A $40 million lawsuit has been filed against the Bridgehampton Fire District, alleging that the district treasurer and former secretary was targeted for retaliation after speaking as a private citizen against a land sale by the district
The suit was filed on behalf of Charles Butler, who has served as secretary and treasurer for more than 30 years, in federal court earlier this week. It stems from allegations by Mr. Butler that the fire commissioners overstepped their authority by firing him from a publicly elected post, and that for months they had threatened him in public, through advertisements in The Southampton Press and at meetings, in an effort to compel him to quit, according to his attorney, Thomas Horn. The threats, the lawsuit states, started when he spoke out as a private citizen against the sale of fire district property in Wainscott.
It also alleges that the fire commissioners routinely violated open meeting laws over the course of 2013.
“He is an elected official,” Mr. Horn said. “So he doesn’t really work for them, per se. He works with them, and for them to treat him like they are his employer is bizarre.”
This week, Brad Pinsky, the attorney representing the fire district, dismissed the claims made by Mr. Butler, and said that he was never retaliated against in any way—and, in fact, had not been fired from his position as treasurer.
According to Mr. Pinsky, Mr. Butler’s performance as district treasurer, which is an elected position, came under scrutiny over the summer, when Mr. Pinsky evaluated the district’s finances and found several problems. At the time, the fire commissioners took action and stripped Mr. Butler of two of his responsibilities—writing checks and transferring money. However, Mr. Butler was still responsible for the rest of his duties, including handling payroll, preparing vouchers, filing tax returns, preparing financial reports and keeping strict financial records.
According to Mr. Pinsky, Mr. Butler still serves as the district’s treasurer, although he has not shown up to work or performed any of his duties in months, and has been served two letters demanding that he return to his post. At their January meeting, the commissioners eliminated Mr. Butler’s salary after he had not shown up for work in three months.
“From what I understand, he claims that the reason he was terminated was over some land deal,” Mr. Pinsky said. “That is unbelievably silly.”
The fire district has yet to be served with the lawsuit, and neither Mr. Pinsky nor district officials had seen all of the accusations laid out in the 47-page document as of Tuesday afternoon.
Last year, Mr. Butler was paid $60,000 by the fire district: $30,000 was for his work as district secretary—a one-year appointed term ending on December 31—and $30,000 as district treasurer, an amount that was reduced to $1,500 before the salary was eliminated altogether. He was not reappointed as secretary.
According to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by The Press, Mr. Butler was the district treasurer while the district was contemplating the sale of a vacant piece of land valued at approximately $1.1 million. At the time, the fire district accepted a bid—which was later voted on and approved by district taxpayers—from Ronald Lauder to purchase the property for $940,000.
Mr. Butler maintains that the price was $60,000 to $70,000 less than a higher bid, and at a commissioners meeting publicly objected to accepting Mr. Lauder’s bid.
His lawsuit claims that the fire district received several bids for the property, but purposely opened only the proposal offered by Mr. Lauder, who, Mr. Butler says, was a business associate of Steve Halsey, chairman of the board of commissioners at the time. According to the suit, Mr. Halsey had been the Long Island representative for former Governor George Pataki around the same time that Mr. Lauder was one of the biggest financial contributors to Mr. Pataki’s campaign.
However, this week Mr. Pinsky—who was not the fire district’s attorney at the time—said Mr. Lauder’s bid was not automatically accepted, and that to his knowledge the district followed all protocols for accepting bids and subsequently selling the property. According to Mr. Pinsky, the fire district has emails that provide evidence that Mr. Butler was attempting to sell the property to another bidder without the consent of the board of commissioners.
“It is so slanderous,” Mr. Pinsky said regarding Mr. Butler’s claims. “Probably nobody on the board could even identify Mr. Lauder by face.”
Attorney John Courtney, who represented the fire district in the land sale, declined to comment when reached this week. Mr. Halsey also declined to comment.
After Mr. Butler spoke against the land sale, the suit claims, the commissioners began acting against him, excluding him from several executive work sessions, holding executive sessions without proper public notice, taking a full-page advertisement in The Press insinuating that he had acted illegally while he was treasurer, and going through his desk. Mr. Butler also says he was threatened that if he did not resign from his post, the fire district would go to the police with proof that he forged the signature of department Chief Gary Horsburgh on a letter to Mr. Butler’s insurance company.
The attorney said that, with Mr. Butler not reporting for his duties as treasurer for so long, fire officials had no choice but to look for paperwork in the desk he used at the firehouse.
As to the forgery claims, Mr. Pinsky said a report has been filed with police, and that there are questions as to whether Mr. Butler illegally signed other documents during his tenure. Mr. Pinsky added that an appeal has been filed with the state appellate court to officially remove Mr. Butler from office.
The attorney also said that during his time representing the district, the fire commissioners have never had an illegal work session, and that they have taken extra precautions to make sure there is never a quorum when they meet privately.
This week, Mr. Butler said the district does intend to fight the suit once being served. He added that although the commissioners will file for the district insurance to cover costs, it is possible that the claim will be denied and the litigation will be have to be paid for by taxpayers.
“The lawsuit will be defended,” he said. “We hope that the insurance company will cover the defense of it. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t, depending on the charges. If they do not, the taxpayers will pay a significant burden for very expensive legal fees, all thanks to someone who refused to work for many months.”
Among other things, the suit claims that the district violated Mr. Butler’s right to free speech and to due process. It names the board of commissioner and Mr. Halsey as defendants.