Former Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney was forced to issue a published apology — and pay money — to a former political foe for comments he made online using fake profiles, per a lawsuit settlement.
But the prolific commenter, known at times as Mahwah Marty, said he still believes the things he wrote were true.
McNerney was sued by Alan Marcus, a public relations executive who was the campaign manager for Kathleen Donovan.
Donovan unseated McNerney as county executive in 2010. During Donovan’s 2014 re-election bid, McNerney allegedly used 26 made-up screen names and posted hundreds of comments under news articles that alleged that Marcus committed bribery, fraud, blackmail and exchanged county contracts for sex.
Donovan was defeated in the hotly contested race by Democrat James Tedesco, McNerney’s party-mate.
Marcus sued claiming defamation, invasion of privacy and false light, punitive damages and computer related offenses, arguing he was not a public figure.
Marcus lost his 50-year-old public relations business as a result of the comments posted by McNerney, Marcus’ attorney Joseph B. Fiorenzo said.
“His clients were leaving and the phones stopped ringing,” Fiorenzo said. “Who wants to hire a crisis manager who had a crisis of their own?”
The case was set to go to trial this spring before Bergen County Superior Court Judge Robert L. Polifroni but instead the two sides reached a settlement in late April.
Marcus sought $16 million in damages but the final settlement was less than $1 million.
“He didn’t get anywhere near what he was looking for and he had a lot of attorneys fees,” said Stephen R. Katzman, an attorney for McNerney.
The terms of the settlement also required McNerney to write an apology letter that was published June 23 in The Star-Ledger and The Record newspapers.
“In retrospect, it is clear to me this is not how political campaigns are or should be run,” McNerney wrote. “I regret my failures in this regard.”
The letter, Fiorenzo said, was important to Marcus because “having him confess publicly might deter others from engaging in this outrageous behavior.”
A lead-in to the letter that was published above it was authored by Fiorenzo’s office with input from Marcus, Fiorenzo said, to give the letter context.
McNerney, meanwhile, said he never admitted to having 26 online identities. He says he logged on to post comments, while watching ESPN, and didn’t remember the exact user name he created. One day he might’ve used Mahwah Marty, then Mahwah_Marty, etc.
“I firmly believe everything I said [in the internet comments] is true,” McNerney said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“I think there is a lot more that needs to be unpacked and I think it eventually will,” he said.
McNerney has not run for office since his defeat in 2010 and now works in the banking industry, Katzman said.
“These are comments from 2013 that involved petty politics that should’ve been long forgotten,” Katzman said.
Marcus got what he wanted, Katzman said, because McNerney stopped making online comments once the lawsuit was filed.
Marcus’ attorney, in a written statement, called this a “landmark case” that should be used by lawmakers to hold people accountable for similar actions.
“McNerney illegally cloaked himself in the anonymity of the internet to publish knowingly false accusations that recklessly disregarded the truth as part of a calculated scheme to score political points at the expense of a man he had never met,” Fiorenzo said.
“McNerney’s wrongful conduct is an abject lesson in the harm caused to victims of internet influence campaigns, and a reminder that all of us, not least of all public officials, must recognize the clear difference between healthy contentious debate and vile baseless attacks which seek only to frivolously shroud opponents in the taint of corruption.”
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