Brian Bergen, a Morris County Assemblyman involved in a bruising Republican primary, is threatening to sue opponent BettyLou DeCroce for “libel” or “slander” – whatever is most appropriate.
Suits like this are certainly not unheard of, but this one has a twist.
DeCroce hasn’t done anything yet. But Bergen is convinced she’s poised to do so. In a letter sent to DeCroce, Bergen opens his missive with the following:
“It is my understanding that you intend to accuse me of lying about the usage of my business location for Bergen Botanicals, formerly located at 2 Wall Street in Rockaway Borough on a small business grant application. Please consider this letter as your formal notice that if you make those unfounded accusations that I will pursue legal action against you for libel or slander as appropriate.”
It concludes this way:
“It is important that you understand that allegations of wrongdoing would have a serious impact on my business, my family, and my personal reputation, Damages for those impacts will be pursued to the fullest extent possible.”
Threatened litigation over what may happen?
A supporter would say Bergen likes being prepared.
An opponent would say this is foolish grandstanding.
Time to unpack.
Bergen is seeking reelection in LD-26, a mostly Morris County district that also includes a bit of Passaic County. (The new map has relocated him from LD-25).
In District 26, Bergen is running in the June primary with fellow incumbent Jay Webber.
DeCroce represented the district for almost 10 years until she lost the 2021 GOP primary. She now wants her old seat back.
Interestingly, the small business grants of which Bergen speaks are considered a huge success by the Morris County Commissioners.
Starting on Valentine’s Day, 2022, the commissioners have used federal Covid relief money to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic.
Commissioners often have made a point of personally delivering checks – the maximum is $15,000 – to delighted recipients amid great fanfare.
Bergen, who at the time operated an interior landscape business known as Bergen Botanicals, applied for and got a business grant of $12,038. The grant was approved last May.
But a few months later, it was rescinded. No happy time delivery here.
An email trail explained that the problem had to do with whether his business office was being used for campaign purposes back in 2021. If so, that would have made him ineligible for the grant.
The email exchange between Bergen and then-county administrator John Bonanni spanned only a few hours, but at the end of the day – last Aug. 2 – it was clear this glitch would not be resolved.
Unsatisfied with Bergen’s replies, Bonanni said he would not release the check.
Bergen responded a week later, officially withdrawing his application.
After some more back and forth, Bonanni’s last message to Bergen was, “I trust this concludes any further discussion related to this matter.”
Just for the record, Bergen’s warning to DeCroce included a recent letter from Tom Mulligan, the mayor of Rockaway Borough. Mulligan says that Bergen did use the building in question for campaign purposes in 2019, but that ceased when the campaign ended in November of that year. So, as Mulligan tells it, it was only a business location when Bergen applied for the Covid-related grant.
DeCroce responded to Bergen’s letter by saying his campaign is “unraveling” and that this episode shows he does not have the “temperament” to serve.
“There is no issue of libel or slander in this matter. There are just the facts. Brian Bergen applied for a loan and he did not get it because of a dispute about the eligibility of the property for a small business loan issued through the federal government. … I can’t tell you if my campaign was going to raise this issue, but we would have been perfectly within our rights to do so. Mr. Bergen is, by the tone of his letter, trying to silence free speech in a political campaign. Like woke Democrats, he is trying to cancel people he doesn’t agree with. I hope he can explain that to the voters.”