Former East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson has been named as a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a Montauk resident last Thursday, June 5.
According to attorney James Henry, who represents Harry J. Ellis, the founder of the East Lake Association of Montauk, Mr. Ellis is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, judgment and relief against Mr. Wilkinson for violating his civil rights by orchestrating a “campaign of unlawful, malicious retaliation, selective enforcement and invidious discrimination” against him.
Mr. Henry also names Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, Assistant Town Attorney John Jilnicki, former Assistant Town Attorney Carl Irace, former Director of Natural Resources Larry Penny, and attorney Susanne Roxbury, outside counsel for the Town of East Hampton, in the lawsuit as interested parties or “un-indicted co-conspirators,” as he called them in a phone interview.
In the lawsuit, Mr. Ellis alleges that over the course of Mr. Wilkinson’s four years as supervisor, he targeted Mr. Ellis because he had played a “lead role in investigating, documenting and reporting serious acts of illegal dredging and other environmentally destructive activities on Lake Montauk by Keith Grimes.”
Because Mr. Ellis had brought these issues to the public’s attention, the State Department of Environmental Conservation slapped Mr. Grimes, an excavating contractor, with at least 20 notices of violation, resulting in fines totaling thousands of dollars, according to the lawsuit.
Over the next few months, allegedly in retaliation, Mr. Wilkinson “ordered” Mr. Ellis and his family to stop using a town-owned 0.76-acre strip of wetlands next to their residence so that a stormwater retention pond could be constructed, the lawsuit said. The Ellises had been using part of that land for their driveway.
Mr. Ellis charges that the project was done at “record speed for such construction operations” in the town, and that the pond, beside which there is a five-car parking lot and a 300-foot-long footpath leading to the lake, is a “massive excavation” and a “terrific mosquito haven.”
He said the town did not examine other alternatives and built it where it did to punish him.
“In the words of one former Wilkinson associate,” the lawsuit reads, “‘It’s not like the guy (meaning Mr. Ellis) doesn’t have it coming to him anyway.’”
Mr. Penny, the former natural resources director, in a telephone interview said the project was never completed because of litigation between the town and Mr. Ellis, but that it was just one of many retaining ponds the town had been building around Lake Montauk at the time to catch stormwater runoff. He said the land they were trying to build on was actually town land.
“You can’t have a private party sitting on municipal land. That’s called adverse possession,” he said. “I think Harry thought he had been there long enough using that driveway.”
Mr. Irace, the former assistant town attorney, said the piece of land in question had been listed in the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program for years, and town attorneys will probably continue fighting this case.
“The town not only has a strong position but absolutely the responsibility to the townspeople and future townspeople to defend against property owners who claim adverse possession,” he said. “If the town doesn’t continue to defend this underlying case, that gives everyone adjacent to town properties carte blanche to take some of it.”
Mr. Ellis said in the lawsuit that he had been fighting to halt the project for four years, and that Mr. Wilkinson and the town have been punishing him further by exhausting his meager financial resources by prolonging the litigation.
In addition to that, Mr. Ellis charged that Mr. Wilkinson was the “instigator of the malicious campaign of retaliation” against him because he has been an environmental watchdog.
He even said that the financial and personal stress associated with the persecution even played a “significant role” in the murder-suicide deaths of his parents, Harry and Barbara Ellis, in New Jersey in 2012.
The bottom line is that Mr. Ellis believes that it is in the public’s best interest that “sustained, unconscionable violations of constitutional rights” by the town officials, “their hirelings and their cronies do not go unanswered, and that whistleblowers who render so much invaluable service to the public are never abused like this again,” according to the suit.
Mr. Wilkinson said on Friday morning that it would be inappropriate for him to speak about the lawsuit and referred questions to Mr. Jilnicki, who did not return requests for comment. Mr. Cantwell said he could not comment either.
The case against Mr. Wilkinson has been assigned to Judge Joseph F. Bianco, but there has not yet been a court date assigned, according to Mr. Henry.