Parties settle Internet harassment complaint

Staff Writer

By kathy baratta

HOWELL — A civil suit filed by former Township Manager Jacqueline Ascione against resident Ginger Hoff-meier, of West Farms Road, has been settled.

Ascione filed the action last year after Hoffmeier posted statements on a privately owned Internet site alleging impropriety and favoritism on Ascione’s part toward male employees of the township.

Without disclosing the exact amount of the settlement, Ascione told a Greater Media Newspapers reporter, "I am very pleased with the settlement. I’m not getting rich off of it, but it was a five-figure amount, and I wouldn’t have settled for $10,000."

Even though the settlement was reached without a formal ruling of liability on anyone’s part, Ascione went on to say that she hoped the settlement would "send a message about accountability."

"Hopefully it sends the message that these kinds of lies cannot be told," she said, adding that she sees the settlement offer as an acknowledgment that "I was right and she was wrong."

For her part, Hoffmeier said she sees the settlement as a business decision made for her by her homeowner’s insurance company, a decision she said she is not happy with.

She said she was disappointed with the legal system and the control the insurance companies exercise over that system. Hoffmeier said she wanted the matter to be heard in a court of law and to be proven guilty or found innocent.

"The settlement served no one other than the fact the insurance company limited its liability — it’s a bad situation," Hoffmeier said. "We, as individuals, are no longer components or part of the deal. If you are insured, anyone can sue you for anything because your insurance company is most likely to settle the case because it’s cheaper than going to court. The shame is that all insurance companies, not just mine, are not concerned with right or wrong but how cheaply they can get out of a situation."

Far from being contrite, Hoffmeier said she would continue to speak out against public officials when she believes it is necessary.

"I will continue to speak my mind as is my right," she said.

Earlier this month a Bergen County judge, citing the importance of free political discussion, dismissed a lawsuit brought against a Bergen County man who let anonymous individuals criticize public officials on an Internet site he had established.

The lawsuit was brought by public officials from Emerson who sought damages, claiming defamation, harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The plaintiffs’ attorney indicated that an appeal might be filed in that case.

Ascione, now a private citizen, was formally discharged from her duties as Howell’s manager last April.

Prior to the governing body’s formal act of firing her in April, Ascione had, in March, filed a tort claim notice in the amount of $2 million against the township and members of the Township Council, alleging "wrongful acts" arising from a vote by the council taken in January to terminate her employment.

The tort claim notice is required when a public body or entity is going to be sued. Ascione said that at this point she has not made a final decision as to whether she will proceed with legal action against the parties charged. Under the law, she has two years from the time of filing the notice of claim to take any further action in the matter.