The Riverhead Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint a special counsel to advise the town ethics board as it investigates a complaint against Councilwoman Jodi Giglio.
The hiring of attorney David Besso of Long Tuminello LP to represent the ethics board didn’t generate much controversy on its own, but the fact that Ms. Giglio was permitted to vote on the resolution to hire him did.
“Why were you sitting in a meeting when they are bringing in outside counsel and you are being investigated?” Rex Farr, coordinator of the Coalition Against EPCAL Housing, which brought the ethics complaint, asked Ms. Giglio Tuesday. Mr. Farr began speaking again before she could respond.
Another coalition member, John McAuliff, wanted to ask each board member individually if they planned to accept the recommendation of the ethics board, but board members said they can’t do that without knowing what the recommendation is.
The ethics board requested outside counsel, rather than the town’s own attorneys, to guide it in deciding whether Ms. Giglio should recuse herself from voting on Calverton Aviation & Technology’s $40 million offer to purchase town-owned land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton. The Town Board has postponed a vote on whether CAT is qualified and eligible, until the ethics board weighs in on that question.
On April 12, the Coalition Against EPCAL Housing raised the ethics issue on April 12 in the wake of a private meeting in New York City on March 12 involving Ms. Giglio and CAT officials. At a subsequent work session, Ms. Giglio reviewed the questions she’d asked and the answers CAT gave her, but several residents have said they do not feel there is any way to accurately know what took place during that meeting.
The Riverhead town attorney’s office and the ethics board have held ongoing discussions on the board’s request for outside counsel. The issue, according to town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz, came down to whether having town attorneys represent both the Town Board and the ethics board on a complaint against a council member constituted a conflict of interest.
In addition, deputy town attorney Erik Howard, who has been representing the ethics board, is the son-in-law of Councilman Tim Hubbard, who said an ethics complaint has also been brought against him suggesting he should recuse himself.
Nevertheless, Mr. Hubbard noted, the ethics board also said it would be all right for both he and Ms. Giglio to vote on its request for outside counsel.
“I don’t know how you can be involved in a situation and get to vote on it,” Mr. Farr said Tuesday.
Typically, from a code of responsibility, attorneys should step aside when they end up representing two parties with conflicting interests, Mr. Kozakiewicz said, which is one of the reasons the ethics board requested the hiring of special counsel, .
A previous Town Board granted a similar ethics board request in 2014, he said, adding that town code allows it and that other municipalities have done the same in similar cases.
“My concern is the appearance of transparency, in that to have one of our town attorneys handle or be the attorney assigned to the ethics board in a case involving a fellow Town Board officer, to me, is a direct conflict and looks like it would smell fishy,” Mr. Hubbard said.
Outside counsel would be better able to handle any questions the ethics board might have without creating the appearance of impropriety, depending on what its findings are, Mr. Hubbard said.
He also said the fact that his son-in-law is a deputy town attorney currently assigned to the ethics board plays has no part in his vote on the outside counsel issue.
“It has everything to do with that the town attorney’s office works for us as a board,” Mr. Hubbard said at last Thursday’s work session.
When Councilwoman Catherine Kent suggested it might not be appropriate for him to weigh on the issue for that reason, he responded by saying: “That’s ludicrous, Catherine.”
The conflict of interest issue has been framed incorrectly, Mr. Kozakiewicz said.
“It’s my office, not a particular individual,” he said.
Ms. Giglio agreed that outside counsel should be appointed for the ethics board.
“It’s very awkward to be going into the town attorney’s office with code enforcement issues and sitting in the chair across from Mr. Howard and asking him about code enforcement issues or overcrowded houses and things of that nature without it looking like I may be in there talking to him about the ethics complaint against myself,” Ms. Giglio said.
She suggested a policy be drafted stating that outside counsel should always be used in similar situations.
Ms. Kent had said she did not think it was right for Ms. Giglio discuss the issue since she’s the board member in question.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. McAuliff also asked how much land can be developed at EPCAL.
Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said it’s all an “educated guess” because the state Department of Environmental Conservation has not ruled on what can and can’t be developed. She said the DEC has limited how much can be built due to protection of wetlands, tiger salamanders, grassland and other features.