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Media pounces on mayor’s alleged ‘sexting’

Accuser lodges allegations at council meeting

Amid widespread press coverage, a former employee of the City of Bayonne who previously worked on Mayor James Davis’s mayoral campaign publicly accused Mayor Davis of allegedly sending her sexually explicit text messages both during the campaign and while she worked for the city, between 2013 and 2015. The alleged victim, Stacie Percella, who worked in the city’s public works department until she was terminated in December of 2016, called for the mayor’s resignation at a city council meeting on May 17.
“Mr. Mayor, again, resign from your position because my truth never changes,” said Percella, at times growing irate when city council members tried to interrupt. “I’m the victim here, okay?”
Mayor James Davis, through his spokesperson, Amit Jani of Vision Media, has not denied the claims, but said the messages were “harmless, playful banter between two adults,” that Percella’s allegations are “part of an orchestrated campaign to make millions of dollars off of Bayonne taxpayers and destroy [his] reputation,” and that their friendship, which dates back decades, has “never been physical in nature.” Percella, however, argued that the messages amount to sexual harassment.
Percella is currently seeking $450,000 in damages, plus attorney’s fees, in a 2014 lawsuit against the city in which she claims discrimination and sexual harassment. The complaint did not name then candidate James Davis for sexual harassment, but rather two former city officials. Mayor Davis took office July 1, 2014, after winning the June 10 runoff election against former Mayor Mark Smith. The suit was filed on June 9, 2014. After 17 years at city hall, Percella was fired from her public works position in December, 2016. City officials said Percella was fired for inappropriate workplace behavior. Percella has since filed an appeal in administrative court for wrongful termination.

Demands resignation

Percella, who could not be reached for comment, did not indicate publicly that she was seeking justice in the form of damages, only that she wanted Mayor James Davis to resign.
Representing Percella in these cases was former business administrator under Mayor Smith, Peter Cresci, who went on to represent three other employees terminated by the Davis Administration in cases brought against the city, all of which were unsuccessful.
Cresci, a frequent critic of Mayor Davis and the current city council, was temporarily suspended in November from practicing law in NJ. Currently representing Percella is Christine Finnegan, an attorney at Cresci’s law firm. In April, Cresci filed a legal complaint against the city on behalf of himself and another resident, accusing the city of violating a residency ordinance that requires city employees to live in Bayonne within one year of hiring.

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“Mr. Mayor, again, resign from your position because my truth never changes.” – Stacie Percella
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The entire controversy

The Entire Controversy Doctrine, which every state has codified into its law books, requires litigants such as Percella to present all evidence relevant to a claim at one time. The doctrine is meant to promote judicial efficiency and fairness to both parties, while preventing parties from strategically withholding evidence. Percella said she forgot about the text messages from Davis until she recently searched her phone on an unrelated matter.
That Percella did not include this evidence from 2013 in her 2014 complaint could raise questions about her motivations. Her strategy does not suggest she is seeking additional damages. So why, after three years, did she bring up the sexually explicit texts?
While it is not uncommon for victims of sexual harassment or violence to come forward years, even decades later, for fear of retaliation or being unfairly shamed, it is very common for the victim’s legal team to attack the defendant for anything and everything. Percella cited fear of retaliation in other reports, and her lawsuit alleges the city created a “hostile workplace environment” for her. City officials have likened the constant legal barrage by Cresci’s firm to a vendetta. Allegations of sexual harassment and unlawful termination, however, are much more serious than, say, an issue with a residency statute.

The strategy

If Percella does seek damages through litigation for a sexual harassment suit against Davis, then her strategy is unusual. The normal process would look something like her 2014 complaint. First, legal claims were made through a judicial process, and then local media covered them. The process this time was reversed.
Media outlets were notified first, with two digital news outlets reporting the allegations against Mayor Davis for sexual harassment. Newspapers, meanwhile, shied away from publishing such scandalous accusations against Mayor Davis without Percella going on record. Then, at the city council meeting on May 17, 2017, she officially went on record. However, doing so would not seem to bolster her 2014 lawsuit against the city, because the new evidence may be inadmissible, according to City Attorney Jay Coffey.
Percella’s strategy lends credence to Davis’s spokesperson’s suggestion that her allegations are politically motivated, because Mayor Davis is up for re-election in June of 2018. “I have all the proof, and I didn’t tarnish Jimmy’s reputation,” said Percella at the council meeting. “He did that himself.”

The upshot

Right now, no one except Davis and Percella know the full extent of their text conversations. Until Percella submits them as evidence to a court or Davis releases his messages, it will remain that way.
The extent to which Davis’s sexually explicit text messages legally constitute sexual harassment is up to the courts, not the city council or Bayonne voters.
Mayor Davis has remained steadfast in his promise to facilitate development. But the school district’s financial woes and rising taxes may be on the top of voters’ minds when they vote for the next mayor in June of 2018. The texting scandal now makes the mayor more vulnerable than he already is.
He won the election in 2014 by a slim margin. Critics and hopeful mayoral candidates are now circling city hall like vultures while the question remains if Davis did anything explicitly wrong.
If Percella believes the mayor did something illegal, the courts are where those complaints are heard. If she wants only a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” from the public, she’s right where she needs to be.

Rory Pasquariello may be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com.

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