New Jersey Congressman Calls Bank Executive an Opposition ‘Ringleader’ in Letter to Her Employer

Saily Avelenda resigned from Lakeland Bank after her boss questioned her political activities, but she says that the letter was not her primary reason for leaving.

  • Published 16 May 2017

In March 2017, Republican Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey) singled out a New Jersey bank executive as the “ringleader” of a local campaign against him and the Trump administration, in a fundraising letter sent to a board member of the bank in question.

Frelinghuysen, who has represented the 11th district in northern New Jersey since 1995, on 21 March sent past donors a fundraising request in response to “organized forces both national and local” aiming to take Republican seats, including his own, in next year’s Congressional elections. 

In one letter, addressed to Lakeland Bank board member Joseph O’Dowd, the Congressman added a handwritten note that read:

P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!

Courtesy of NJ 11th for Change

Enclosed with the letter was a printout of this 9 March Politico story which names Saily Avelenda, then a senior vice president at Lakeland Bank, as a co-founder of the NJ 11th for Change Super PAC.

Federal Election Commission records show that Avelenda registered in February as Assistant Treasurer of the Super PAC.

In recent months, NJ 11th for Change has pressured Frelinghuysen to hold town hall meetings, and has criticized his vote in favor of the American Health Care Act on 4 May, among other activities.

Avelenda was made aware of the letter on 23 March, and told us in an interview that she was asked to write a statement to the bank’s CEO, clarifying the extent and nature of her political activities. She resigned from Lakeland Bank shortly afterwards.

Avelenda said she felt she had been singled out for scrutiny in the aftermath of the letter, but emphasized that there were “a lot of other reasons” for her resignation, and that this episode was not the primary one.

We asked both Lakeland Bank and Rep. Frelinghuysen for comment on this story, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

On 15 May, the bank posted the following to its Facebook page:

We recently received communications from members of our communities and customers concerning a news report involving an individual who identified herself as a former employee and noted her outside civic involvements. Lakeland Bank does not comment publicly on the status of our current or former employees.

However, as for civic and political engagement of our employees, Lakeland Bank’s Code of Ethics specifically provides that it is philosophy of Lakeland Bank to promote our employees’ full awareness and interest in civic and political responsibility such that each employee has the opportunity to support community activities or the political process in the manner that she or he desires.

Frelinghuysen’s campaign office appeared to confirm the authenticity of the letter and the handwritten note in a 15 May statement to WNYC radio, who first reported this story:

The Congressman wrote a brief and innocuous note at the bottom of a personal letter in regard to information that had been reported in the media. He was in no way involved in any of the bank’s business and is unaware of any of the particulars about this employee’s status with the bank.

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