In Depth News

Does Town Undermine Justice System?

If the owners of a nightclub or restaurant dare to challenge East Hampton Town’s “unconstitutional” code ordinances, the town rats the place out to the State Liquor Authority, a noted attorney charged this week.

Lawrence Kelly, who has been busy the last couple years taking on East Hampton Town in court, said town police department officers are being forced to “compromise themselves” to defend the town’s selective code enforcement system. East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo and Town Attorney Mike Sendlenski both refuted Kelly’s take on the matter.

Kelly is currently representing three Montauk nightclubs that are fighting citations from the town. He said in the course of his defense he uncovered backdated “referrals” made to the SLA by town police officers.

Ruschmeyer’s was charged with violations of “over occupancy” during the summer, after code inspectors visited the establishment and said there were more than 22 people in the Eel Room inside the club. Kelly said placing an occupancy limit of the Eel Room is disingenuous to begin with, since crowds flow in and out of it unencumbered and it is inside the larger building. He said some of the summonses were dismissed “immediately” and the others “were baloney.” Kelly is fighting the charges in Suffolk County Supreme Court.

Ruschmeyer’s also received a “report of disorderly conduct” on September 17 from the SLA. The SLA can suspend, and even revoke, a liquor license — the lifeblood of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.

“We have a duty to report to the SLA,” Sarlo countered. “It’s routine. It’s part of the job.”

Kelly later found out two other clients, Navy Beach and The Grey Lady, both suffered similar fates and had to answer the SLA in court.

“The one common thread may be that EHTPD police reports from June and July had the common search term ‘fight’ listed in the paperwork,” Kelly wrote. “I believe that my clients were specifically targeted in this process, and that is why three of my clients, and only my clients, were scheduled for yesterday’s Supreme Court Mineola SLA hearings.”

Kelly said the end result of this is that every bar and restaurant in East Hampton Town will be hesitant to call for any police assistance in the future, for fear that the simple act of calling for assistance will provide the foundation for retaliation against the establishment by the town.

Kelly said there was an incident at Ruschmeyer’s in July 2017. It was outside the establishment, and handled by staff. In essence, an irate friend of a guest took a swing at someone and the matter was resolved without police intervention. However, Ruschmeyer’s called police and filed a report. Kelly said the police took no other action — until he decided to challenge the ordinance violations issued to Ruschmeyer’s in court.

“It appears to me that following court proceedings in Suffolk Supreme Court last August, in which my clients challenged certain town attorney representations to the Supreme Court, my client Ruschmeyer’s was hit with a post dated ‘report of disorderly premises’ in late September 2017 for a purported incident from July 2017,” Kelly wrote.

“It doesn’t matter if it was outside. It was on the property. The establishment is responsible for its premises,” Sarlo said.

Both Sarlo and Sendlenski said it was standard procedure. “We have an officer who reviews the records and makes the filings to the SLA,” Sarlo said. “There is no postdating — the event date is on the report.”

Sendlenski said the town follows the same procedure it always has. “Anytime there is an incident, the town makes a referral to the SLA. There are no instances when the town would file a report with the SLA solely because of ongoing litigation. If you have a fight, the SLA gets a referral,” he noted.

There was a sharp upturn in code enforcement during the Montauk summer season after then Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell took office four years ago. Kelly represented several establishments and successfully had violations thrown out of court. He also recently challenged the town’s rental registry law and won a jury trial. He also acted on behalf of disgruntled employees that filed grievances against the town.

“Until now, there has always been a sharp delineation, in my mind, between the professionalism of the EH Town Police Department and the security staffs at the Montauk establishments, and the political nonsense engaged in by the town attorneys and the code enforcement. The police department has always understood that their safety and the safety of the citizens is best served by keeping away from the petty and the underhanded acts which degrade the trust of the public,” Kelly wrote to Sarlo.

rmurphy@indyeastend.com