Charles Butler cut a wide swath in Bridgehampton.
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He was indeed a popular figure – after all, he's been affiliated with the Bridgehampton Fire District for some 37 years, as its secretary and currently as its treasurer, an elected position.
But, he alleges in court papers, when he objected to a "backroom sweetheart deal" arranged by one or more of the fire commissioners, he was targeted.
After having his reputation publicly smeared, his belongings searched, and the locks changed on his office, Charlie Butler suffered the ultimate indignity: he was summarily fired, despite the fact that he is an elected public official.
According to a suit about to be filed in United States District Court he is seeking some $40 million in damages.
Butler was being paid $30,000 for each of his jobs.
Last October 22 the board advised Butler in writing he was no longer the secretary but affirmed he was still treasurer, his salary guaranteed through the end of the year, though his term runs through 2014. It was subsequently reduced to $1200 and on December 19, 2013, his position was terminated altogether.
One of Butler's attorney's, Lawrence E. Kelly, said by law "the compensation of an elected officer for a fixed term" cannot be cut during that term. Butler's term runs through the end of this year.
It was a never ending nightmare for Butler: he lost a son in recent years, his house burnt to the ground, and he's been sick – the fire district cancelled his health insurance nevertheless.
Brad Pinsky, an attorney for the Syracuse-based Pinsky Law Group, was hired late last year by the fire district and has become the point man in the dispute with Butler.
"He wasn't showing up, that's why his duties were removed. He was paid until the end of the year," Pinsky said.
Steve Halsey, the chair of the board last year, is Butler's primary target. Halsey, court papers allege, arranged for the sale of a parcel of land the district owned on Main Street in Wainscott to Ronald Lauder, his personal friend, even though there were two other bidders who offered more. The procedure by which the deal was made violated state law, Kelly said.
"I wasn't the attorney at that time so I can't comment on that land deal," Pinsky said Monday.
What followed was a very ugly – and very public – campaign during which it was implied Butler overpaid himself, misused district funds. and forged the signature of a fire chief. A full page open letter in the Southampton Press not only demeaned Butler but in essence served as a campaign ad for Halsey, who was up for reelection, Kelly said -- it is illegal to use fire district funds for such a purpose, he added.
"The whole issue of why they took the letter out was because nobody comes to the meeting," Pinsky said. "How else can tell people what's going on?"
Pinsky said there was no intent to influence voters by publishing the letter. "The commissioners knew a lot more they kept from the public until after the election so as not to influence it," the attorney said.
In January at the board's organizational meeting Butler –still the duly elected treasurer — was denied his legal right to conduct the meeting. Instead, the board authorized Pinsky to work with the Suffolk County District Attorney to flesh out a charge that Butler forged a fire chief's signature.
Thomas Horn, who also represents Butler, said the letter in question, "reflects true events . . . there are other signed reports with the same material."
"I've met with investigators from the DA's office," Pinsky said, though he was not aware if an active investigation is underway. As for Butler's status, the attorney said, "I have filed a petition with the appellate division to have him formally removed."
There were thinly veiled charges made in public about accounting irregularities during Butler's stint in office. "There are absolutely no funds unaccounted for," said Horn, "Pinsky has threatened to go to the police and have [Butler] arrested – for what? There are no viable charges, and there is no investigation."
The court documents allege Butler was punished for being a whistle blower and objecting to the fact that the five-man board was operating behind closed doors – with their interests trumping the interests of the department rank and file and taxpayers.
"The district has no private business. The commissioners did everything in public," Pinsky said.
The "harassment" against Butler was retaliation championed by Halsey, who Kelly said "wanted his pound of flesh."
"I am not a fire commissioner so in fairness, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment," Halsey said. He was, shockingly, defeated by a write-in candidate, Bruce Dombkowski in December. Also defeated was a resolution to change the treasurer position from an elected one to an appointed one. "Halsey and Pinsky then redoubled their efforts to retaliate" against Butler, the court document states.
The Lauder deal wasn't the first real estate deal made by the district that raised eyebrows . . . In 2011 the board of commissioners voted to buy a half-acre parcel from Pulver Gas for $3.9 million, which would be financed by a bond and paid for by the public. Though the district entered into the arrangement before the public knew about the proposed purchase, voters subsequently signed off on the deal. Afterwards, a study that revealed there were three underground tanks on the property and some soil contamination. Further, it was discovered the appraised value of the land was more than $1 million less than the proposed purchase price. Kelly said there is no record of the board even discussing the proposed purchase publicly until it had already committed to buy it.
Butler is suing the board of fire commissioners and Halsey on four counts: that he was retaliated against for exercising his right to free speech, that other First Amendment rights were violated, that punishment was imposed upon him without a trial (Bill of Attainder), that his Fifth and 14th Amendment rights to due process were violated.
The alleged violations have caused Butler, "pain, suffering, economic harm, and emotional distress," court papers allege.