Former City Manager Jerome Inderwies recently filed a lawsuit alleging he was defamed by the City of Cape May and two of its officials, Deputy Mayor Stacy Sheehan and City Manager Michael Voll. An article in the March 2nd edition of the Star & Wave detailed the charges in Mr. Inderwies’s complaint arising from certain stipend awards he made to City employees (including himself) in 2020. The awards were made in recognition of the employees’ work for the COAH (Council on Affordable Housing) program administered by the City.
Mr. Inderwies’ complaint centers on the defendants’ attempts to have his conduct in granting the awards characterized as criminal and pressing those assertions with state and local authorities to have Mr. Inderwies investigated and prosecuted. In the case of Deputy Mayor Sheehan, Mr. Inderwies also alleges her acts were in retaliation for his failure to re-appoint her brother, who had been demoted under a prior administration, as police chief. Mr. Inderwies claims the acts taken to damage his reputation and standing in the local community were part of a conspiracy to prevent him from running for future office.
Despite his long-term contract, Mr. Inderwies effectively was removed from office at the outset of the new administration in 2021. He has consistently maintained that no criminal behavior was involved in the awards, a position that now seems to have been vindicated after investigations by the authorities last year resulted in no charges. Thus, considering his long-standing service to the City and his seemingly tarnished reputation over the past year, Mr. Inderwies’s filing of a defamation suit is understandable.
My purpose here is not to delve into the merits of Mr. Inderwies’ case, as it has just begun. His complaint states a sufficient cause of action for defamation, and if its averments are true, it would demonstrate reprehensible conduct that needs to be redressed. However, the brief statements in initial pleadings simply establish the legal sufficiency of the claims—they are not meant to provide detailed evidence. If the suit proceeds, fact development will take place in the discovery and trial phases of the litigation. At that point, additional material will come to light, including testimony given under oath. If the preponderance of the evidence supports Mr. Inderwies’s claims, he will win. If it does not, he will not.
Last week another article on this subject appeared in a local news blog that has consistently echoed the stipend impropriety mantra adopted by the current City administration. Unfortunately, that article misconstrued the nature of the legal process set in motion by Mr. Inderwies’s complaint. It also belittled the seriousness of the charges being leveled by characterizing them as a mere “laundry list of grievances,” and then it devoted most attention to exculpatory statements from the defendants and derogatory comments about Mr. Inderwies’s tactics and his counsel. In short, the article discounted the merits of the suit before it had any chance to unfold.
Mr. Inderwies’ case is important if only for the issues it raises about integrity in the Cape May City government, and thus it deserves the due process of the legal system. His claims should not be tried prematurely by journalists, no matter how appealing that may be to some more interested in spin-doctoring than serving justice.
“Trial by press” is inconsistent with our core value that justice is best served through the rule of law.
James A. Testa
Cape May, NJ