Riverhead planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree at a November 2018 public hearing. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree, who was suspended in March on disciplinary charges accusing him of incompetence, neglect of duty and insubordination, says the “charges are politically motivated by a pretext by a sometimes irrational supervisor and Town Board wherein he is being made a political scapegoat.”

Murphree says the charges are part of the supervisor’s and Town Board’s “plan to distract attention from their own actions that surely will become points of criticism and debate” in the upcoming election.

His job as planning director requires “statutory compliance that often is by its nature at odds” with the Town Board’s “politically pro-development agenda,” he says.

Murphree’s allegations came in court papers filed this month to compel the town to produce documents he subpoenaed that he says are vital to his defense in the disciplinary action.

The papers provide the first glimpse into how Murphree will defend against the charges, which were made public prior to the start of the disciplinary hearing in April.

The disciplinary charges were served on Murphree March 21. He was suspended without pay for 30 days effective the next day and has been suspended with full pay since April 22.

The hearing got underway on April 17 with the testimony of Supervisor Yvette Aguiar. Murphree’s lawyer reserved his opening statement at the hearing because he did not yet have documents sought by a subpoena. The hearing was to be continued on June 30, when the cross-examination of the supervisor was to begin. The June 30 date was adjourned to July 6 at the request of the hearing officer, who had a personal issue. The July 6 hearing was put off after a State Supreme Court judge on July 5 signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the hearing from continuing until the subpoena dispute is resolved by the court.

Murphree has sued the town to compel production of the documents sought by the subpoena and to prevent the hearing from going forward until the town produces the documents.

The town is required to file response papers to Murphree’s application for an injunction next week.

“We have been kind of laid back and taken the punches,” Murphree’s attorney, Gerard Glass, told RiverheadLOCAL in an interview yesterday. “The supervisor is about to take a number of blows,” he said.

“This is a 25-year civil servant with an unblemished professional record. You may not like the fact that he’s a civil servant, not a political servant. But your complaint has to be justified on some kind of rational basis,” Glass said.

“There are hundreds of documents that have been redacted or have not been provided,” he said. “The town wants him to defend himself with one hand tied behind his back.”

Glass said nine of the 10 charges were between 13 and 18 months old when the charges were filed.

“He was given raises after every single one of these allegations. He was given a merit raise for dedication and hard work,” Glass said.

“So it’s clear that these charges were based on pretext, that they are seeking to terminate him for doing his job and they are looking to make him a political scapegoat,” he said.

“There is no court in this world that will sustain his termination,” according to Glass. “They are exposing the taxpayers of the town of Riverhead to an enormous fiscal liability as a result of this irresponsible action.”

Richard Zuckerman, the town’s outside counsel for labor matters, said in an interview today that Glass asked the town “to voluntarily give him documents to which he knew he had no right to get from a judge.”

Zuckerman said the town provided “everything that was not attorney-client privileged to the tune of approximately 97,000 pages of documents, including documents that he requested involving the witness (Aguiar), so all I can think of is that it’s just a delay tactic to avoid having to ultimately face the music.”

The allegations in the complaint are not yet before the court, Zuckerman said. “They must be argued before the hearing officer,” he said, adding “The court should bounce this back to the hearing officer.”

Glass should ask the hearing officer should sign the subpoena, Zuckerman said. But his opponent said the subpoena doesn’t have to be “so-ordered” when the town’s lawyer agreed to voluntarily accept service of the subpoena.

Glass said he can’t rely on the town’s representation that the documents withheld or redacted are privileged.

“This is the same town, at the direction of the supervisor, that pulled these events out of a hat, events that happened a year earlier, that gave him a raise since and never told him he did anything wrong,” Glass said.

Murphree is asking the court to look at the documents and decide what’s privileged, he said. “The court has the right to do that.”

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