NJ-07: Larsen sues Lance and his campaign manager over property tax accusations

By The Staff | The Save Jersey Blog

NJ-07 GOP primary voters may have seen a political ad – and accompanying mailers – from the campaign of Congressman Leonard Lance accusing repeat NJ-07 congressional challenger David Larsen of being a “serial tax dodger.”

Is the label fair?

A New Jersey Superior Court may soon decide.

This week, Save Jersey has learned that the Larsen for Congress Campaign filed a defamation action against Lance and his campaign manager, veteran N.J. Republican operative Bill Killion, in the Superior Court of Morris County. 

Larsen takes issue with being called a “notorious tax cheat” and a “serial tax-dodger,” phrases contained in the Lance campaign’s materials. He’s seeking compensatory and punitive damages against both defendants as a result. 

Leonard Lance (left) and David Larsen (right)
Leonard Lance (left) and David Larsen (right)

According to Larsen’s campaign’s Friday press release on the suit, the tax issue arises from “a real property tax bill that Larsen deferred paying when his business fell on hard times during the economic recession that devastated our economy early in the last decade.”

“Rather than lay off workers, I used the money to keep them employed by making installment payments on my real estate taxes at an 18% rate of interest – plus a penalty,” said Larsen in the campaign release. “The tax assessor later confirmed in writing that my taxes were paid in full; a copy of that letter was dispatched to the Lance campaign. They ignored it completely and continued the attacks.”

Winning a defamation suit when you’re a public figure – or an individual in a public controversy like a campaign – can be extremely difficult.

The complainant needs to show not just that there were false, published statements made by the defendants but also that those statements were communicated with a malicious intent. When determining whether “actual malice” was present, “the constitutionally mandated standard of fault … is the defendant’s knowledge that the defamatory statement is false or his reckless disregard of its truth or falsity” according to the landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan U.S. Supreme Court case.

It’s an objectively difficult standard to meet given the high value placed on First Amendment rights in the public political arena by American courts and, in most cases, the subjectivity of the charges.

In this case, the Court will need to examine the words “notorious” and “serial.”

Larsen previously acknowledged having been late on his tax payments but, at the time, offered a somewhat different rationale for the delays.

“I wanted to let people know I’m being affected by this,” Larsen told PolitickerNJ.com back in 2010 during a previous run at Lance. “I’ve been paying toward the principal; I owe $22,000 now (toward taxes on his Tewksbury residence), and the payment should be done in full. I have been paying taxes but I own properties in New Jersey, and I got behind.”

Lance’s litigated campaign materials allege Larsen was late paying property taxes in Tewksbury Township over twenty times.