Mastrangelo Takes a Loss in Court – for Now

Three incumbent Morris County freeholders appear well on their way to victory in what has been a particularly nasty 2019 election.

MORRISTOWN – Lawyer Karl Fenske summed up his courtroom argument Friday by paraphrasing Gertrude Stein’s famous put down of Oakland.

“There is no anything there,” said Fenske in reference to legal action launched by Morris Country Freeholder Tom Mastrangelo.

The judge, William McGovern in state Superior Court, Morristown, seemed to agree. He “closed” the matter before him, comparing the case to a rocket ship aimlessly soaring through the cosmos on low fuel.

This was a win for Fenske and his clients, losing 2019 freeholder candidates Donald Dinsmore, Cathy Winterfield and Will Felegi.  And it was a loss for Mastrangelo.

But the legal action may not be over.

It’s time for some unpacking.

This battle has its roots in the county’s Republican freeholder primary last June.

While Mastrangelo was one of the winners he remains troubled by his opponents’ campaign tactics, most specifically a flyer that compared Mastrangelo to a number of truly despicable characters, including Harvey Weinstein. The opponents also brought up a police report of an incident involving Mastrangelo that had been expunged. A companion issue is the fact the opponents’ campaign consultant, Checkmate Action Group with a Wyoming mailing address, has still not been fully identified.

Mastrangelo and his lawyer, Alan Zakin, have not filed suit. But they successfully asked the court back in July to order the opponents to preserve and to turn over all material related to the campaign.

The Dinsmore team did that, but in court on Friday, Zakin said the material was not sufficient.
The judge rebuffed Zakin’s plea for more data, saying at one point that court rules allowing such discovery are not meant to be a “self-perpetuating machine.”

Zakin’s seeming aim is to connect the flyer to the Dinsmore team.  Fenske response is that his clients had nothing to do with it.

This raises an intriguing political question. The flyer clearly was meant to discredit Mastrangelo. So if the Dinsmore team had nothing to do with it, who did?

All campaign material is supposed to have a disclaimer identifying who paid for it. The flyer in question said it was paid for by a “Patrick Flake,” a fairly obvious fictitious name. This prompted the judge to facetiously express great shock and astonishment that something like that would occur in politics.
Zakin also raised the name of King Penna, a rather colorful campaign consultant.  Mastrangelo, who has tangled with Penna before,  would love to identify him as the man behind the shadowy group with the Wyoming address. But so far, documented evidence of that seems to be elusive. This is a legitimate issue, as campaign finance laws mandate detailed reports of how candidates spend money.

In general, Fenske said his clients are being “punished” by Mastrangelo for having the temerity to run against him.

The judge didn’t comment on that directly, but he did observe that those entering the political arena need to expect some mud to come their way.

Judge McGovern’s decision on Friday precludes Zakin’s intention of taking depositions from relevant actors to further his case.

But that doesn’t mean the matter is over.

Zakin reserves the right to file suit, thereby keeping the rocket in flight.

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