Senior citizen accosted by Democratic legislators’ staffers
Senate President Steve Sweeney held a meeting with public officials and education stakeholders at the Freehold legislative office of Assembly Members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey this morning to discuss the school funding bill the three legislators are sponsoring.
Houghtaling told MMM about the meeting this morning during a phone call regarding former Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini’s call for him and Downey to join Sweeney in demanding that the U.S. Attorney and NJ Attorney General investigate the NJEA’s alleged extortion of Sweeney. Houghtaling repeatedly said that the Freehold meeting is “non-poltical.”
So why was Senator Jennifer Beck, a Republican excluded? Members of the Freehold Borough Council were invited. The state senator representing Freehold was not invited? That sounds like a political meeting with only Democrats invited. Beck’s spokesman Mike Hughes told MMM that the senator was not invited to the meeting in Freehold.
Worse than excluding Beck, Muriel Smith, 79 of Freehold and an MMM contributor, was threatened with arrest and verbally accosted for trying to ask Sweeney, Houghtaling and Downey questions about school funding, yesterday’s announcement that the NJ Education Commissioner overruled Freehold voters and ordered that $32 million in new school construction take place (with 85% of the funding coming from state taxpayers) and Sweeney’s extortion allegations against the NJEA. MMM publisher Art Gallagher asked Smith to cover the meeting after Houghtaling informed him of it, one hour before it was scheduled to start.
Smith said she was greeting warmly with hugs and kisses by members of the Freehold Borough Council. However, legislative staffers of Houghtaling and Downey treated her in threatening and disrespectful manner.
Here is Smith’s account of her experience:
I can’t believe this!….I’m three months short of turning 80 years old, and I just got warned..in a not very pleasant way… that if I stayed to ask any more questions, I was loitering in my Assemblymen and State Senator’s office! I was afraid if I didn’t leave, I would be forcibly taken out, since the last of the three men who accosted me wouldn’t even give me his name. I’m getting too old for that stuff, Art.
Let me explain! I was excited about the news yesterday that the state plans on funding all but 15% of the cost of school construction the Department of Education is mandating Freehold to do, and I wanted to know more about it. This morning, I e-mailed Senator Beck and got a message that she would call me later today with more information. Then I spoke with you, and you told me State Senator Sweeney was going to be in my legislators’ office on Main St. in Freehold around 11 this morning for a meeting, and you wanted to know more about his saying he wanted an investigation of the NJEA for extortion. Since the head of the senate would be there, I knew my legislators would also be there, so I figured I‘d just run around the corner and talk to them in person instead of just talking with Sen. Beck later on. And I said I’d ask about the extortion issue for you at the same time.
WOW, Art! Assemblymen and state funded offices aren’t what they used to be! As I came through the door, there were five or six men standing around talking. One of them, Andrew K Landman, a legislative aide, came down the steps and told me there was a private meeting and I would have to leave. I asked what the meeting was about, what with it being in my legislative office and all, and he said he couldn’t tell me. After we parlayed words for a few minutes, I asking questions, he never answering, another guy, this one Chief of Staff Joseph D. Libutti, came over and repeated the same ‘I have to leave there’s a private meeting going on’ mantra.
After all those years as an award winning investigative reporter, you know my interest was more than piqued by all of this! Here I am, a great grandmother of six, and I’ve already had, not one, but TWO guys telling me I didn’t have any right at 10:30 on a Friday morning to be in the legislative office my taxes pay for. When I brought that up to my two new friends, Mr. Libutti then told me I could go to the “mobile office” to have my constituent questions answered.
Now here is where it started to get funny, Art, and I admit I did start to chuckle even though I knew I was being thrown out. When I asked where the ‘mobile office’ was, Mr. Libutti turned to Mr. Landman and told him to “set it up.” Ok, so it’s now less than an hour before high noon, it’s about 90 degrees in the sunshine, and poor Mr. Landman had to bring a table and chair out front of the office at 35 W. Main Street and sit in the front of the office on the sidewalk forming a ‘mobile office.’ ( I did offer to get him some cold water when I went outside later but he told me he was comfortable, he did have some iced coffee with him.)
In the meantime, the plot was thickening inside. I saw State Senator Sweeney and some other people I didn’t recognize come in. So I asked to talk with him, and of course I wasn’t allowed to what with continued repeated firm requests to leave. Nor did Senator Sweeney come from the back of the office to help me, rescue me, or try to answer my questions. That’s ok, I figured, I’d wait til Sen. Beck came.
Well, I was wrong there, too. I don’t think the Senator even knew about the meeting, because even though another dozen or so folks showed up, I never did see her there.
Well, Art, I continued to say I needed some questions answered; Mr. Landman had declined to take my business card when I tried to hand it to him, but Mr. Libutti did. I began taking notes and explained that while I was there to get information as a constituent, the fact I was being thrown out of the office made me want to write a story for a newspaper! (That reportorial gene came down from my father in the mid 20th century!)
So now, a third man comes up and he’s a bit more hostile, a lot more intense, and certainly a lot less polite than the first two. Heck, he wouldn’t even give me his name. But when I said I was now interested in writing what I was experiencing for a newspaper, he then charged I had to meet an entirely different standard! Wow! I didn’t have newspaper credentials! Of course I didn’t, I tried to explain, I hadn’t come as a reporter, but boy, he was making me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He said something about I could write this for a blog, or something, but that’s all too technically challenging for me, so I’m not sure what that was about.
At any rate, this not so nice gentleman then went on to say it was a private meeting, it was none of my business, legislators have them every day of the week (REALLY???) because they have a responsibility to respect the privacy of their constituents, whatever that means, what with so many folks already in this meeting I wasn’t allowed into. He then went on to tell me that if I stayed any longer, I was LOITERING! And they could deal with that! I once again asked the purpose of the private meeting, and was once again told about the loitering thing! I did manage to get a few facts about what the state was paying for the mandated school project, but certainly not enough to know anything.
Thank goodness, Art, my mayor and council members in Freehold are wonderful people! As this unknown man continued to tell me no, you’re loitering, get out, etc, Councilwoman Sharon Shutzer, Mayor Nolan Higgins, Councilman Pat Griffiths, and a few others walk in. They all stopped to say hello to me and to tell the truth, I think they were a bit surprised at how I was being treated. They did try to stop and talk to me, but they were hustled to the back. I did start to feel a little more comfortable though; I knew none of them would ever allow me to be forcibly removed, no matter what; these are council people who love their town and respect all the people who live here.
Nor did I want to embarrass them or put them in any kind of uncomfortable position. So I left. I chatted with poor Mr. Landman sitting in the hot sun for a minute or so, then got in my car.
Just as I was leaving, I saw Assemblyman Houghtaling walk up, so naturally I got out again to make sure he knew I had just been thrown out of his office; he seemed a bit surprised by that as he rushed into the meeting….he must have been late since I already knew of at least ten to a dozen folks who were in there. He did tell me I could call him later to talk with him about any issue. I also saw Assemblywoman Downey go in at about the same time but didn’t get to speak to her at all. Never did see Senator Beck, though I waited a bit longer.
My final insult came just before I actually drove away. Another woman came to the front door, which was obviously locked, and a suited gentleman who had been in the back of the office throughout my ordeal let her in. So I gave it one last chance. I got out of my car…again….and went up to the door. Sure enough…it was locked.
And there wasn’t anybody inside who was going to open it for me.