Corrections officers from the downtown Camden jail filed a defamation lawsuit against top county officials yesterday over accusations that officers had vandalized officials' personal property in retaliation for the decision to privatize the jail.

"As elected officials, they shouldn't be making allegations without evidence," said Peter Farlow, spokesman for Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 351. "It diminishes our capacity to act as law enforcement officials."

The suit was filed in Camden County Superior Court against Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. and County Administrator Ross Angilella.

A county spokesman said Tuesday afternoon that officials had yet to receive a copy of the suit and would not be able to comment.

In a news conference last week, county officials described a series of incidents in which Angilella's tires had twice been slashed in Haddon Township and a pile of leaves on Cappelli's front lawn in Collingswood had been set aflame.

"These acts are examples of thuggery and are totally unacceptable in any public debate over the future of the jail," read a statement released by Cappelli last week. "Rather than working with us to solve these problems for the taxpayer, it appears that some [corrections officers] have chosen instead to act like the inmates they claim to be the most adept at guarding."

The corrections officers' union and county officials have been locked in a public battle for months over the future of the county jail.

After the release of a consultants' report in October, county officials began meeting with local law enforcement two weeks ago to announce that they had decided to hire a private corrections company to temporarily run the jail and eventually build a new facility.

Corrections officers at the existing facility, which opened to inmates in 1987, are expected to face substantial cuts in salary and pension benefits if they elect to work for the private facility.