Riverhead Town Tax Assessor and Republican Committee chairman Mason Haas has sued Riverhead Town over its recently passed ethics law, accusing Town Board members and Supervisor Sean Walter of targeting him as political retribution.
The ethics law prevents town elected officials from holding leadership positions in political parties. The only employee of the town that would be affected is Mr. Haas.
“It’s a personal, vindictive attack,” Mr. Haas alleged in an interview Saturday, one day after he brought legal action against the town to stop the law. “The Supervisor in two separate meetings said quite clearly in front of others that if he, [Councilman] Jim Wooten and [Councilman] George Gabrielsen didn’t get the nod, they were prepared to move forward to oust me as party leader.”
In the lawsuit filed Friday, Mr. Haas accuses the Town of violating his Constitutional rights by targeting him due to his role with a political party. He also said Mr. Walter is wasting money by fighting to keep the law on the books.
“It’s a quid pro quo thing,” Mr. Haas said. “He’s using taxpayer dollars fulfill his threat.”
Supporters of the law — which passed by a 3-2 vote months after the GOP refused to back incumbents Mr. Walter and Mr. Wooten — say the legislation prevents town officials from abusing their power. A few weeks prior to the Town Board vote, the GOP committee kicked out several members who had backed Walter for the party’s nomination.
Mr. Walter said in a phone interview Saturday he was “confident” the law would withstand a legal challenge.
“Mr. Haas should do the right thing for the Republican party and the right thing for Riverhead and step down,” Mr. Walter said.
Mr. Haas refused, saying his role with the town isn’t a policy-making position. He says the town’s ethics committee suggested that only “policy-making” positions be banned from holding political power, since they could theoretically abuse their authority.
By passing the law, Mr. Haas says the Town Board ignored the ethics committee’s decision.
Due to the late filing of the lawsuit Friday afternoon and a conflict of interest with Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz, the pending law — which was due to take effect Monday — is temporarily on hold.
Mr. Kozakiewicz is running for Town Justice with the Republican party’s backing, and said the situation forced him to recuse himself.
“I was in a little bit of a predicament,” he said.
Mr. Walter said the Town Board will pass a resolution Tuesday to hire an outside attorney to represent the town, adding he believes Mr. Kozakiewicz and the other town attorney were “conflicted” because of alleged meetings between them and Mr. Haas.
Due to the unique situation, Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Joseph Santorelli granted a temporary restraining order late Friday, stopping the law from taking effect early this week.
That means Mr. Haas — whose term with the GOP ends next month — will stay in office Monday.
The case will be brought back before a judge Thursday, who will then decide whether the hold order should remain.
Photo caption: Riverhead GOP Chair Mason Haas (left), Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, Supervisor Sean Walter (back) and Councilman John Dunleavy on Election Night last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)