and recently started a super PAC to raise money to defeat Frelinghuysen in the 2018 election.
The best she can tell, Avelenda was targeted by the congressman because her name was cited in a March Politico article as one of the founders of the super PAC. But she was never “the face” of it, which she said only raises more questions about why she was targeted.
“This was not just, ‘Oh, hey, by the way, do you know so and so?’” she said. “This was very deliberately planned. At the very least, it took more than one step. … He would have had to have Googled me or found me on Linked In, and then tried to find a connection.”
Frelinghuysen has represented New Jersey's 11th District, the greater-greater-New York City suburbs, for 22 years. Democrats think his once-staunchly Republican district is now vulnerable. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain won the district by nine points; in 2012, Mitt Romney won it by five points; and in 2016, Trump won it by half a percentage point.
Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor, has been recruited as a Democratic challenger to run against Frelinghuysen. In a statement, Sherrill called the letter a “shameful abuse of power.”
“Frelinghuysen has gone from simply refusing to meet with his constituents and telling them to 'back off,' to threatening constituents who are exercising their freedom of speech,” she said.