She says NJ candidate sent her pic of his privates, and GOP fired her
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to include a statement by the candidate, Michael Silvestri.
HAMILTON (Mercer) — A woman who worked for the Mercer County Republican Committee before the November election says a candidate sent her obscene, sexual text messages — including a picture of his genitalia.
Caitlin Koether, 30, said she worked tirelessly for Mercer County GOP candidates. But when she blew the whistle on what she describes as sexual harassment by freeholder candidate Michael Silvestri, she says, the campaign manager and the party’s county chairwoman both shrugged it off and then fired her without paying her.
Koether, who says she has feared retaliation since the fall, filed an incident report with Hamilton police on Jan. 22, accusing campaign manager David Henderson of menacing her in person and on social media. She says that Henderson allowed Silvestri to continue to harass her.
Neither was charged with a crime, but Koether said police suggested that she file for a restraining order, which she is considering.
In addition to sexual text messages sent in August and September (screenshots of which Koether provided to New Jersey 101.5), the Ewing resident said Silvestri made unwanted advances, including trying to kiss her at the GOP headquarters in Lawrence and forcing himself on her at her home after he dropped off campaign signs.
Silvestri, who earlier last year briefly ran as a Democrat in the nonpartisan race for mayor of Trenton, and his slate were unsuccessful against the Democratic freeholder candidates.
Silvestri did not respond to three detailed messages left by New Jersey 101.5 on his voicemail over the course of a week, but after this story ran, he contacted this reporter to state that he never harassed Koether and that they had been involved in a "loose relationship."
In interviews with New Jersey 101.5, Henderson and Mercer Republican Chairwoman Lisa Richford also said that Koether and Silvestri had some kind of relationship.
Koether denies ever being in any relationship with Silvestri and said he was living with a woman.
Henderson and Richford said Koether was a volunteer, not a paid staffer.
Henderson denies harassing Koether or encouraging Silvestri to send her messages.
“Stoppppp […] I’m a lady,” Koether says in one of the text exchanges. “You better respect me.”
“So who ever is the special man, he is the luckiest guy on earth,” he appears to tell her.
In other text messages, "Mike" describes performing sexual acts on her and describes his genitalia. Koether does not respond. In a message shortly before 2 a.m. one night, "Mike" sends her a picture of an erect penis, which he indicates is his. Koether does not respond.
That pattern continues — the person identified as "Mike" on the messages sends dozen of messages at a time, littered with graphic references to intercourse and oral sex. In the images provided, Koether doesn't respond at all to those long strings of texts.
Only selected screenshots are shown below, because of the graphic nature of the language in several others.
Silvestri acknowledged that the messages were from him, but added that Caitlin left out other messages in which she texted him as late as last month.
"She edited her text messages to make me like a predator, which I'm not," he said in an interview.
"What do you want me to do about it?"
Koether said she first alerted Henderson about the harassment in August but Henderson responded by teasing her about it — referring to Silvestri as her boyfriend. The harassment and messages by Silvestri continued in September, she says.
According to the Hamilton police incident report, she told officers that Henderson told her "that she would be 'taken care of' if she reported anything to the police."
Police did not speak to Henderson but he told New Jersey 101.5 that he never said that to her, and that he told her to contact police if Silvestri was bothering her.
Koether’s story was corroborated in part by Silvestri’s running mate, Mary Walker, who told New Jersey 101.5 that she encouraged Koether to report her concerns to the campaign manager. Walker said she was on the phone call with Koether when she complained to Henderson about Silvestri.
“‘What do you want me to do about it?’ That was his response to that,” Walker said.
Koether said Henderson removed her from the campaign in October, telling her: “We don’t want your drama.”
But Koether’s complaint is only the latest drama for the Mercer GOP involving Henderson. The organization appears to be occupied in an internecine battle against fellow party members who support Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede, one of just two Republican mayors in the deep-blue county.
Henderson, who was formally expelled from his township's Republican club, is one of the leaders and promoters of the alternative Republicans for a Better Hamilton, which criticizes the Republican administration on social media and at public meetings.
In November, county chairwoman Richford refused to recognize the election of Yaede ally Dennis Pone as the Hamilton GOP chairman. Richford later backed off.
And last month, Pone emailed fellow party leaders in Mercer asking them to boot Henderson from the party’s executive committee. In the email, which Henderson posted on his own Facebook page, Pone says that Henderson is working against Republicans in Hamilton and that he has made “misogynistic and racist comments on Facebook.”
Koether is not involved in the Hamilton infighting but says Henderson’s handling of her sexual harassment complaint is an example of why he is unfit to be in a leadership position.
“There is a very large group of people standing back and not getting involved because of David Henderson,” Koether said. “You cannot continue to abuse women and get away with it […] He allowed a man to stay on the ticket when he was sexually harassing me.”
Questions over money
Koether, who is a former Veterans Services officer for Hunterdon County and who now works as a birth doula, says that after working almost 90 days for freeholder and congressional campaigns and operating the party's headquarters, she was dismissed in October without payment.
Koether said she was promised by Henderson in the summer that “the Mercer GOP was going to pay me. It was going to be a little something but not much.” But she says she never signed any contract — the job was a handshake agreement.
Koether says she never had any romantic relationship with Silvestri and that he never lived with her. Campaign finance documents list Silvestri’s address in Trenton. Koether said Silvestri has a girlfriend, who appears on his social media page.
Henderson said he believed the two were dating because he once saw Silvestri and Koether leave headquarters in the same car. Richford said she saw Silvestri and Koether together at campaign headquarters. When asked why seeing a campaign worker and a candidate together at a campaign office would indicate a romantic relationship, the chairwoman said Koether "lacks credibility" and said she could not continue the phone interview.
Henderson said he spoke to Silvestri about Koether’s accusations but Silvestri denied any wrongdoing.
“I subsequently advised Caitlin if she felt that she had been sexually harassed or that she had been in any way threatened or felt uncomfortable that she go to the authorities,” Henderson said, adding that the candidates were not his employees and he had no authority over them.
He also said that “nobody in that organization and that campaign got paid, as far as I know, by anybody … I did not get paid. Everything I did was volunteer.”
Campaign finance documents filed by the county committee with the Election Law Enforcement Commission show that at least nine workers were paid between $80 and $500 in October and November. A finance report filed January says the committee brought in nearly $48,000 the most recent year and had $28,000 left. The freeholder campaign's separate committee, whose treasurer was Henderson's wife, reported spending more than $10,900.
Koether said it doesn’t make sense that she would not get paid for working full-time hours running the campaign office while the committee paid people she never saw at campaign headquarters — including one man who Superior Court records show was sentenced in 2002 for drug dealing. She also questioned why the committee spent $410 at Blue Point Grill in Princeton on Christmas Eve for what the ELEC filing describes as a “campaign thank you” even though none of the candidates she spoke to had been invited or knew about that event.
The committee’s treasurer, Victoria Plumeri, referred questions about the paid workers and the expenses to the chairwoman, who declined to talk when New Jersey 101.5 reached her a second time. Henderson said Monday that he never heard of the workers listed on the financial disclosure form, including the five with Hamilton addresses.
“My name has been slandered,” Koether said. “I’m a good person. I’ve busted my butt. I’ve been out there all hours of the night putting up signs, talking to people, connecting with them. This is the way I’m treated? It’s not right.”
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.