Rival Morris County Freeholder Primary Candidates Appear in Court

Three losing candidates in June’s GOP Morris County Freeholder primary - Donald Dinsmore, William Felegi and Cathy Winterfield - appeared in court over an unknown Wyoming-based consultant hired by the campaign and a flier that essentially called the winning candidate, Freeholder Tom Mastrangelo, a criminal.

The votes long have been counted, but Morris County’s freeholder primary is far from over.

Tuesday afternoon found the three losing candidates in June’s GOP primary, Donald Dinsmore, William Felegi and Cathy Winterfield, together again – in a Morristown courtroom.

The three are defendants in an ongoing action brought by Freeholder Tom Mastrangelo, one of the primary winners. Fellow incumbents Kathy DeFillippo and Doug Cabana, who also won the primary, are not part of the case.

There are two related issues here – a campaign flier that essentially called Mastrangelo a criminal and an “unknown” consultant hired by the challengers with a Wyoming address.

Alan Zakin, who represented Mastrangelo, persuaded the judge – William McGovern in state Superior Court, Morristown – to order the defendants to produce records related to campaign literature, mailings and the funding of such within the next 30 days. While the judge did scale back some of what Zakin sought, this was a win for Mastrangelo.

The campaign flier mailed to voters about 10 days before the election compared Mastrangelo to Harvey Weinstein and referenced a now-expunged arrest record of his out of Randolph.

The judge characterized the mailing as “pretty reprehensible stuff.” Karl Fenske, the lawyer for Dinsmore, Felegi and Winterfield, said his clients had nothing to do with the mailing, a contention Mastrangelo doesn’t buy.

Then, there’s the Wyoming connection.

The challengers’ campaign report listed a Checkmate Action Group of Sheridan, Wyoming, as a consultant. The first payment to the group was for $45,000, but the amount rose to more than $100,000 over the campaign.

Zakin, who stressed his experience as a campaign consultant, said the money involved and the consultant’s address were unusual. The judge seemed to agree, terming it a “peculiar situation.”

Throughout the campaign,. Dinsmore declined to explain who the consultant was. Eventually, reports identified him as King Penna, a well-known, but at times controversial, figure in Morris County Republican politics. Zakin, in fact, mentioned Penna’s name in court. There was no response from the defendants.

For his part, Penna told me in a phone conversation about six weeks ago that he was not involved with Checkmate Action Group.

Clearly, Mastrangelo hopes to find campaign records, emails – whatever – that show a connection among the trio of challengers, the Wyoming group and the over-the-top campaign flier. It should be kept in mind that no suit has been filed. This is court-ordered discovery prior to litigation possibly commencing.
Fenske argued that without a suit, such discovery was improper. For awhile, it looked like the judge was going along with that argument, but in the end, he merely limited the scope of the discovery.

Fenske also suggested there was nothing all that unusual about the just-concluded primary, noting that politics is a “blood sport” and that one entering the arena needs a “thick skin.” And he said Mastrangelo’s expunged record had been originally publicized in the 2016 campaign, so what was the big deal about doing it again?

Finally, Fenske offered up a very practical defense when he asked how much harm the flier in question actually caused Mastrangelo?.

“He won,” Fenske said.

There are times, one supposes, when winning an election is not everything.

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