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Judge orders Monroe County to defend Legislator Barnhart in defamation suit

Monroe County will have to defend Legislator Rachel Barnhart in a defamation suit filed by a local dentist accused of hosting a racist Juneteenth spoof party in 2022.

Barnhart publicly lambasted Nicholas Nicosia, and the county initially declined to defend her when Nicosia filed suit in August 2023.

County Attorney John Bringewatt had argued Barnhart, D-Rochester, was not acting in her capacity as a county Legislator, and that she was not conducting county business.

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart.
Provided photo
Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart.

Barnhart in turn sued the county for her legal defense. On Friday, state Supreme Court Judge James Vazzana determined that Barnhart is entitled to legal representation from the county.

Vazzana found that denying Barnhart’s defense could have had a “chilling effect.”

“The county attorney’s reliance on the fact that Legislator Barnhart spoke at the press conference and referred to the city of Rochester and Rochester Police to deny her request for defense was also without a sound basis in reason,” Vazzana wrote. “Under the county attorney’s reasoning, a county legislator would not be afforded the protections of Monroe County’s charter defense and indemnification provisions if the legislator spoke in concern to a constituent aggrieved by a department of the city of Rochester.”

Barnhart said the court ruling was an unsurprising turn of events.

“Of course I was acting as a legislator when I stood by someone who felt wronged by their government,” Barnhart said. “Any other decision would have had a detrimental impact on the ability of legislators to advocate for their constituents.”

Barnhart’s attorney Michael Higgins said the denial by the county was unfair to Barnhart.

“Legislator Barnhart incurred substantial legal fees just to induce the county into performing the duties it should have been performing all along,” Higgins said.

A spokesperson for County Executive Adam Bello’s administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Barnhart was sued alongside Nate McMurray, who serves as the legal counsel for Jerrod Jones, a Black Rochester firefighter whose captain allegedly brought his unit to the “first annual liberal smashing splish-splash pool party” at the home of Nicosia and his wife, Mary Znidarsic-Nicosia.

The party allegedly featured corn hole games adorned with photos of local politicians and activists, including Barnhart, and a risqué dancer dressed to resemble Barnhart. That drew a rebuke from Barnhart at the time, charging the couple had reduced her to a sexual object.

RELATED: Rochester 'society' shuns alleged Juneteenth spoof party hosts

Nicosia, in the lawsuit, alleged Barnhart had perpetuated a “hate crime hoax” with her comments. Nicosia claimed he suffered $5 million in damages from the international publicity that ensued, including from the couple’s own press conference.

Among other things, he lost his contract as team dentist for the Rochester Americans, and Znidarsic-Nicosia was booted from her seat on the board of the Landmark Society of Western New York.

Nicosia is suing Barnhart and McMurray for all “direct and indirect damages” to his business, as well as punitive damages.

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.