MONTVILLE, NJ - Saily Avelenda spoke before the June 11 meeting of the Denville Democrats and told the story of resigning from her position at Lakeland Bank after board member and Montville resident Joseph O’Dowd received a fundraising letter from Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen on which Frelinghuysen had written that a “ring leader” of a movement called NJ 11th for Change was employed at Lakeland.
NJ 11th for Change has had protests in front of Frelinghuysen’s office in Morristown asking for more meetings with constituents. NJ 11th’s goal, according to Avelenda, is “to demand accountability, transparency and responsiveness of our congressman.”
Avelenda says she is active in the group and told her story at the meeting, stating, “it made me realize that the story was bigger than I expected.”
Avelenda began her story by saying she was “horrified” with the results of the November election and “took it personally.”
“I thought it would correct itself, and at every point I thought somebody would do something,” she said.
She said she realized she couldn’t do something to change the votes, but she could do something in New Jersey.
She realized that Rodney Frelinghuysen was her representative, but, “It was as a shock, because, not only does he not represent my values, but he doesn’t represent my district.”
Avelenda said she thought she needed to do something in “her backyard,” so she joined NJ 11th for Change. Eventually she was on the steering committee, and in February the group filed for SuperPAC, she said.
“I was working in the background – I was the typical lawyer/paper-pusher,” she said.
Avelenda said the group held five town hall meetings in five days, and she presented a slide on Congressman Frelinghuysen’s record, but it was not that presentation that caught people’s attention. It was a sound grab of her explaining NJ 11th for Change’s filing for SuperPAC status that was recorded and aired on National Public Radio that represented her first meeting with her employers at Lakeland Bank about her involvement with NJ 11th.
She says of the meeting, “The discussion was fairly bland – ‘what are you doing, what’s going on?’ Nothing. But I learned a couple of things. Rodney Frelinghuysen is a ‘friend’ of the bank and I needed to be ‘circumspect in my activities.’ I also learned that I was not allowed to identify myself as a member of the bank, which I held to and continued to hold to until I left.”
She says on March 23, the Frelinghuysen letter was presented to her and she likened it to the day Comey was fired.
“My lawyer brain kicked in and I was thinking, ‘What? Why would you put that in writing?’” she recalled. “Don’t you have counsel to tell you not to do that? At the same time, I thought about what it meant for my job. I had 52 thoughts in the span of five minutes.”
Avelenda said that at first, the writing on the letter felt like an irrational, impulsive act on Frelinghuysen’s part, but then when she got home she and her husband thought about all the steps that had to have taken place.
“My face had never appeared in the press except for NPR’s audio grab on Feb. 24,” she said. “He had to have researched NJ 11th, google my name, go into my employer, and find someone at my employer’s with sufficient position who could do something about it. He had to send the letter to the donor’s personal address. Then he attached the article that had my name in it, and the donor brought it to my boss with the letter. This was something planned out.”
Avelenda said a second or third conversation happened that was “not as friendly as the first.” Avelenda said she had to write out a statement outlining all the ways that she was associated with NJ 11th. She said an article had listed her as a banking executive but had not stated which bank.
“I had the feeling at this point that these two pieces of my life were on a collision course and they could not reside harmoniously,” she said.
Avelenda said she felt bullied by Frelinghuysen and that the maneuver was brought about by the change in climate brought about by President Trump and the increase in bullying she feels he has brought about.
“Was it because Frelinghuysen felt cornered?” Avelenda asked the group. “He’s never really been challenged in an election. Was this a fight-or-flight response? No, I think it was something more sinister. It felt a bullying tactic. But it didn’t change my activities or commitment to NJ 11th. I think he wanted to intimidate either me or my employer or both into affecting my employment.”
Avelenda said many have decried that the situation has violated her freedom of speech rights, but she corrected those commenters to state that there is no freedom of speech right in a private employment setting.
She said the bank encourages employees to engage in civic and political activities according to their statement, but wondered why she is the only one who has to explain her off-hours political activities when there is a state senator who works at the bank.
“Why are you asking me [to explain my activities]? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because he’s white and I’m Hispanic?” she asked. “Is it because he’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat? They get paid to hold legislature during regular business hours. If I had to write a statement, I’m curious whether anyone else had to do it.”
She said she received much criticism regarding the situation as well as support, but she said, “it’s not a Hollywood script. A lot of it is messy and gray.” She also said it was not the sole reason she left her position.
“I don’t know how it felt for all of you to read it, but to live it, it was the strangest thing I’ve ever gone through,” she said. “I laughed it off when I got the letter – really – I thought it was crazy, until I put together all of those pieces and I realized my congressman tried to bully me. There’s no other word for it. He just met up with someone who doesn’t take crap.”
Avelenda thanked everyone who reached out to her, saying she was very grateful for their support. She will continue to pursue options in legal occupations, but not in banking, she told TAPinto Montville.
“This story has nothing to do with me,” she said. “It could have been anybody else who got a letter.”
TAPinto Montville reached out to Congressman Frelinghuysen’s office several times but did not receive any reply and Lakeland has stated on their Facebook page that they do not comment on current or past employees.