Sides reach settlement in 2006 defamation suit

Sides reach settlement in 2006 defamation suit

Former police officer said Republican pol had called him racist

Neal LeStrange, a Democrat, has reached a settlement in his defamation case against former Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks, a Republican.
Neal LeStrange, a Democrat, has reached a settlement in his defamation case against former Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks, a Republican.

An unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Scotch Plains township council in 2006 has reached a $10,000 settlement in a defamation suit against former Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks.

Neal LeStrange said he was “ecstatic” over the settlement, which he says refutes a suggestion by Marks that LeStrange was anti-Semitic and racist.

The settlement ends a to-and-fro of accusations between local Democratic and Republican activists, each side accusing the other of using dirty tricks to win votes. The suit relates to revelations that, 16 years before the election, LeStrange, a former Scotch Plains police officer, attended a “Good Ole Boys Roundup,” a police officers’ social gathering in Tennessee with a history of racist antics.

LeStrange acknowledged that he attended the event, but reported to a supervisor soon after that he was disgusted by what he witnessed there and never attended another one.

During the 2006 campaign, Democratic opponents raised LeStrange’s attendance at the event, which had come out in his deposition in an unrelated 2002 discrimination suit against the Township of Scotch Plains.

In a 2006 article in the New Jersey Jewish News, Marks, a Republican, was quoted as saying, “As a mayor I’m embarrassed for the town, and as a Jewish resident this raises deep concern. I don’t want someone who went to what amounts to a Ku Klux Klan meeting for police representing me. I’m nauseated. If this fellow is elected, I’ll have to serve with him and that bothers me.”

In his defamation suit against Marks, LeStrange charged that Marks’ comments amounted to a suggestion that he might be anti-Semitic and racist, and that the comments may have cost him the election.

LeStrange originally filed a defamation lawsuit against Marks and former police chief Thomas O’Brien in 2007, charging that they had “created a false impression” of him. The suit against O’Brien was dismissed first, and in June 2009 the one against Marks was also dismissed. Marks told the Westfield Leader at that time that the suit was an “inconvenient annoyance and a political ploy” to beat him at the ballot box.

LeStrange appealed that verdict, insisting that Marks knew that his comments were false, or showed reckless disregard for the truth. Discussing the case, he in turn accused Marks of political gamesmanship. “They knew it was a lie from the get-go; it was just to influence the voters,” he told NJJN on Jan. 14.

In settling the suit, Marks did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

He told NJJN in a Jan. 19 phone interview that his insurance company offered the settlement against his wishes. He said, “I stand by everything I said to NJ Jewish News and other media outlets. If by my words or actions I helped prevent Neal LeStrange from getting a seat on the Scotch Plains Town Council, I have done the citizens of Scotch Plains an incalculable favor.”

“I’m ecstatic about the settlement,” said LeStrange, who now runs his own security firm. “I’ve lived in Scotch Plains for 53 years and I was a police officer there for 22 years, and there was never a single civilian complaint against me. Don’t you think that if I was racist or anti-Semitic, in all those years someone would have complained?”

Added LeStrange’s attorney, Daniel Grossman: “It would have been more satisfying to get a court verdict, but we’re very pleased with the outcome. We decided to settle rather than seek a court hearing because any diminution to Neal’s reputation and his standing in the community has been healed. The people who know him knew that he wasn’t anti-Semitic.”

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