METHUEN — Four city councilors are using $6,000 from the city's legal budget to retain an attorney to defend them from a lawsuit local police are threatening against them.
Last month, Andover attorney Peter Caruso sent a letter to all nine city councilors and at least one private citizen to announce he is conducting an investigation on behalf of the heads of the patrolmen's and superior officers' unions, as well as police Chief Joseph Solomon.
The probe, Caruso said, centers around statements made by some city councilors that could rise to the level of libel, defamation and invasion of privacy.
McCarty said Mayor Neil Perry approved the use of the $6,000, which is a retainer that would be used once an actual lawsuit is filed against the councilors. The councilors are considered indemnified employees, meaning their legal fees would be covered by the city.
On June 1, attorney Jeffrey Robbins, of the firm Saul, Ewing, Arnstrein and Lehr, responded to Caruso's letter. He said he is representing city councilors Steve Saba, James McCarty, D.J. Beauregard and Mike Simard, all of whom have been critical of extremely generous police union contracts and other matters within the department. And he said Caruso's allegations are a baseless attempt at intimidation meant to shut down criticism of the police.
"First, your letter identifies absolutely no statement and no action by any Methuen City Councilor, or anyone else, acting in any capacity whatsoever, that is defamatory, an invasion of privacy or actionable in any way at all," wrote Robbins, whose firm has 16 offices in nine states and Washington, D.C.
Robbins, who is known locally for representing former Methuen Mayor James Jajuga in a defamation and libel suit against Valley Patriot publisher Tom Duggan, cited a conversation he had with Caruso during which, "I repeatedly asked you to identify a single such statement or action, and you did not do so. I infer that the reason for this is that no such statement or conduct exists."
Robbins further wrote,"I have too much respect for you to think that you would ever file a frivolous lawsuit, but if your clients choose to do so, they should expect not only that it will be vigorously defended but that a request for sanctions in the form of an award of my clients' attorney's fees would be forthcoming."
Responding to the letter, Caruso, who is a well-known as a First Amendment lawyer who has defended media companies, including The Eagle-Tribune, said that while he doesn't want to try the case in the press, the letter he wrote was not frivolous.
"As much as the Council would like to litigate this matter through the press, our clients will simply not be baited into such an exercise," he said in an email. "Our office has a well-established history of advancing only meritorious claims in this arena. To suggest otherwise is false and disingenuous."
He went on to say that "vigorous public discourse is an essential tenet of our invaluable First Amendment rights. However, the statements that we are investigating appear to have deviated from any such protected speech. ... Personal attacks and unfounded allegations of criminal activity, disclosures of legally protected private information to the public with wanton disregard for the law, all fall outside of the roles public officials and their governing duties."
Concerning accusations of intimidation, he said, "the actions being undertaken on behalf of our clients are quite the opposite of intimidation – they are measured and controlled, unlike numerous statements by public officials."
In an interview Wednesday, Robbins, also a First Amendment attorney, said the letter from Caruso is a "fast ball thrown at the heads of the entire City Council, and the entire city of Methuen. If you can scare the council, you are subverting good government. It's intimidation 101."
City Councilor Saba said he and three other councilors hired a lawyer to protect themselves and taxpayers, saying Caruso's letter was "the most frivolous attack on us doing our job and a wasteful move by them."
Councilor D.J. Beauregard agreed, saying it is the job of the council "to provide oversight" and to hold city employees accountable to the taxpayers.
"We will not be intimidated or silenced ... especially as we uncover what we perceive to be instances of wasteful spending and corruption at the hands of the department's leadership."