Opinions, Accusations Attacked and Defended in Clarkstown Lawsuit

Rockland Republican Chairman Vincent Reda, Rockland County Legislator Frank Sparaco and Clarkstown Highway Superintendent Wayne Ballard, at a press conference about tapes. Patch file photo
Rockland Republican Chairman Vincent Reda, Rockland County Legislator Frank Sparaco and Clarkstown Highway Superintendent Wayne Ballard, at a press conference about tapes. Patch file photo
A lawsuit winding its way through the courts in Rockland pits two Clarkstown gadflies against three politicians and a local businessman over campaign-season polemics.

The plaintiffs are Clarkstown Highway Superintendent Wayne Ballard, Mark Mondelli, owner of Mark’s Onsite Truck and Equipment Repair in New City, Rockland County Legislator Frank Sparaco and Rockland Republican Chairman Vincent Reda.

The defendants are Patch bloggers Michael Hull  and Anthony Mele.  Hull is a Bardonia resident. Mele lives in Spring Valley.

The lawsuit filed in November 2013 alleges that posts Hull and Mele wrote on New City Patch and on Facebook in the fall "express what appear to the reader to be facts but which are actually opinion" and are deliberately and recklessly put in a context to imply wrongdoing.

"Freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell fire in a crowded theater; freedom of religion does not give one the right to practice cannibalism even if it is part of one's religion; and freedom of the press does not give one the right to tell falsehoods," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Duncan Rogers Lee II.

William Bave, Hull's attorney, answered the suit Jan. 17 by denying wrongdoing and arguing Hull is pursuing his First Amendment rights. Mele is being defended by  Dan Bertolino.

Lee said in the complaint that the blogs contain statements about the plaintiffs which "directly and indirectly cast them in a false light and which directly and indirectly falsely accuse them of wrongdoing, unethical behavior and criminal activity."

For example, the suit quoted a September blog post by Mele: "The recent expose involving Legislator Frank Sparaco manipulating absentee ballots and a Board of Elections Commissioner seemingly aiding and abetting voter intimidation and fraud has become the symbol of everything wrong, and the picture of sickening corruption in Rockland County."

And, in response to a comment on that blog, Mele said "The FBI swooped up these folks."

The suit complains that Hull cherry-picked parts of a public meeting transcript to twist their meaning. And he used phrases such as "It now appears crystal clear" to make opinion seem like fact, the suit alleges.

In fact, the plaintiffs' attorney states, Sparaco has never been charged with impropriety relating to absentee ballots, never been named in a lawsuit or criminal complaint about it, and has never investigated or arrested by the FBI. Nor did he do political or personal activities while working at his community liaison job at the town's Highway Department, the suit says.

"Alleged overcharging" and "apparent markup" are two of the phrases Hull used to cloak personal accusations against Mark's Onsite Truck and Repair, the suit says, quoting this sentence from Hull's blog: "These vendor charges, and particularly those from Mark's Onsite Truck and Repair, may be perfectly legitimate. Yet there appears to be ample concern…"

The suit also gets into the whole controversy surrounding Sparaco's taping of discussions with other county officials he feared were bribing or threatening him.

Bave called the whole lawsuit "frivolous."

Among other things, he said a reasonable reader would conclude the blog posts, written during campaign season, were Hull's opinions. Also, Hull's blog posts are protected by the U.S. and New York state constitutions.

Furthermore, he accused the plaintiffs of bringing the lawsuit to "stifle legitimate criticism of their actions." He said the fact that the chairman of the county Republican Party is named as a plaintiff but not referenced in the complaint "indicates the political nature of this litigation."

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs ask for "monitory" damages for causing the plaintiffs mental anguish, embarrassment and emotional injury, for loss of compensation and financial harm.

They also ask the court to order Mele and Hull to stop any further dissemination of the defamatory statements "of implied wrongdoing created through manipulation of facts by publishing selected wording out of context and selective highlighting."

For his part, Bave requested the judge make the plaintiffs pay court costs and attorney's fees for Hull and impose sanctions "to insure that those who govern will not be allowed to censor their critics."

The deadline for both sides to file all documents they want to be considered in the case is Feb. 24. A judge has not yet been named. 

Related articles ---

Politicial Corruption or Politics As Usual In Rockland 

Release of Tape Excerpts Brings Promises of Lawsuits

Borelli Blasts GOP After Removal From Committee

Malone Files Defamation Lawsuit Against Sparaco, Ballard, GOP Leaders


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