John Jilnicki, the East Hampton Town attorney, has assigned his deputy, Carl Irace, to research the town’s code of ethics as well as legal decisions and opinions regarding conflicts of interest or the appearance of impropriety.
The action came in response to a letter Mr. Jilnicki received regarding an apparent relationship between Mr. Irace, who is the attorney for the town zoning board, and an attorney who represented a client before that board.
Yesterday, Mr. Jilnicki said the matter would also be referred to the town ethics board “so they can remove any doubts or questions,” and address “how we can handle it in the future.”
When he received the letter, which also was sent to The Star, Mr. Jilnicki said he had asked Mr. Irace to provide an explanation. Now, he said, there would be a determination as to whether Mr. Irace should formally disclose his relationship with the other attorney, Alice Cooley, and recuse himself from matters in which she is involved. He said guidelines would be developed and implemented.
The letter was signed by Ted Wistral. It provided no contact information and a local phone book listing could not be found. In the letter, Mr. Wistral called himself a taxpayer and said he was “appalled” that there had been no disclosure of the attorneys’ relationship. Earlier this year, an anonymous letter writer had said that Mr. Irace was late in renewing his legal license.
The town ethics code deals largely with conflicts created by financial relationships, Mr. Jilnicki said, adding that it was unclear where the line of potential impropriety is drawn when there is no spousal or familial relationship.
Asked to comment on the letter, Mr. Irace declined, referring the matter to Mr. Jilnicki. But David Eagan, an attorney with an East Hampton practice in which Ms. Cooley is an associate, spoke on behalf of the firm and his associate in a phone conversation on Tuesday.
“We looked at the issue months ago when Alice brought it to our attention, and we came to the professional conclusion that this represented no professional concern to us whatsoever,” he said. The New York Lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility addresses ethical considerations, he said, as do opinions from judges and lawyers advising the bar. “We do not know of any decisions which call this situation into any question whatsoever,” he said.
“We acted professionally and will continue to act professionally,” he said.
“We’re speaking about a very young, talented lawyer that we’re very proud of,” he said. She had received extensive training since joining his firm, he said, “especially about these kinds of situations.”
Both Mr. Eagan and Mr. Irace questioned the motivation of the letter writer. “I don’t think it’s fair for people to sit and opine,” Mr. Eagan said. Professional judgment, he said, “is not a matter of anyone’s personal opinion; there should be an awareness. We have written tests, and we have opinions that are issued by governing bodies and judges and lawyers.”
The matter before the Z.B.A. at the July 12 work session, to which the letter referred, regarded a request on behalf of one of Ms. Cooley’s clients for the board to modify a determination, specifically a requirement that $30,000 worth of plants be installed as a condition of receiving certain variances. Before Ms. Cooley even spoke, Mr. Eagan said, the zoning board had agreed to revise its ruling based on a letter submitted by the law firm.
With regard to Mr. Irace’s representing the zoning board at its July 12 meeting, Mr. Jilnicki said Tuesday that “it would have been appropriate to disclose and step aside. It’s always better. You’ve got to be concerned about the appearance.”