Melham: NJAM — apologize and retract or prepare to face a defamation suit

MELHAM Observer file photo

Belleville Mayor Michael Melham, who is certainly no stranger to pushing back against rivals, is demanding an immediate retraction and a published apology from the Star-Ledger and or is threatening a defamation suit against one of the state’s most powerful and widely read newspapers and online news sites.

And from the looks of it, he may have a claim.

In the aftermath of his original victory in 2018, Melham sued his then-opponent, the late Mayor Raymond Kimble and several of those embedded within the former mayor’s campaign for vicious, untrue and illegal campaign mailers.

While the suit continues to move slowly through the justice system, Melham did reach an out of court settlement, for an undisclosed amount, with Kimble. More recently, according to comments made following his recent victory, Melham appears to not be opposed to holding now defeated Second Ward Councilman, Steve Rovell, and those associated with his campaign, to the same standard.

A few weeks ago, the Star-Ledger and — all under the umbrella of New Jersey Advance Media — published a story, Melham’s lawyer says, that inaccurately portrays a lawsuit filed by the township’s zoning officer. The headline of the story read: “NJ mayor lied to lied to investigators about illegal billing to get back at zoning officer, lawsuit says.”

But the thing is, the attorney says nowhere in the suit is it alleged Melham lied to investigators. The Observer has obtained a copy of the suit and has verified that no such accusation is stated within the claims.

In a letter to Anthony Attrino, the author of the story, who at one point was the editor of The Observer in the mid-2000s, and who may not have necessarily written the headline to the story, attorney Marlo J. Hittman, of Livingston, demands a public apology and a retraction of the original story by the folks at NJ Advance Media.

“This headline is false and defamatory per-se and is inconsistent with the text of the news article to which it is affixed,” Hittman wrote in a tersely prepared letter. “Your headline falsely makes it appear that Mr. Melham lied to the attorney general, which would be a potential crime. The headline is adjacent to a photograph of Mr. Melham pictured directly under the title sitting at the dais at a council meeting in front of the Township of Belleville seal, making the impact of the false headline all that more egregious.”

Hittman continues: “I am hereby requesting an immediate retraction and a published apology to Mayor Michael Melham since the title is not only misleading, but contains a complete falsehood which you either intentionally or recklessly ignored. Beyond the misleading title, your article states the whistleblower lawsuit alleges, ‘Mayor Michael Melham lied to the state Attorney General’s office, sparking an unnecessary investigation.’ However, the lawsuit makes no such allegation. In fact the complaint at issue, attached, is absolutely silent as to the nature of an attorney general investigation and its findings for or against anyone.

“There are no allegations as to what was said or wasn’t said, and certainly no allegations that false statements of any kind were made to the attorney general. In fact, the complaint is completely silent as to the nature and quality of the statements made to the attorney general. It speaks to the effect of the investigation on the claimant, but not the nature of the investigation or its findings. In short, the headline is a false fabrication that has nothing to do with the article upon which it reports.”

In his letter to Attrino,  Hittman acknowledges the agency’s right to report on the suit — but only the facts that lie within.

It’s an issue now, she says, because of the misleading headline.

The lawsuit in question was filed in Superior Court of Essex County at the end of August by Frank DeLorenzo, the township’s zoning officer. In it, he alleges the mayor took retaliatory steps against him because of building permits he denied over a Melham-owned property after the mayor took office in 2018.

He alleges Melham was displeased with the rejection and, as such, created an oversight authority for the township’s zoning and construction departments. He also alleges Melham improperly handled overtime requests DeLorenzo submitted in 2019.

DeLorenzo asks the court to prohibit any further “retaliatory” actions, compensatory and punitive damages, attorney costs and any other relief the court deems just.

Attempts to obtain comments from Attrino were unsuccessful.

Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.