METHUEN — Peter Caruso, an Andover attorney investigating claims of defamation by city councilors, said Wednesday a line has been crossed amid controversies surrounding the Police Department.

Caruso, a First Amendment attorney and free-speech advocate who has worked on behalf of The Eagle-Tribune and the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said officials in Methuen "must know what they say is true or have reason to believe it is true – you cannot just make it up. That line cannot be crossed."

Caruso, who represents the police Superior Officers Union and police chief, said after weeks of review of records, he determined "private and public individuals in Methuen have crashed over and through this defamation line."

The letter from Caruso is the latest development in an ongoing battle between the Police Superior Officers Union and the City Council over a contract that was first negotiated and approved in 2017, overturned in 2018, sent to arbitration in 2019 and renegotiated in 2020. The contract is one of many issues in the department under scrutiny by the council, which approved funding for a full audit of the Police Department, scheduled to start next week.

Caruso's comments come in the wake of a letter he sent earlier this week to all nine members of the City Council and at least one private citizen. The letter orders recipients to save all digital records relating to the Police Department going back to Dec. 31, 2018, as he investigates whether to file a defamation lawsuit.

City councilors Steve Saba and James McCarty, as well as former School Committee member and City Council candidate D.J. Deeb, all of whom received the letter, decried it as an intimidation tactic they will  likely ignore.

Although Caruso said in the letter, delivered Tuesday, that he is investigating defamation, invasion of privacy and other issues, he declined to comment on the details.

Instead, he sent a statement which read, in part: "My years of experience have caused me concern for my clients’ reputations."

Those clients are the Methuen Police Superior Officers Union and its leaders, Greg Gallant and Joe Aiello, as well as Police Chief Joseph Solomon. They all deferred comment to Caruso.

Mayor Neil Perry said Wednesday he hadn't read the letter and wasn't prepared to comment on it.

In the letter, Caruso also asked for any communications to or from the blog Methuen Confidential, which was highly critical of the Police Department until it was shut down a few months ago. The identity of the person who ran the blog remains a mystery.

On Wednesday, Deeb told The Eagle-Tribune that he "had no ties to Methuen Confidential," but did share some of the anonymous author's postings on social media.

Deeb called the letter from Caruso "outrageous," adding that if a defamation suit is actually filed, he plans to file a counter-suit and use the anti-SLAPP statute as the basis for his counterclaim.

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national organization, anti-SLAPP suits are meant to counter frivolous and often expensive lawsuits filed to intimidate and silence critics.

Deeb said that in recent years he has been vocal in his criticism of the Police Department and has filed numerous public records requests for expenditures in the department and information about the Superior Officers Union contract.

"One of the major issues in my campaign was the police contracts," Deeb said, referring to last fall's election. He lost in a four-way race for two seats. Joel Faretra and McCarty were elected.

"I won't be bullied by this — by the union or the chief," Deeb said. "I'm under no legal obligation to provide the information being asked for, nor will I, and I plan to completely disregard the letter (from Caruso)."

Councilors McCarty and Saba, who have also been highly critical of the Police Department, on Wednesday questioned the timing of the letter.

"Chasing the writer of Methuen Confidential rather than focusing on COVID-19 is not productive," McCarty said. "This is the second or third of these preservation-of-evidence letters I have received. This doesn't change anything."

Saba agreed, adding on Facebook, "At a time when so many people are suffering as a result of COVID-19, and the city faces devastating losses of life as well as financial instability, it is unfortunate that the union is unwilling to work with city officials to come to a resolution."

The mayor and the Superior Officers Union have reached an agreement on a new contract, but it still needs City Council approval. As soon as restrictions on public meetings are lifted, the council intends to hold a public hearing to get input from citizens and then meet to discuss and possibly vote on the final deal.

 

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