As It Happens

New Jersey congressman targets local activist in letter to her employer

A powerful Republican congressman targeted a New Jersey activist where she works in a move she says was aimed at silencing citizens who speak out against the Trump administration.
Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican congressmen from New Jersey, wrote a letter to a bank, naming one of its employees as an anti-Trump activist. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

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A Republican congressman targeted a New Jersey activist where she works in a move she says was aimed at silencing citizens who speak out against the Trump administration.

Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, chair of the powerful House appropriations committee, sent out a fundraising form letter in March soliciting donations from supporters.

"But let's be clear that there are organized forces — both national and local — who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government, economic growth, stronger national security," the letter read, according to WNYC. 

When I first saw the letter, I was actually just stunned.- Saily Avelenda,

But in a copy sent to a board member at the Lakeland Bank in West Caldwell, N.J., the congressman put an asterisk next to the word "local." At the bottom of the letter, he scrawled in pen: "P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!"

Attached was a news article quoting Saily Avelenda, then the bank's senior vice-president and assistant general counsel, about her work with a citizens' activist organization called NJ 11th for Change.
(Saily Avelenda)

The group has publicly opposed the Donald Trump administration and pushed Frelinghuysen to hold town halls with constituents.

"When I first saw the letter, I was actually just stunned, stunned that I would be targeted and stunned that he would almost be so inept just to put this onto a piece of paper," Avelenda told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"To find my name and to connect it with my employer and then to look for a person of influence at my employer to whom to direct the letter, I thought that was a very calculated move."

Saily Avelenda is a member of the activist organization N.J. 11th For Change. (N.J. 11th For Change.)

The board member passed the letter to the bank's CEO, who brought it to Avelenda's boss, who confronted her about it.

Her boss, she said, described the congressman as "a friend of the bank."

"They were uncomfortable with my political activity," she said. "I think this letter just heightened the awareness and I was asked to explain my activities and put together a statement to the CEO."

Avelenda has since left the bank, in part so she could continue her political activism without butting heads with her employer — although she says she was not fired or asked to quit. 

The bank has issued a statement saying it does not comment on the status of its employees.

Avelenda noted that quitting is not an option for everyone, and she's left with a sour taste in her mouth about an elected official wielding his power against a vocal citizen. 

"I'm not paid by any organization. I'm not a candidate. I'm not part of a Democratic-funded or any party-funded group. I'm a citizen who banded together, got together, with a group of like-minded citizens to try to force our congressman to be accountable for his voting and for his record," she said.

"We do this as a labour of love, so to me it felt not just like an attack on me personally, but an attack on an activist culture that's arisen since the 2016 election, and really an attack on citizens."

Frelinghuysen did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment.

In a statement to WNYC, his campaign office wrote: "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."


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