An outside counsel will be appointed to advise the Riverhead Board of Ethics in its investigation of an ethics complaint lodged against Councilwoman Jodi Giglio.
The town board on Tuesday will appoint Bay Shore attorney David Besso of the firm Long Tuminello LLP to assist the ethics board in that matter.
Besso, a veteran attorney admitted to the New York bar in 1964, is a former member of the Suffolk County Ethics Commission and served as its chairperson in 2000.
Riverhead town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz joins the ethics board in its request. In a matter involving a town board member, every lawyer in the town attorney’s office is conflicted because the town attorney works for the town board, Kozakiewicz said.
“The Code of Professional Responsibility says where reasonable counsel concludes that they are representing clients who have conflicting interests, counsel should step aside,” Kozakiewicz said, referring to the professional ethics standards lawyers are bound to uphold.
Kozakiewicz recommended hiring Besso. He was one of three lawyers the town attorney reached out to about the assignment. The other two declined to participate, citing their own potential conflicts.
The ethics board is considering a complaint against Giglio filed by a coalition of civic and environmental groups concerning the councilwoman’s March 12 meeting in New York City with representatives of the company seeking to buy more than 1,600 acres of land from the town inside the Calverton Enterprise Park.
Giglio was the only town official at the meeting, which she took without notifying the other town board members or the lawyers representing the town on the $40 million deal.
The meeting took place on the eve of the scheduled continuation of a public hearing on the proposed sale by the town board, sitting as the board of the Riverhead Community Development Agency, which holds title to the former Navy site once occupied by Northrop Grumman.
The complaint asks the ethics board to recommend that the councilwoman recuse herself from the vote on the application of Calverton Aviation and Technology to be deemed a “qualified and eligible sponsor” as required by state law for the no-bid sale in an urban renewal zone.
The ethics board decided at its May 14 meeting that it would ask the town board to appoint outside counsel and wrote the town board two days later with their request.
The town attorney’s office normally provides the ethics board with legal counsel, but in a complaint involving a town board member, Kozakiewicz said, it would be a conflict. Kozakiewicz raised the issue at last week’s work session, but the board asked him to look into the practice of other towns. Today, he reported that from what he’s learned, it’s a mixed bag. In some towns, the ethics board always utilizes outside counsel. In others, it’s done on an as-needed basis. In at least one town, the board — whose members are nearly all lawyers — utilizes no counsel at all.
Councilwoman Catherine Kent said she doesn’t think it’s advisable for Giglio, who was in today’s meeting and participated in the discussion, to take part in the decision about what counsel should represent the ethics board in her case. She also questioned if Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard should participate since deputy town attorney Eric Howard, who is his son-in-law, is the staff attorney assigned to the ethics board.
“Catherine that’s ludicrous, just ludicrous,” Hubbard responded. “What’s the conflict particular to Eric? We don’t receive a benefit from it.”
Kozakiewicz said the conflict is the town attorney’s office, “not the individual.”
“Do you think it’s appropriate for the councilwoman to weigh in in on how the ethics board should proceed?” Kent asked Kozakiewicz.
“You can take everything to a hypertechnical — tell me what do you perceive to be the conflict,” he answered.
Giglio said she agrees with appointing outside counsel and said she believes the board should adopt a policy requiring it.
“When it involves a town board member there should always be outside counsel present,” she said.
Giglio pointed out that she needs to meet with Howard about town code enforcement actions. She expressed concern that any such meeting would look like they were discussing the ethics complaint.
Hubbard expressed frustration at the length of time it has taken to resolve the question.
“It bothers me that we received this lettter May 16 and it’s May 31 and we still haven’t made a decision,” he said. “It’s been sitting around. That’s what bothers me.”
The town board agreed not to act on the application of Calverton Aviation and Technology to be deemed a “qualified and eligible sponsor” for purposes of the EPCAL sale until after the board of ethics makes a decision on the ethics complaint.
The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.