By Stephen J. Kotz
Attorneys for Charles Butler, the longtime treasurer and former secretary of the Bridgehampton Fire District, filed a federal lawsuit this week seeking up to $40 million in damages for what they say was a concerted effort by the district’s fire commissioners to punish him and damage his reputation over his objection to the sale of fire district property.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court by Lawrence Kelly of Bayport. Thomas Horn of Sag Harbor is also representing Mr. Butler.
On Wednesday, Mr. Horn said Mr. Butler’s troubles began last summer when he objected to the district’s decision to sell a 6,000-square-foot parcel bordering Wainscott Pond on Main Street in Wainscott for $940,000 to the billionaire Ronald Lauder, who has extensive land holdings around the pond. Mr. Horn said the board’s then chairman, Steven Halsey, wanted to sell the land to Mr. Lauder, while Mr. Butler opposed it, telling the commissioners during an open meeting that other bidders had offered as much as $70,000 more for the property.
What followed, according to Mr. Horn, was an effort, led by Mr. Halsey, to get rid of Mr. Butler by raising suspicions of financial wrongdoing on his part. Included in that campaign was an advertisement placed in The Southampton Press and East Hampton Star before a district election in December raising questions about Mr. Butler’s performance and outlining plans to save the district money by eliminating many of his paid job duties, he said.
“It’s clearly obvious that he had offended their plans to make sure Mr. Lauder got the property,” Mr. Horn said. “That’s a freedom of speech thing pure and simple.”
In December, voters approved the land sale but they elected Bruce Dombkowski, a write-in candidate, over Mr. Halsey and turned down a proposal to eliminate the elected treasurer’s position.
In January, Mr. Horn said, the fire commissioners did not reappoint Mr. Butler as secretary and illegally eliminated his salary as treasurer. He had been paid $60,000 plus benefits for both jobs.
Brad Pinsky, the fire district’s attorney, had a different take. After being hired last summer. Mr. Pinsky said he compiled 18 pages of “criticisms and strong concerns about the performance of the treasurer” during a financial review of the district.
The attorney, who said he will not represent the district in the lawsuit but be a witness on its behalf, said that while Mr. Butler has charged he was fired from his position as secretary, in reality he had stopped attending meetings or performing the duties of either of his two jobs in September.
He said Mr. Butler inappropriately solicited higher prices for the property that was being put up for sale after the district had received Mr. Lauder’s bid.
Mr. Pinsky also said district officials had found purchase orders for supplies presigned by merchants and alleged that Mr. Butler had used district money to purchase goods for his construction company.
“I brought these concerns to the full board in August. We could have made them public then, but we didn’t,” he said. “It had nothing to do with any real estate sale.”
“We have tried very hard to negotiate an end to this. We have offered to sit down together and find a way to work together, and we offered, for lack of a better word, a divorce if the relationship is something that can’t be repaired,” said Mr. Horn. “But they want their pound of flesh.”