The most powerful congressman in New Jersey, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, wrote a fundraising letter in March to a board member of a local bank, warning him that a member of an activist group opposing the Republican worked at his bank.
The employee was questioned and criticized for her involvement in NJ 11th for Change, a group that formed after the election of Donald Trump and has been pressuring Frelinghuysen to meet with constituents in his district and oppose the Trump agenda.
“Needless to say, that did cause some issues at work that were difficult to overcome,” said Saily Avelenda of West Caldwell, New Jersey, who was a senior vice president and assistant general counsel at the bank before she resigned. She says the pressure she received over her political involvement was one of several reasons she decided to leave.
The form letter, on campaign stationery, asks Frelinghuysen’s supporters to donate two years ahead of his next election because he is under attack. “But let’s be clear that there are organized forces — both national and local — who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government, economic growth, stronger national security,” the letter says.
Above the word local, there’s a hand-written asterisk in the same blue ink as Frelinghuysen’s signature. At the bottom of the letter, scrawled with a pen, is the corresponding footnote: “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!”
Attached to the letter was a news article that quoted Avelenda. She says her boss presented her with both the letter and the news article. She was not fired, but she says she had a lot of explaining to do.
“I 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,” Avelenda said. “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.”
NJ 11th for Change began with one Facebook post after the Trump election and quickly grew into an organization of more than 7,000 members who live in Frelinghuysen’s moderate Republican-leaning district. They began by requesting a town hall — he hasn’t held one in four years — and when that request was denied, they organized empty-chair town halls without him. The group has also held weekly protests at his office and visits to his Washington offices. Frelinghuysen has held two telephone town halls, which offer more control than an in-person event. Last week, he complained about the number of phone calls he is receiving.
“For people who have jammed our lines and made it difficult for us to meet our constituent needs, it would be nice for you to back off,” Frelinghuysen said. “I’m not suggesting people don’t have a right to speak and let their views be known, but some of this is highly orchestrated and it’s unfortunate.”
Frelinghuysen is the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, widely considered one of the most powerful positions in Congress because all funding decisions for the entire federal government now run through him. And for the first time in many years, his moderate district is no longer considered a safe Republican seat by the national Democratic Party. Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), says the letter is unusual and noteworthy because members of Congress don’t usually turn to businesses in their district to do damage to their political opponents.
“It’s certainly troubling," Libowitz said. "Whether or not it breaks a criminal statute is one issue, but the very clear issue is that it appears that a member of Congress might be using his power to threaten someone’s employment because of their political activities.”
The fundraising letter went to Joseph O'Dowd, a Lakeland Bank board member who has given $700 to Frelinghuysen during previous election cycles, according to Federal Election Commission records. O’Dowd and several managers at the bank also donate to the New Jersey Bankers Association, which in turn gives most of its money to the American Bankers Association. That group has about 20 paid lobbyists in Washington, according to disclosure statements filed with Congress.
The letter from Frelinghuysen may be more of a political problem than a legal one, according to a lawyer and former staffer for the Office of Congressional Ethics who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the letter may look heavy-handed, but to be illegal it would need to threaten action or be written on Congressional stationery, not campaign letterhead, or the bank would have to have business pending before a Frelinghuysen committee.
But the chair of appropriations has business and influence with everyone, including lobbyists, federal agency heads and other members of Congress, says Libowitz. And the fact that Frelinghuysen apparently put the job of a constituent in jeopardy undermines the fundamental relationship between a representative and his or her district.
“They could always argue that it was just a friendly heads up, and not asking for anything in particular, but the fact that it is even there, again, is somewhat troubling,” Libowitz said.
Frelinghuysen’s spokesman referred all questions to the campaign office, which responded with a written statement.
“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.”
Update: Lakeland Bank issued a formal response Monday afternoon to the original report by WNYC. The institution used its Facebook page to comment: