ELIZABETH — State Sen. Raymond Lesniak says Friday’s appeals court ruling to compel Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools Pablo Munoz and former Board of Education President Rafael Fajardo to pay the school district $63,622 spent on a defamation lawsuit is a significant political defeat for his longtime adversaries.
A three-judge Appellate Division panel affirmed the final judgment entered by Judge Karen Cassidy granting summary judgment to Antonio Rivera, who brought an action against Munoz and Fajardo arguing they spent taxpayer money on a personal political grudge.
Shortly before the 2006 primary election, someone mailed city residents a forged letter, purportedly written by Munoz to Fajardo, that caused them to file a six count complaint against various ”John and Jane Does” and various “ABC Corporations” who were allegedly responsible. The complaint alleged that the unnamed parties committed ”acts of defamation and malicious misrepresentation; …invaded the privacy of Munoz and Fajardo by placing them in a false light; intentionally caused Munoz and Fajardo to suffer emotional distress; and violated campaign advertising laws.”
Over a six-month period, the Elizabeth school board spent $63,622 to prosecute the John Doe lawsuit and used $52, 049 in state grants to pay for it even though no resolution authorizing the legal action was ever passed. No actual defendants were ever named.
Rivera took legal steps to prevent the board from continuing to fund the lawsuit and the state Board of Education conducted an investigation and audit of the proceedings. In 2007, the state Department of Education concluded that funding the lawsuit was an inappropriate expenditure because “the complaint did not identify actual defendants and the possibility that this complaint would allow this identification was remote at best.” The state report also stated that ”the litigation was more geared to the superintendent and the Board president’s personal interests.”
The school board filed an administrative appeal, but in 2009 the state Department of Education deducted $52,049 from the Elizabeth Board of Education’s remaining FY 2009-2010 State Aid payments to recover its share of money that it determined was inappropriately spent.
After a series of delays involving jurisdictional and other issues, Rivera won a summary judgement against Fajardo and Munoz in 2011 that compelled them to repay the $63,622 in legal costs to the Elizabeth Board of Education.
The appellate court decision upheld the assertion that Fajardo and Munoz “received, albeit indirectly, the benefit of district funds to pursue a suit they otherwise would not have pursued” and affirmed the lower court’s ruling requiring them to reimburse the school board.