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Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski
Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski
Miriam Wasser

Former Nowakowski Staffer Threatened to Sue Phoenix Urbanist for Defamation

Phoenix gadfly Sean Sweat’s effort to recall city Councilmember Michael Nowakowski has sparked an ugly public feud between the activist and local politician.

Shortly after Sweat launched his campaign to oust Nowakowski in August, the councilmember's former top aide sent the activist a cease-and-desist letter, threatening a libel suit. Sweat on Monday shared the letter with local media.

In the September 11 letter, Layla Ressler, Nowakowski’s former chief of staff, claimed through legal counsel that Sweat falsely implied in a radio interview and public document that she was the subject of a criminal investigation. Ressler alleges Sweat’s statements amount to defamation, attorney Jack Wilenchik wrote to Sweat.

Nowakowski, elected in 2007, represents a district in southwest Phoenix.

Sweat denies Ressler’s accusation, insisting his statements concerning “investigations” referred to stories published in the Arizona Republic, not any sort of criminal probe.

He believes the cease-and-desist letter is part of an intimidation campaign by Nowakowski’s allies that has ramped up as the campaign edges closer to the 1,337 signatures needed to trigger a recall election. In October,  Sweat began alleging that people close to Nowakowski called his employer, Intel, and inquired whether his activism represented the company.

Nowakowski did not respond to request to comment.

Wilenchik's letter cites two specific instances of alleged defamation by Sweat. The first example is a statement Sweat gave during an interview on Phoenix public radio station 91.5 KJZZ about his campaign to recall Nowakowski.

In the interview, Sweat referred to the councilmember’s “former chief of staff” as one of the subjects of a May 10, 2018, Arizona Republic story concerning accusations of favoritism by the Phoenix Board of Adjustment. According to Wilenchik's letter, the statement implied that Ressler "was under criminal investigation."

The letter also cites Sweat's petition to recall Nowakowski, filed by his Urban Phoenix Project PAC, which states that the council member "keeps close association with lobbyists who are or have been under investigation of corruption." The petition does not mention Ressler by name or her job title.

Kyle Hallstrom, an attorney representing Sweat, sent a written response to Wilenchik on October 12. Hallstrom said Sweat never implied Ressler was the subject of a criminal investigation, and that even if he had, he would have been right, citing an investigation by the Arizona Republic of Nowakowski's office over a controversial land deal in 2016 involving a nonprofit for which the councilmember served as an executive. That investigation did not find any wrongdoing. Ressler said she was not questioned during the probe, and Wilenchik said in an interview that she disputes that she was a subject of the investigation.

Wilenchik said Sweat stopped associating Ressler with an investigation so she did not feel any need to respond to Hallstrom's letter.

"It’s disgusting that Sweat and his lawyer continue to try to defame her by circulating these letters," Wilenchik wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times. "It amounts to a desperate campaign to succor sympathy and manipulate the press with false claims of victimhood."

In response, Hallstrom said in a phone interview, "Choosing not to spend money on litigation that is doomed for failure is a wise decision."

In recent years, Sweat and Urban Phoenix Project PAC have become one of the most public foes of Nowakowski. Sweat advocates for higher density and more transit, and criticizes Nowakowski for the 2016 land deal, his history of making LGBT comments, and his wishy-washiness on the South Central light rail extension. 

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