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Apr 17, 2013 11:37 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Village Attorney Refuses To Release Audit

Apr 17, 2013 12:32 PM

Westhampton Beach Village Attorney Richard Haefeli is refusing to release the village’s recently completed audit, a 300-page document whose contents have been used as ammunition by trustees critical of the mayor in recent weeks, even though a state official says the report is a public record and that the attorney’s stance violates the state’s Sunshine Law.

Robert Freeman, the executive director of the Department of State Committee on Open Government—an organization that determines what documents must be shared with the public—said he recently spoke with Village Clerk/Treasurer Rebecca Molinaro and informed her that the audit should be made public. Mr. Freeman, who has not viewed the report himself, said that if it contains facts and figures, and no opinions, it qualifies as an audit and, therefore, should have been made available for review by the public as soon as it was received by the village in early March.

Previously, Ms. Molinaro said the document could not be released until it was adopted by the Village Board—which has not yet happened. But Mr. Freeman is insisting that a board cannot hold such a document hostage by refusing to accept it. He also explained that, because it is an audit, there is no legitimate reason to withhold its release.

“My understanding is the document consists largely of factual information,” Mr. Freeman said. “From my perspective, it is accessible.”

Ms. Molinaro said this week that she has spoken with Mr. Freeman, who conveyed a similar message, but explained that Mr. Haefeli has ordered her not to release the report. She has rejected several Freedom of Information Law requests filed by The Press on the same grounds and at the direction of Mr. Haefeli.

Mr. Haefeli has not returned calls over the past two days. But when reached on Monday afternoon, Mr. Haefeli told Frank Costanza, the editor of The Southampton Press Western Edition, that he needs to write a letter to Ms. Molinaro explaining Mr. Freeman’s reasons for releasing the report.

The letter was faxed to Ms. Molinaro at Village Hall at 9:05 a.m. on Tuesday, and Mr. Haefeli still has not honored the request.

“The request is still under review by the village attorney,” Ms. Molinaro said this week.

She said she expects the report, which was received by Village Board members on March 5—more than six weeks ago—will be made public after they get to discuss it with representatives of the village’s auditing firm, Satty, Levine & Ciacco in Jericho.

According to Mr. Freeman, the FOIL request should not have to be reviewed by Mr. Haefeli. Rather, he said that it is the responsibility of the village clerk to determine whether a FOIL request is valid.

Ms. Molinaro, who is leaving her post at the end of the month to accept a similar position in East Hampton Village, on Wednesday explained her reason for referring to Mr. Haefeli.

“I do not disagree Mr. Freeman’s statement,” she wrote in an email. “I am within the legal time frame to review the April 4th request and there is nothing precluding me from consulting with legal counsel on the release of the documents.

“Should a document be released, it will need to be further reviewed with counsel to determine what needs to be redacted,” she continued. “[The] request has not been formally denied at this time.”

Mayor Conrad Teller and the other four trustees have all declined to share the document—though that has not stopped some of them from publicly fighting over its contents. At their most recent meeting, Deputy Mayor Hank Tucker charged that the audit has uncovered approximately $70,000 in financial errors, and he went as far as to allege that the errors were the result of “illicit” deals struck by Mr. Teller and Ms. Molinaro. The report was requested in December after a payroll error was uncovered at Village Hall.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who also serves as village attorney for Sag Harbor Village, said audits should be made available to the public as soon as they are completed. Though he is not familiar with the Westhampton Beach report, Mr. Thiele said taxpayers should have access to any document that pertains to municipal finances.

“I think there is an express exclusion that allows for audits to be FOIL-able, because that is the very essence of what government is about here,” Mr. Thiele said. “You are looking at either a village or town’s finances in a review, and how well they did that, and that is the type of thing residents have the right to know about.”

Mr. Teller, who has also refused to share a copy of the audit, said he would like the document to be made public, but quickly added that it is in the village’s best interest to listen to its legal counsel.

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Time to test the drinking water on the East End, AKA "Oz," Toto!

WHB here, SHT PD and Town Board, Judge Wilson and her neighbor, you name it, something is amiss IMO.
By PBR (4956), Southampton on Apr 17, 13 12:27 PM
Perhaps it's what's NOT in the drinking water that's causing the problem. ;c)
By The Royal 'We' (199), Southampton on Apr 17, 13 12:54 PM
Its another example of the Mayor and "his cohorts" thinking they own this town and have a printing press in the basement of Village Hall. What is he hiding? Hiding behind his Village Attorney is a cop-out. FOIL gave their assessment per this article. He is the Mayor. Again- where is his leadership?
By realistic (472), westhampton on Apr 17, 13 1:25 PM
Village Code 134-1 and 134-7; Clerk has 5 business days to grant or deny request, after that it is a denial subjedt to Appeal to the Board of Trustees.

Board of Trustees should ask to see the requested material at its work session tonight and hear the Village Attorney's reason for suppressing the report by the auditor; and should then issue a decision to release all of it if there is no good reason offered by Haefeli.
By Publius (358), Westhampton Beach on Apr 17, 13 1:36 PM
**correction: Trustees should see the FOIL request, they have all seen the material at issue.
By Publius (358), Westhampton Beach on Apr 17, 13 1:38 PM
Sometimes I don't want to live on this planet anymore.

But in essence Haefeli has not stated why it was not released. All the reasons are Molianro's as I see it. She must be such a good soldier to put herself in this position.

I would hope that if the document contained anything untoward you'd prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. Just sayin'

By Hambone (514), New York on Apr 17, 13 4:06 PM
no news is good news ???
By 5-0 (44), Montauk Point on Apr 17, 13 4:53 PM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By whatapity (106), Tuckahoe on Apr 18, 13 7:32 AM
same old 'I'll do what I want and what are you going to do about it' attitude of the local pols.
By Sandflea (35), Southampton on Apr 18, 13 8:18 AM
The document belongs to residents not elected officials. Now you know why the first atty made such a stink at a public meeting. The whole thing stinks, and Haefaeli should be disbarred.
By chief1 (2800), southampton on Apr 18, 13 2:05 PM
1 member liked this comment
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By whatapity (106), Tuckahoe on Apr 18, 13 3:08 PM
First, I am not a resident of WH, WHB. So I dont believe I have the creds for a considered local opinion. But I do have a question. It's being stated that a difference between an audit and something else is whether it has or hasnt got an opinion..Don't all audits contain opinions and conclusions based on an interpretation of what's uncovered?
By Speonk Shores (31), Remsenburg on Apr 19, 13 5:36 AM
Has Dick Haefeli gone rogue? OR

Is the Village Attorney just doing what the Mayor really wants?

Mayor Teller told the Press that sometimes he follows the advice of the Village Attorney, and this time he will follow the advice. Then the Mayor feigns dismay that the audit will be witheld.

Was Mr. Haefeli's legal opinion provided to the entire Board of Trustees?

How many meetings have taken place since the audit was first delivered?

Maybe the Trustees ...more
By Publius (358), Westhampton Beach on Apr 19, 13 8:24 AM
1 member liked this comment
UGh, - OK , how's this Mr. Editor.

His name is Richard Haefaeli but his friends know him as Dick.
By whatapity (106), Tuckahoe on Apr 19, 13 2:22 PM
Robert J. Freeman is an attorney who was admitted to the practice of law in the State of New York in 1974, he is a graduate of NYU Law School and an expert on Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law.

Mr. Freeman is the Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government of the New York State Department of State.

NY Public Officerf's Law § 109. Committee on open government

The committee on open government, created by paragraph (a) of subdivision ...more
By Publius (358), Westhampton Beach on Apr 20, 13 4:27 PM