The sudden sprouting of red-and-white campaign signs upended one autumn morning in the affluent Connecticut town of Greenwich. It was as if the valuable ground had been sprinkled overnight with political pixie dust.
The signs seemed at first to blend into the election-time foliage, conveying customary solidarity between a local Republican candidate and his party’s standard-bearer. “Vote Republican — Vote Team,” they said. “Trump/Camillo.”
But instead of instilling pride of party unity, the signs caused local Republicans to lose their Connecticut Yankee cool. How dare someone link a Greenwich Republican candidate with the Republican president of the United States!
Outraged texts, emails and phone calls heated up that chilly October morning in 2019. “It was a general frenzy and maybe panic,” a party leader later recalled. “Like: ‘What are these?’ ‘Where did they come from?’ ‘What do we do about them?’”
The Greenwich tempest that came to be known as “Signgate” was, in some ways, larger than Greenwich itself, touching on national politics, election integrity and free speech. But it was also exquisitely parochial, reflecting the acutely petty vibe of local politics, the clash of big personalities in a small space — and sweet, delicious revenge.
Politics in this town of about 63,000, once a bastion for Republican moderates, have gotten complicated in recent years, with Trumpian Republicanism emerging like a wet Saint Bernard galumphing through a staid garden party.
Mr. Trump had lost Greenwich by a sizable margin in the 2016 presidential elections; in many ways he was the antithesis to the town’s favored Republican son, George H.W. Bush. Still, your dog is your dog, leashed or unleashed.
By 2019, local Republican discomfort in the Age of Trump seemed overripe for Democratic mockery, so a certain Greenwich police captain — an outspoken Democrat when off-duty — took it upon himself to exercise the time-tested political ploy of satire. He chose as his subject the Republican candidate for the mayor-like position of first selectman, Fred Camillo, who was consistently deflecting calls to either embrace or denounce Mr. Trump.
Some residents had even threatened to pull their support if the generally well-liked Mr. Camillo did not reject the generally not-liked Mr. Trump and his policies. His response, he later recalled, was: “That’s not my concern. Your concern should be how I vote. Do I respond to you? What my beliefs are.”
Seeing opportunity in Mr. Camillo’s sidestepping, the police captain, Mark Kordick, spent about $250 on 50 campaign signs from a website called Signs On the Cheap. The signs, featuring the obligatory Republican elephant mascot, said in full:
Local Elections Matter
Vote Republican — Vote Team
Make Greenwich Great Again
At the bottom appeared “www.FredCamillo.com,” a domain name purchased months earlier by Mr. Kordick. The address redirected viewers to a militantly pro-Trump website.
In the weeks to come, people would debate whether the police captain’s furtive planning was dastardly and underhanded, or merely akin to high schoolers preparing a prank before the big homecoming game. Either way, now he was set.
Signgate began around midnight in late October, as an old, red Ford Escort stopped and started along the darkened streets. With Mr. Kordick behind the wheel, his college-student son, Matthew, hopped out to plant 37 Trump/Camillo signs on public property already adorned with campaign placards, adding red hues and cheeky mischief to autumn in Greenwich.
The sun hadn’t yet risen when Mr. Camillo’s campaign chairman, Jack Kriskey, received his first complaint. “Then they just kept coming,” he later told investigators. Describing the reaction among Republicans as a “frenzy,” he said: “I was just getting barraged with: ‘Where did these come from?’”
In frantic texts and calls to town and police officials, Republicans sought permission to remove signs they called unauthorized and deceptive. But they faced an obstacle: Campaign signs are protected speech under the First Amendment.
As First Selectman Peter Tesei, a fellow Republican, explained to them in a text, “Town cannot touch political signs unless for mowing or sight line issues.”
Mr. Camillo showed up at the police station to file a complaint, after which a police captain, Robert Berry, issued an internal memo that said, “We will not be getting involved in managing sign content or the removal of alleged fake signs.”
But Republicans continued all day to pressure the Republican-controlled town hall. Finally, around 6 p.m., Captain Berry issued a second memo saying that the town’s law department and the Democratic and Republican town committees had agreed that the signs were “not legitimate and should be removed” — though the local Democratic leader later clarified that his committee had only determined that it had no standing since it had nothing to do with the signs.
The Republican Town Committee quickly issued a statement urging supporters to take action: “Please make every effort to remove all of these signs as soon as possible.”
The prank now stifled, the Camillo camp set out to expose the anonymous antagonist. A paid campaign worker identified SignsOnTheCheap.com through a Google search, then hired someone in Texas to go to the company’s shop in Austin and get a copy of the invoice by pretending to represent the customer.
The impostor was paid $450, plus a $50 bonus, for securing an invoice bearing a familiar Greenwich name.
Mr. Camillo already disliked Mr. Kordick, who often criticized him and other Republicans on social media; in a recent text to a town lawyer, he had called the police captain a fat so-and-so who would “get his too.” Now that Mr. Kordick had been outed, the candidate wrote to a supporter: “He is the biggest scum bag of all. He better pray that I do not win because I would be police commissioner and he will be gone.”
Mr. Kordick was called into the deputy chief’s office, a few doors down from his own. When asked whether he knew anything about those Trump/Camillo signs, he recalled answering: “I know quite a bit about them.”
Mr. Kordick joined the department in 1988, worked his way up the ranks, and received the latest of his glowing performance evaluations just four months earlier. Now he was being placed on administrative leave by a longtime colleague — and would soon be under internal investigation.
A week later, Mr. Camillo was elected first selectman and, effectively, police commissioner. Not good for a certain police captain.
Five months after that, in April 2020, Mr. Kordick retired with a full pension just as he was about to be fired for violating provisions of the police department’s Unified Policy Manual, including “Using Common Sense and Promoting Positive Values.” The next month, he filed notice of his intent to sue.
In his lawsuit against Greenwich, Mr. Camillo and three other Republicans, Mr. Kordick alleged that he had been retaliated against for exercising his free-speech rights, and that the Camillo campaign had jeopardized his employment by using deceit to unmask him.
“His speech was totally off-duty and clearly protected speech,” his lawyer, Lewis Chimes, said. “If it interferes with the performance of one’s duties, there’s a balancing test. But there wasn’t any real argument that it interfered with his duties, because he’d gotten outstanding reviews.”
But the town attorney, Barbara Schellenberg, rejected the framing of the case as being about Mr. Kordick’s free-speech rights. She said the question came down to: “Can he effectively do this job after putting out what the town maintained was false speech? And hiding that? And not coming forward until he was put on the spot?
“It was determined that he could not effectively continue,” Ms. Schellenberg added. “The chief lost trust in him.”
Years of legal squabbling followed. All the while, local politics became more and more un-Greenwichlike, smashing the stereotype of fiscal restraint and social moderation being discussed over cucumber sandwiches and wine. Mr. Trump lost the town in the 2020 presidential election by an even wider margin than in 2016, but Trumpism had taken root. In 2022, a hard-right faction took over the Republican Town Committee — and are now planning to seize control of the Representative Town Meeting, the 230-member (!) legislative body whose powers include final say on any municipal expenditure over $5,000.
As the Kordick lawsuit unfolded, things got a bit messy. Town officials gave vague, sometimes conflicting depositions. Leslie Yager, a journalist who runs a one-person news site called Greenwich Free Press, was subpoenaed by the town, which “effectively silenced me as a reporter,” she said in an email.
And mortifying emails and text messages became public. Mr. Camillo, first selectman and author of the “scum bag” and fat so-and-so epithets, had to acknowledge in a deposition that his colorful words were “not language that I would condone.”
A Superior Court judge dropped two defendants from the lawsuit, and Mr. Kordick reached settlements with Mr. Camillo and his campaign manager for undisclosed amounts. But the case continued against the Town of Greenwich, as its legal bills climbed into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Just two months ago, the town sought to block Mr. Kordick’s actions from being referred to as “parody or satire,” arguing in a motion that the signs were not in the vein of “A Modest Proposal,” in which Jonathan Swift proposed to “solve” the problem of Irish poverty by killing and eating Irish children. Rather, the signs were a “dirty trick,” defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as dishonest activity “carried out to harm the reputation or success of a rival.”
In other words, in Greenwich, linking a local Republican candidate to the Republican president would do that candidate harm.
Mr. Kordick’s lawyer described the motion as “chutzpah,” and noted that the judge had already written that a reasonable jury might conclude the signs were “acceptable political parody.”
Suddenly, last month, more than three years after the sprouting of the offending signs and just a week before the case against Greenwich was to be heard, a settlement was reached with Mr. Kordick for $650,000. The overall cost to Greenwich taxpayers: $1.5 million.
Ms. Schellenberg, the town attorney, said that while she was confident Greenwich would have prevailed if the case had gone to trial, it “had no viable option but to comply with the demand of its insurance carrier to end the case.”
She said the town continued to maintain that “there is no constitutional protection for speech that is intentionally false or deceptive, or recklessly indifferent to the truth,” or “for speech by an employee that disrupts or threatens to disrupt the operations of the department in which that employee works.”
Mr. Kordick countered that Greenwich had infringed on his First Amendment rights and knew it would lose in court. “The reason I wanted to remain anonymous is that I feared retribution,” he said. “Which is what I got.”
It’s late October again in Greenwich, with leaves turning and campaigns competing. That hard-right contingent is girding to take over the Representative Town Meeting in next month’s elections. Donald Trump is in the midst of another presidential run, notwithstanding his four criminal indictments. Fred Camillo, who declined to comment other than to say the case was resolved, is running for a third term.
And Mark Kordick, forcibly retired police captain, said he is once again thinking of exercising his free-speech rights with a few campaign signs. Signs that might say, in part: “Paid for with proceeds from the settlement of Mark Kordick v. Town of Greenwich et al.”