“I’ve never been a member. I know one Oath Keeper, [former Republican Assembly candidate] Ed Durfee. I’ve never attended a meeting, I’ve never filled out an application, I’ve never been part of them,” said Hayden, who works at the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
Over the past few years, Hayden has posted numerous images on social media that included a logo associated with the Three Percenters movement — another anti-government militia group — including one featured in his Facebook profile picture and writing “III%” on his Instagram profile. Other photos show him wearing the logo on his clothing. While both the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters harbor extremist and conspiratorial views, the organizations do not espouse white supremacist ideology.
Hayden said he’s not a member of the Three Percenters. He said he tried to recruit them to turn up to rallies he organized but was disappointed by their lack of engagement.
“A lot of those people were supposed to be conservatives in their leaning,” he said. “It’s funny because there’s a national Facebook group where I tried to get people to rallies. They said we have to remain apolitical. I said what’s your end goal?”
The lawsuit he filed against Gottheimer may not go anywhere, which Hayden acknowledged. New Jersey’s statute of limitations for defamation is one year. The Gottheimer statements in question — made during a political debate against his Republican opponent Frank Pallotta and in a YouTube ad his campaign made — were made in late October 2020. The lawsuit was filed Nov. 3, 2021.
The statements allegedly made by the Sussex County Democrats were more recent.
Earlier this month, in a since-deleted contentious public Facebook conversation, Republican consultant Bill Winkler urged Hayden to file the lawsuit against the party to help win his backing for county commissioner and said GOP leaders would pay for it.
“If you want to have my support for commissioner, I first would like to see a lawsuit filed against the Democrats who attempted to smear your name, which party leaders have pledged to pay for,” Winkler, who has for decades been a campaign consultant for many Sussex County elected officials, wrote in a comment about two weeks ago. On that thread, Winkler criticized a since-deleted announcement that Hayden would run for commissioner with former congressional candidate Nick D’Agostino.
In another comment, Winkler told Hayden, “the only thing standing in your way were the allegations against you, which I believe to be false based on your word.”
Of Winkler’s request, Hayden said, “I think they just want me to clear my name. A lot of people have thrown mud on my name.”
The four-count lawsuit against Gottheimer charging defamation and infliction of emotional distress refers to comments Gottheimer made during an Oct. 25, 2021, debate with Pallotta, when Gottheimer brought up Hayden, whom he described as “one of [Pallotta’s] closest campaign advisers” and “the head of the Oath Keepers New Jersey home-grown terrorist group that promotes white supremacy.”
“Will you denounce the Oath Keepers and Bill Hayden?” Gottheimer said.
Pallotta refused to denounce the Oath Keepers or Hayden, saying his supporters are “not racist, not xenophobes, not home-grown terrorists” and that “I think you need to re-think what hte Oath Keepers is.” Gottheimer’s allegations were repeated in a YouTube ad from his campaign.
The eight-count lawsuit against the Sussex County Democrats, filed Thursday in Superior Court in Sussex County also targets the party’s leadership and a blogger who is not affiliated with the party. It refers to a letter the Democrats sent to a local publication that said Hayden has “ties to the Three Percenters Militia, New Jersey Oath Keepers Militia, as well as various other known domestic terror and hate groups.”
Hayden’s lawsuit alleges Michael Schnackenberg, who writes a Facebook publication called the Sussex County Informer, called Hayden a “leader of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers” and “the face of the Proud Boys a domestic terrorist organization.”
In a phone interview, Schnackenberg said “I don’t think the suit has a prayer.”
“He’s a public [figure]. I’m a private citizen. He’s got no grounds to sue me and, frankly, I think the whole thing is going to get laughed out of court,” Schnackenberg said.
Sussex County Democratic Chair Dawne Rowe, who’s also a defendant, did not respond to a call Friday morning seeking comment.
A spokesperson for Gottheimer declined to comment other than to say the lawmaker was never served with Hayden’s lawsuit.