House Republican writes letter to constituent’s employer complaining about her progressive activism

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s note culminated in a woman resigning from her job.

Frelinghuysen in 2011. CREDIT: AP Photo
Frelinghuysen in 2011. CREDIT: AP Photo

One of the most powerful House Republicans — Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ), the new chair of the House Appropriations Committee — got a constituent in trouble by writing a letter to her employer that called out her progressive activism.

The employee — Saily Avelenda of West Caldwell, who’s active in the progressive NJ 11th for Change group — ended up resigning from her job as senior vice president and assistant general counsel at Lakeland Bank, according to a report from WNYC.

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Frelinghuysen’s letter, sent on campaign letterhead to bank board member and Frelinghuysen donor Joseph O’Dowd, appears to be correspondence he sent to other contributors as well.

“[L]et’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,” Frelinghuysen’s letter reads. “As you may have seen in the front page of the New York Times, the Democrat political organizations, the ‘DCCC’ run by Nancy Pelosi, has targeted my district for Democrat takeover. Democrats have chosen to targets districts like ours because we sit in prime media markets and their protesters are highly organized.”

But at the bottom, in blue pen, Frelinghuysen wrote by hand: “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!”

CREDIT: Printed with permission of NJ 11th for Change
CREDIT: Printed with permission of NJ 11th for Change

Attached to the letter was a news clip featuring a quote from Avelenda. A Google search indicates she was quoted in a February WNYC report headlined, “New Jersey Citizens’ Group Creates a Super PAC.” Avelenda is identified as being “with NJ 11th for Change” in the story, and is quoted as saying, “Part of what our goal is is to educate, to ensure they are aware of the individual that sits in that seat today… So that when they go make a choice they have all the information they need to make a choice.”

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Avelenda’s boss confronted her about Frelinghuysen’s letter. She told WNYC that she “had to write a statement to my CEO, and at my level as an assistant general counsel and a senior vice president, at this employer it was not something that I expected… I thought my Congressman put them in a situation, and put me in a really bad situation as the constituent, and used his name, used his position and used his stationery to try to punish me.”

Avelenda wasn’t fired, but she told WNYC that Frelinghuysen’s letter and the blowback it created contributed to her decision to resign.

In a statement published Monday morning on NJ 11th for Change’s Facebook page, the groups writes, “We are outraged and alarmed by Representative Frelinghuysen’s intimidating action against an ordinary constituent.”

It continues:

NJ 11th For Change began in November as a grassroots group of citizens seeking open dialogue with their Congressman. What started as a few dozen people grew to thousands of active constituents. Today’s NPR story details the personal note he sent to a constituent’s employer highlighting her involvement in NJ11th For Change. His targeted, retaliatory letter to Saily Avelenda’s employer was intended to create an uncomfortable work environment for her. As a result, she was subjected to professional scrutiny about her personal political activities which directly contributed to her decision to resign.

Rep Frelinghuysen’s actions are disturbing and alarming. He sent this letter with the clear intention of using his power and leverage as a Member of Congress to create a difficult situation for a concerned constituent. In that regard, he succeeded.

In a larger sense, he used his influence in an attempt to punish an opposing view. How can democracy work if ordinary citizens are intimidated or their livelihoods threatened when speaking out? Frelinghuysen abused his position and acted against a concerned citizen for expressing a position he didn’t like. But in that regard, he failed, because our voices will not be silenced by his intimidation tactics.

Frelinghuysen’s campaign sent WNYC a statement saying that 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.”

Lakeland Bank isn’t commenting, according to WNYC.

Frelinghuysen, who was first elected in 1995, has voted in lockstep with President Trump and hasn’t held a town hall since 2013. Though he won reelection in his suburban New York City district by 19 points last year, he’s become a target for Democrats this cycle.

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In February, the Bergen County Record reported that Frelinghuysen hauled in a personal record of more than $500,000 in the first quarter of this year.

“The effort comes as Democrats in Washington have already made Frelinghuysen the target of automated phone calls, voters in his district have held regular protests at his office and a group ran a bus trip to Washington to pressure him to oppose President Donald Trump’s policies and hold a public town hall meeting,” the Record reports. “New data that used past election results to score the partisan leanings of congressional districts show that Frelinghuysen’s 11th District, which covers parts of Essex, Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties, and Rep. Leonard Lance’s 7th District are about as competitive as the 5th District, where Democrat Josh Gottheimer defeated seven-term Republican Rep. Scott Garrett in November.”

Frelinghuysen’s decision to call out a constituent for her progressive political activism comes while Trump and other House Republicans repeatedly complain, without evidence, about “paid protesters” who are publicly resisting their agenda.

UPDATE: In a statement sent to ThinkProgress, Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor who is now a Democratic candidate for Frelinghuysen’s seat in 2018, called Frelinghuysen’s letter a “shameful abuse of power.”

“This shameful abuse of power by Representative Frelinghuysen is exactly why we need new representation in Congress,” she said. “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. That Frelinghuysen would use his powerful public office to hurt a private citizen is wrong, unethical and immoral.”

UPDATE II: Lakeland Bank has posted the following statement to its Facebook page:

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