What started as a protest by fewer than a dozen people in Middle Township against an unpopular toll increase scheme in January 2008 wound up costing taxpayers $185,206 after a school official asked police to arrest the protesters.
Settlement documents reviewed recently show that gubernatorial candidate Seth Grossman and nine other members of the libertarian-leaning political group he founded split a $50,000 settlement in July 2011 absolving the Middle Township Police Department and other township officials of wrongdoing.
Another $50,000 was paid to Grossman’s attorney, Robert Loefflad, and co-counsel Paul R. Porreca Sr. by the Middle Township School District on behalf of former district Business Administrator/Board of Education Secretary Walter Landgraf in October 2011.
The balance of the money went to various legal fees and costs, with the largest single share — $77,048 — going to the attorneys of the Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, Barker, Scott, Gelfand and James of Linwood, which represented the township and school district.
The suit grew out of a small protest against an unpopular toll-hike scheme proposed by then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine. Corzine’s plan would have paid off about half of the state’s debt through a long-term lease of the state’s toll roads that came with sharply higher tolls.
Liberty and Prosperity 1776, the group Grossman founded, had planned to oppose the scheme at a January 2008 “town hall” meeting scheduled for the Performing Arts Center at Middle Township High School.
But once there, the group and Bergen County conservative activist Steve Lonegan were asked to leave by Landgraf, who claimed the property was the private property of the school district. When they refused, township police arrested Grossman and Lonegan and charged them with defiant trespass.
YouTube videos of these middle-aged men being led off in handcuffs helped spark additional protests, and Corzine later shelved the proposal.
Middle Township Municipal Prosecutor Mary D’Arcy Bittner later requested the charges be dismissed and both the township and its Board of Education jointly offered “their sincere apologies for any distress or humiliation the arrests have caused them.”
Grossman and Lonegan filed tort claims, but only Grossman followed through with a suit, alleging civil rights violations.
In the suit, Grossman and other litigants pointed to another group that had been allowed inside the township Performing Arts Center “Save Our State,” or SOS. This group was ostensibly a similar political advocacy group, except it supported Corzine’s plan and was linked to the governor.
SOS was headed by Jennifer Godoski, who had served as a top-level state Department of Transportation employee under Corzine until leaving her job and joining SOS. When the group disclosed its donor lists, it revealed Corzine had provided $500,000 of its $1 million.
Grossman on Thursday said he brought the suit to find out who ordered the arrests and prevent future arrests. Grossman said he had suspected Corzine or his staff of ordering the arrests, but he said Landgraf took responsibility in a deposition. Corzine was named in initial suits, but claims against him were dropped.
Grossman described the litigation as “two years of stonewalling,” and claimed defense attorneys did everything to make the matter more expensive. “We wanted a non-monetary settlement,” Grossman added. “We wanted to be able to explain to the police and kids in high school the importance of respecting the First Amendment, and those non-monetary settlements were rejected at the beginning.”
Loefflad, who at the time was Grossman’s law partner, said the $50,000 in legal fees was “much less than I originally billed.” He is now with Ford, Flower, Hasbrouck and King in Northfield.
This year, Grossman is the only Republican who has mounted a primary campaign challenge to Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Grossman has run on a variety of issues, including refusing to honor billions of dollars of state debt not directly authorized by voters, capping public pensions at $50,000, equal state funding for all schools, and reducing tolls to the level needed to fund the tolled roadway.
Requests for comment were not returned Thursday afternoon by Middle Township administrators. Rebecca D. Winkelstein, attorney for the Middle Township Board of Education, referred questions late Thursday to district Superintendent Michael J. Kopakowski, who could not be reached for comment.
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