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Jul 28, 2010 11:53 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

MTA lawsuit spawns internal bickering, finger-pointing at Southampton Town Hall

Jul 28, 2010 11:53 AM

A lawsuit filed against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has become a battleground for politically charged infighting among Southampton Town Board members, with each side accusing the other of undermining the town’s efforts to help East End residents shake the burden of a payroll tax.

The three members of the Town Board’s Republican/Conservative majority abruptly walked out of a planned discussion with the attorney handling the lawsuit for the town during a work session last Thursday, July 22, and accused Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and Town Attorney Michael Sordi of intentionally dragging their feet on the lawsuit for political reasons.

“This is another tax passed on to our residents by the Democratic majority in the State Senate and Assembly,” Republican Councilman Christopher Nuzzi said, “and, apparently, the Democrats in Southampton want to keep it in place.”

In turn, Ms. Throne-Holst, an Independence Party member, accused the board’s majority—which also includes Councilman James Malone, a Conservative, and Councilwoman Nancy Graboski, a Republican—of political mudslinging to cover up the fact that the outside attorneys hired by them to handle the case were not moving as quickly as the attorney’s office for Brookhaven Town, Southampton Town’s partner in the litigation.

“Brookhaven called us and said they had served the MTA and the other defendants ... but that we hadn’t, and they wondered what was going on,” Ms. Throne-Holst said on Monday. “When Michael Sordi came on board, we had wrangled about whether that was a good moment to bring this litigation in-house so we could manage it.

“The Brookhaven Town attorney is an experienced litigator, as is Mike Sordi, which was part of my goal in hiring an attorney—somebody who had litigation experience so as to minimize the number of cases that we send outside.”

But Mr. Nuzzi and Mr. Malone said that Mr. Sordi remains in charge of directing the contracted attorneys, the Smithtown firm Devitt Spellman Barrett, LLP, on how to proceed with the lawsuit, and any delays in Southampton’s filing suit are on his shoulders. The Town Board has allocated up to $50,000 to cover the law firm’s legal fees so far.

“Criticism is going to be made of Devitt Spellman, but the only reason they didn’t serve the MTA is because of the town attorney,” Mr. Nuzzi said last Thursday. “Because he does not like the fact that we hired outside counsel ... he completely disposed of his responsibility as town attorney. We had the papers, they were filed with the court in May—all he had to say was, ‘Serve the defendants.’”

Mr. Sordi, who took over as town attorney in April, says that’s exactly what he did. After the board’s majority, over the objections of Ms. Throne-Holst and Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, the board’s lone Democrat, resolved to continue using Devitt Spellman Barrett, Mr. Sordi said he instructed the firm to proceed with the lawsuit. The MTA was not served until July 12, and Mr. Sordi said he did not know why it took so long.

“I had interactions with Devitt Spellman almost from the first moment I became town attorney, because this case is a very important one for the town,” Mr. Sordi said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “On June 8, the Town Board passed a resolution authorizing and directing the supervisor and town attorney to prosecute the lawsuit. In accordance with that resolution, I immediately wrote to Devitt Spellman instructing them to move forward.”

The MTA and numerous state departments and officials, including Governor David A. Paterson and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, are defendants in the lawsuit. Southampton Town filed its suit in State Supreme Court on May 14. Initially, at least six other towns had sworn to join in the suit, claiming that the MTA payroll tax, which levies $3.40 in tax for each $1,000 of payroll checks issued, is unfair to Long Island residents because of limited services provided by the MTA, particularly on the East End.

Ms. Throne-Holst maintains that Southampton Town’s decision to use hired counsel, rather than town attorneys, pushed some of the other municipalities to withdraw from the suit because of potential costs.

“They undermined the effort by all the towns when they insisted we use outside counsel. That’s when we lost the participation,” the supervisor said. “It wasn’t me or Michael Sordi. I’m the one who spearheaded this with [Brookhaven Town Supervisor] Mark Lesko. I said, let’s bring all the towns together so we get the bang for the buck. Why would I submarine it now? It makes no sense.”

Eager to press forward with the suit last spring, before Mr. Sordi had been appointed, the town hired the Smithtown law firm to handle it. The firm is handling numerous legal matters for the town. But board members have been split about continuing to use outside counsel in the long run on the MTA suit. Ms. Throne-Holst has said that the potential for a protracted court battle should leave the case in the Town Attorney’s office to avoid mounting bills.

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It seems that, when the Republican/Conservative majority's pet law firm is hired, over the recommendation of the Town Attorney, over the opposition of the Supervisor and another Board member, for $50,000 of the public's money, when the lawsuit could have and should have been handled in-house by the Town Attorney, just because they are the majority's pals, they should at least have the decency to do the job in a timely manner. But nooooo.........
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 4, 10 4:19 PM
as stated in the last paragraph by ATH "it was a waste of time to start with" why did she schedule an update in public forum and waste the boards time and the valuable attorney's time with this? Its the supervisor alone who schedules work sessions and the agenda.

I'd like to see the SH Press FOIL the bill from the attorney firm to see how much money was wasted on this stunt.
By ridiculous (214), hampton bays on Aug 5, 10 6:59 PM
If anyone wasted the public's time and money, it was the walkout members -- Nuzzi, Graboski & Malone -- for doing a whole drama thing over a simple request for public-record information (dates of service), as to which there was no confidentiality and hence no need for a private executive session, contrary to what the walkouts claimed. Some blame also goes to the Devitt Spellman lawyer, Ms. DeJong, for playing along with this cheap grandstanding by the Republican/Conservative coalition.
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 6, 10 10:03 AM
I think the blame goes to the individual who scheduled it and later says it could have been covered by an email exchange. Great leadership!
By ridiculous (214), hampton bays on Aug 6, 10 8:47 PM
For everyone's information its the supervisor who sets the agenda for a work session. If the supervisor does not what to add an item she does not have to. Nuzzi may have asked for this discussion but only with the notion that it would as always be held in Executive Session.
It was her that placed the item on the agenda, she could have cancelled having the discussion if she thought is was a waste of time.
She now states it was a waste of time after she looked like a fool, but gave her & Fleming ...more
Aug 6, 10 9:26 PM appended by reg rep
BTW back in March the first resolution to hire this lawfirm was approved by all board members including ATH. Did she think it was free? When Sordi came on as the TA he thought he could handle the case, 3 members of the TB did not agree. That is their right to disagree as elected officials.
By reg rep (408), Southampton on Aug 6, 10 9:26 PM
The attorney from the state said it APPEARS that this could have been discussed in open session? That does not sound like he is 100% sure.
The casino case and I'm sure a lot of other cases were of interest to us as voters, but were they discussed in open session. No way.

By reg rep (408), Southampton on Aug 6, 10 10:30 PM
Just look at our friend reg rep frantically trying to spin what the executive director of the State Committee on Open Government said. This is the same person who called me desperate under a related article, but her performance here reaches a new level of desperation. Paraphrasing the man (she doesn't dare quote him directly), she stresses the word "appears" and manufactures the notion that it "does not sound like he is 100% sure." Let's look at what the man really did say: "If the discussion ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Aug 6, 10 11:19 PM
I think Supervisor Throne-Holst wanted to embarrass the outside law firm by showing that they had been slow in doing their job. It may not have been the noblest of motives, and she may not have observed strict parliamentary procedure, and it may have been her intention to get back at the firm and the Board members who overrode her opposition in June, but guess what? If the firm did screw up and get the papers out late, as it appears they did, then they were fools because they should have known ...more
By fidelis (199), westhampton beach on Aug 6, 10 10:39 PM
As outsiders here we really do not know who is at fault. Mr. Nuzzi said it is Sordi who did not follow-up with the lawfirm telling them to proceed.
These attorneys are not stupid, would they agree to meet if they did anything wrong.
Lets not forget it was the state senate & assembly democrats that voted for this tax.
The attorney who said it appears to be ok to discuss this in open session, I would not believe anything he has to say. He works for a democrat admin. and knows not to bite ...more
By reg rep (408), Southampton on Aug 6, 10 11:18 PM
You're not making sense to me. First, you say Nuzzi blames Sordi, but Sordi says he wrote the firm a letter telling them to go forward. Lawyers don't claim they wrote letters if they can't produce them, so I have to think Sordi's covered and Nuzzi's wrong. Then you say the outside firm wouldn't meet with the town if they'd done anything wrong, but the town's their client, paying their fee, so they have to meet, they don't have a choice. Then you talk about who voted for the tax, but that's history ...more
By fidelis (199), westhampton beach on Aug 6, 10 11:42 PM
Is Robert J. Freeman, the executive director of the State Committee on Open Government a Lawyer? I would like the opinion of a non-bias attorney. Not a political hack that was appointed by the democrat admin. that is being sued.
Sordi said he wrote a letter, lets see the letter. The SH press should post it here as an attachment, that would put an end to the discussion on who is telling the truth.
As far as meeting with the TB, have you never heard of postpone, lawyers are very good at postponing.
If ...more
By reg rep (408), Southampton on Aug 8, 10 3:03 AM

BTW when ATH refused to go into Executive Session even though a motion was on the floor with 3 yes votes to move forward, she violated the law.
I found this information on the NYS Dept Committee on Open Government.
Conduct of executive sessions.
1. Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below ...more
By reg rep (408), Southampton on Aug 8, 10 3:42 AM