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Activist resigns after congressman writes letter to employer

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2014, file photo, U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., attends a joint meeting of Congress in the House of Representatives chamber at the Capitol in Washington. Saily Avelenda, a New Jersey woman who joined a group urging Frelinghuysen to distance himself from President Donald Trump's policies, said Monday, May 15, 2017, she quit her job at Lakeland Bank after Frelinghuysen's fundraising letter to the bank included a handwritten note saying a "ringleader" of the protest movement worked there, Monday, May 15, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A woman who joined a group critical of a Republican congressman and President Donald Trump’s policies says she quit her job after the congressman referred to her in a fundraising letter to her employer.

Saily Avelenda, who worked as an attorney for Lakeland Bank, said Monday that a handwritten note at the bottom of a March letter from Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen to a bank board member said a “ringleader” of the protest group worked there.

Avelenda said she was disbelieving at first when she discovered the letter’s existence but then began to feel she had been targeted. She said she didn’t publicly discuss where she worked during her activities with the group.

“I had been involved in sort of the back side of what we were doing,” she told The Associated Press. “A lot of people were on the front lines, but I wasn’t part of that. For him to get my name and find my employer, that took some effort.

“It was kind amateurish,” she added. “‘Ringleader’ was weird, sort of a 1970s phrase. It was kind of surreal.”

Avelenda is part of NJ 11th For Change, which refers to Frelinghuysen’s district number. The group has criticized Frelinghuysen for not holding in-person town halls to discuss issues including the GOP health care plan.

She said she wasn’t asked to resign but being confronted about her outside activities made her uncomfortable and was a factor in her resignation.

Frelinghuysen, a longtime member of Congress, chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“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,” Frelinghuysen’s campaign office said in a statement released to WNYC-FM in New York, which was the first to report the letter Monday. “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.”

Lakeland Bank didn’t return a message seeking comment Monday. Lakeland has about 50 branches in New Jersey and one in New York state.

In a tweet, the company said it wouldn’t comment on the status of a current or former employee but said every bank employee has “the opportunity to support community activities or the political process in the manner that he or she desires.”

Avelenda, 44, said she was born in the United States to Cuban exiles who vote Republican. She said her mother was “livid” when she heard about the letter. She said she blames Frelinghuysen for putting the bank “in the middle.”

“Is this the new normal now, where individuals who speak their mind are attacked and targeted by their members of Congress?” she asked. “This isn’t the way politics should work.”

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