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Pro-Amazon Restaurateur Suing Anti-Amazon Councilmember For Defamation

Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer at a rally against Amazon last month
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Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer at a rally against Amazon last month Emil Cohen / City Council

Amazon may have abandoned its proposed NYC tech campus, but the pleading desperation and provincial infighting whipped up by the much-hyped deal doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.

In a lawsuit filed this week, Joshua Bowen, the owner of John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City, accused Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of defamation and suppressing his free speech, by deliberately misrepresenting angry text messages sent by Bowen in the wake of Amazon's withdrawal.

"You will call [Amazon VP of Real Estate] John Schoettler and apologize," Bowen demanded of Van Bramer's Chief of Staff Matthew Wallace. "You can be at the back of the parade or the front of the firing squad."

While Bowen denied he was inciting violence, the council member reported the perceived threat to the NYPD, and shared the interaction on Twitter. But he did not explicitly note that the missive was sent to his chief of staff, who happens to be Bowen's former upstairs neighbor. According to the complaint, this alleged distortion, along with Van Bramer's boosting of calls to boycott Bowen's restaurant, violated Bowen's "core political speech rights" and left him "widely portrayed in a false light to and by the media."

"By publicly, maliciously and falsely accusing Bowen of criminal conduct when Bowen was only exercising his core First Amendment right to free political speech, Van Bramer has committed defamation per se," the suit alleges. The BBQ owner is seeking a total of $50,000 in damages, plus the costs and expenses of bringing this action.

Reached for comment Tuesday morning, Bowen would not directly comment on the lawsuit, though he did speak generally about his motivation for taking on the Amazon-opposing politicians.

"I'm being shit on by people whose political careers I helped launched," said Bowen, noting how Van Bramer was a former regular at his restaurant, and State Senator Michael Gianaris was "like a brother" to him. "My pissed-off-ness, my anger — well for one thing I should be allowed to sell sandwiches because it's America — but second of all it's a betrayal... I'm trying to save their asses, their careers are basically over."

Bowen, who previously traveled to Seattle to try to convince Amazon executives to reconsider their withdrawal, continued: "I'm sorry that Jeff Bezos had a good idea. This guy is a hero to a small business man — he's what I could potentially be some day for grinding my ass all day long."

In a statement, Councilman Van Bramer called the lawsuit "frivolous, without merit, and riddled with inaccuracies." He stood by his initial categorization of the text messages, noting that ‪"my chief of staff received an aggressive text message directed to me from Mr. Bowen, which I perceived to be threatening. I still do."

Charges were not filed as a result of Van Bramer’s complaint, according to the NYPD.

Meanwhile, it’s been almost two weeks since Governor Cuomo reportedly made a “personal pitch” to Amazon to give New York City another chance. A rep for the company didn't reply to a request for comment, but as far as we know, Amazon is back to ignoring the governor's calls.

Maybe the real HQ2 is the friends we lost along the way?


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