Ex-Brown campaign staffer to Councilman Brooks: ‘We are coming after you’

By Roger DuPuis - [email protected]
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CLARIFICATION: In this story, Mike Szustak criticizes Brooks for discussing the issue with the media rather than coming over to his table at Franklin’s. Brooks responded to questions from a reporter. He did not initiate contact with the paper.

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WILKES-BARRE — Mike Szustak says he wasn’t threatening City Councilman Tony Brooks when he told the lawmaker, “You made a big mistake tonight. We are coming after you,” during a barroom encounter Thursday night following a council meeting.

“No. No. It’s absurd for anyone to characterize that as a threat,” Szustak, a former campaign staffer for mayoral candidate George Brown told the Times Leader on Friday.

Szustak claims “we” referred to voters who he says will hold Brooks and other council members accountable for their actions, particularly Thursday night’s votes to approve Mayor Tony George’s appointments to several municipal authorities — appointments Brown had encouraged council members to oppose.

Brown: Not condoned by me

In the wake of the incident, Brown reorganized his campaign team and stressed that the actions of Szustak and another now-former staffer, Jenis Walsh, were in no way associated with the campaign.

“Neither she nor Mike represented me last night,” Brown said of Walsh and Szustak. “Whatever happened last night was not condoned by me.”

Brooks, who was at Franklin’s on Public Square with fellow council members and a number of friends, was left visibly disturbed after Szustak walked up to thrust a Brown campaign flier at Brooks as he made the remark, according to Linda Joseph, a friend of Brooks who witnessed the incident.

“Tony was shaking,” Joseph said.

Szustak: Regrets?

After Szustak walked away, he later posted a photo on Facebook of Brooks and fellow council members Bill Barrett and Mike Belusko standing at a table across the bar, writing: “Hey Wilkes-Barre! Here are the three conquering heroes who voted to reward Mayor George’s incompetent drones with more jobs! You get the bill, they get to party. … Yuck it up boys. Change is coming.”

The post was later removed.

Does Szustak regret anything he did Thursday night?

“I would have phrased what I said to Mr. Brooks differently,” he told the Times Leader. “I would probably have said ‘hi’ first. I would have said I disagreed with his vote for the appointments and that voters are going to hold him accountable in November.”

“That’s how it should have come across,” Szustak said. “Mr. Brooks knows I’m a political consultant.”

That is not, however, what Szustak said, and he did not deny the words as described by Joseph.

Brooks: No blame on Brown

Brooks on Friday replied to questions about the incident in an email.

“I refuse to run a nasty and negative campaign. Intimidation and threats have to stop. I will always protect my family and friends. My positive record of service to Wilkes-Barre speaks for itself.

“I do not blame George Brown,” Brooks continued. “He has always been supportive of my work and recently attended the meeting to save the Planters Peanuts building.”

Efforts to reach Brooks for additional comment later Friday in the light of remarks made by Szustak were unsuccessful.

Szustak criticized Brooks for discussing the issue with the media rather than coming over to his table at Franklin’s.

“He could have had a conversation like a rational person,” Szustak said. “He could have asked me at that point what I meant.”

Walsh: No involvement

In a separate phone call, Walsh told a reporter that she had said nothing to Brooks at the bar on Thursday, and was there just to have a drink with some friends.

She said she saw Szustak hand a piece of Brown campaign literature at Brooks, but was walking away and didn’t fully hear what was said.

When Szustak rejoined their group shortly afterward, all he said about the incident was that he “had words” with Brooks, Walsh said.

Sounding tearful, Walsh added that she stepped down from her role with the Brown campaign on Friday amid the controversy.

“I don’t want anything to hurt George’s campaign, and what he’s doing for the city,” she said.

Brown said Maureen Lavelle has been named as his new campaign manager, in the role previously held by Szustak, and that he will handle media matters, for now, which had been Walsh’s role.

“I was disappointed, I was shocked,” Brown said of the incident. “This is not the George Brown campaign we ran.”

Despite having been at a meeting with Brown on Friday, Szustak told the Times Leader he considered his role with the campaign to have ended on May 20, the day before the primary election in which Brown defeated the mayor, a fellow Democrat.

Szustak was silent on the issue of whether he is currently involved in any campaign, despite allegations by Joseph in a Facebook post that Szustak is “believed to be aligned with Mark Shaffer,” a Democratic council nominee set to challenge Republican Brooks in November.

Barrett: Praise for Brown

Barrett, who was at Franklin’s, described seeing Szustak approach Brooks. He said he could not hear what was said, but that Brooks “looked perplexed.”

He said Brooks told the group he had been threatened, and explained what was said.

Shortly after, Barrett and the group became aware of Szustak’s Facebook post. Walsh walked toward where they were sitting, and he told her he didn’t feel Brown would approve of what had transpired.

Barrett said Walsh offered to text Brown, and he replied: “I’ll do you one better. I’ll call him myself.”

He did, and Barrett said Brown apologized for what had happened and said “I’ll address it right away.”

Brown said he called Szustak and asked him to delete the post, which he did.

Brown also called Barrett again on Friday to apologize, Barrett said.

“I have to commend him for taking quick and decisive action,” Barrett added.

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By Roger DuPuis

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