Frelinghuysen note forces activist from her job

'One of the ringleadrrs works for your bank!'

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  • Saily Avelenda

  • The fundraising letter, handwritten note and asterisk above 'local.'

  • Close up of the controversial P.S.

By Meghan Byers

— Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ11) is facing intense backlash for a note he wrote to a donor alerting him that one of his employees was a member of a citizens group critical of Frelinghuysen. That employee, Saily Avelenda, has since resigned her position as senior vice president and assistant general counsel at Lakeland Bank, saying that pressure from her employer because of the congressman’s note contributed to her decision to quit.

"It's not what I expected of my congressman," Avelenda said.

It was revealed Monday that the 11-term lawmaker had attached a handwritten note to a campaign fundraising form letter sent to Lakeland Bank Board member Joseph O'Dowd. Federal Election Commission records show O'Dowd as having donated $1,350 to Frelinghuysen since 2006.

Frelinghuysen represents New Jersey's 11th Congressional District, which includes five Sussex County municipalities — Sparta, Byram, Stanhope, Ogdensburg, and Hopatcong. He is also chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I need the resources to fend off any attack I might receive," Frelinghuysen's letter stated, referring to the approaching 2018 election season. "This fundraising season needs to be the strongest yet and I want it to start early."

The letter, dated March 21, also made reference to "organized forces – both national and local" that oppose the Republican majority and may pose a threat to Frelinghuysen's re-election. Beside the word "local," there is an asterisk in the same blue ink as the congressman's signature, indicating this handwritten footnote at the bottom of the page: "P.S. One of the ringleaders works for your bank!"

Avelenda, of West Caldwell, is part of the steering committee for the nonpartisan grassroots group NJ 11th for Change, which formed after the election of Donald Trump. The group has criticized Frelinghuysen for his failure to hold an in-person town hall and a lack of open communication with his constituents. The group has held "empty chair" town halls without their congressman present, sponsored a bus trip to Washington D.C. to speak with Frelinghuysen, and has held weekly "Fridays with Frelinghuysen" protests at the congressman's Morristown office since January. The group currently has over 7,000 members.

A news article quoting Avelenda was attached to the fundraising letter. As a result, Avelenda was asked to explain herself in a written statement to her CEO.

While she had already considered resigning from her position before the letter was brought to her attention, Avelenda said that the pressure she received at work "certainly contributed" to her ultimate resignation from Lakeland Bank.

"I could see the issue growing," she said.

Lakeland Bank posted a response to the issue on their Facebook page Monday which did not mention Avelenda by name, but stated, " is the philosophy of Lakeland Bank to promote our employees’ full awareness and interest in civic and political responsibility such that each employee has the opportunity to support community activities or the political process in the manner that she or he desires."

Frelinghuysen's campaign office appeared to deny that the congressman had any intention of causing consequences at work for Avelenda, issuing its own statement in response:

"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."

Debra Caplan, another member of the NJ 11th for Change steering committee, countered that the congressman's actions were "irresponsible at best, and quite unethical."

"He strategically sought out this person," said Caplan. "He has an awful lot of money, influence, and power, and he tried to use that. [...] It was an attempt to silence somebody."

The incident has drawn national attention. On Tuesday the Campaign for Accountability, an independent watchdog group, requested that the Office of Congressional Ethics investigate Frelinghuysen for possible violations of House ethics rules.

"That any American needs to fear that their employment may be at risk due to their political views is an affront to the society we have all spent over 200 years building," said Chip Robinson, chair of the Morris County Democratic Committee.

"I'm not waiting for an apology, and I don't want one,” Avelenda said. “I want him to listen to his constituents."

As of Tuesday night, Frelinghuysen's office has not responded to multiple requests for further comment.

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