From the beginning of the revival of the Grafton Upton Railroad four years ago, former Upton selectwoman Marsha Paul has publicly questioned the impact of the increased train traffic and the presence of potentially hazardous cargo in the Upton yard on the town and its residents.
She expressed her misgivings at public meetings. She was quoted in local newspapers. She raised questions with state and federal officials about the parking of chemical tankers on railroad property abutting a residential neighborhood.
Now Paul is the target of a $20 million defamation lawsuit filed by the railroad’s chief executive officer, Jon Delli Priscoli.
Delli Priscoli contends Paul has traded on her standing as a former member of both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Health to spread “false and misleading statements” that have caused irreparable harm to him personally and to the G&U economically.
But Paul, who narrowly lost her bid for another seat on the town Board of Health, has asked the court to dismiss the case under a state law against so-called SLAPP suits, or strategic litigation against public participation, which are filed to suppress opposition to development proposals.
‘Defendant made these statements with actual malice . . . with complete and utter disregard for the facts.’
In court papers, Paul denies the allegations.
Delli Priscoli declined through a spokesman to comment on the lawsuit, which he filed pro-se, or without an attorney, in Middlesex Superior Court in May.
“The lawsuit speaks for itself,” G&U spokesman Doug Pizzi said.
Paul also declined comment.
In court papers, Delli Priscoli says that “the fact that the Defendant (Paul) is always quoted and referred to as a former selectwoman in Upton, gives her false and misleading statements a level of credibility to other persons in Upton that increase the harm and damages she is proactively causing the Plaintiff as citizens of the Town of Upton believe that the Plaintiff is a bad person who does not care about the citizens of Upton.”
Delli Priscoli cites several newspaper articles dating back to 2008 in which Paul was quoted saying trains passing through town could potentially block public safety vehicles responding to an emergency, that trains could cause traffic jams and threaten the safety of students at two schools near the tracks. Later articles quoted Paul as being frightened about chemicals being stored in tanker cars on the railroad property close to the town’s main water source, the West River well field. Paul told the newspapers she considered the storage of chemical tankers to fall under local and state jurisdiction.
The lawsuit also takes issue with “erroneous and false statements” Paul allegedly has made in public meetings, including questions about the potential hazard utility poles stored at the rail yard posed to drinking water supplies in 2009.
The suit cites a Nov. 1 meeting at Nipmuc Regional High School where Paul had testy exchanges with town officials and William S. Schoonover, staff director of the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety’s Hazardous Materials Division, over the parking of chemical tankers in the Upton rail yard. Delli Priscoli also attended the meeting, sitting in the front row with his attorney.
During the meeting, Schoonover explained that all the operations at the West Upton yard complied with federal regulations and are pre-empted from local and state jurisdiction as long as they involve transit – even the long-term parking of tankers loaded with hazardous materials on the tracks.
According to the lawsuit, “when [Paul] stated, ‘Doesn’t that mean storage?’ Mr. Schoonover emphatically stated ‘No, it’s transloading within the yard.’”
“The defendant consistently misstates the facts to disparage [the plaintiff] and did so here in public once again,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant made these statements with actual malice and with intent to cause harm to Plaintiff, with complete and utter disregard for the facts.”
Delli Priscoli, who is in the midst of a $20 million redevelopment of the West Upton rail yard, says Paul’s statements have hurt his reputation and business relationships.
In her six-page response to the lawsuit, Paul denied the allegations and states she did not “intentionally or maliciously interfere” with Delli Priscoli’s business relationships. Paul’s attorney, Peter A. Palmer, has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit as frivolous and order Delli Priscoli to cover her legal bill.
This is not the first time Delli Priscoli has taken criticism of the rail-to-trucks operation personally. Last December, he wrote a letter to the town’s Railroad Fact Finding Committee to warn its members, including one of the railroad’s neighbors, to stay off Grafton Upton property and to make no attempt to talk to anyone connected with the railroad — under pain of legal action.
The committee’s chairman, Gary Bohan, wrote a letter of his own to Town Manager Blythe Robinson to complain about the delivery of the letter directly to the home of committee member Diana Del Grosso. Bohan said the unpostmarked letter in a hand-written envelope was left in her mailbox and amounted to intimidation.
Del Grosso, who lives in a home abutting the railroad property, resigned from the committee in March.