Two former East Hampton Town fire marshals have come forward to question the authenticity of documents attributed to them that were used to justify the town’s seizure of cars and equipment from a Montauk mechanic in 2009.
Lawyers for Thomas Ferreira, the mechanic, who has filed a civil rights action in federal court, claim that at least two documents were falsified to distort facts and to suppress evidence of a “conspiracy” to force Mr. Ferreira from his 63 Navy Road property. The attorneys say the fire marshals’ statements confirm their belief that Madeleine Narvilas, a former assistant town attorney, engineered the documents with the knowledge of John Jilnicki, who remains the top town attorney.
Link to Letter
Neither Mr. Jilnicki nor Ms. Narvilas responded to several requests for comment.
Interviewed last week, James Dunlop, former assistant chief fire marshal and chief of the town’s hazardous materials unit, said he decided to speak out in order to right an “injustice,” the full extent of which became clear to him, he said, only after Mr. Ferreira’s property was raided on June 22, 2009. Mr. Dunlop, who had inspected the property himself over a month before the raid, claimed that his report of that inspection, which found Mr. Ferreira’s Automotive Solutions free of any risk to the community, was altered without his knowledge.
Mr. Dunlop said he learned that his letter informing the mechanic that his property had passed inspection, normally sent out within a week, had been suppressed for over a month, during which, he said, it was withheld from the town board. The board voted on June 18 to raid Mr. Ferreira’s property. When the mechanic finally received Mr. Dunlop’s letter — later that same day, leaving him no time for legal redress — it contained an added paragraph that contradicted his original, free-of-risk finding.
The paragraph Mr. Dunlop said did not belong in his long-delayed letter reads: “Be advised that this inspection was based on the fire code of New York State and not the Property Maintenance Code, which is enforced by the code enforcement department.” Mr. Dunlop said he had never used the language because there was no need.
“I inspected hotels, motels, overcrowded houses. If it was housing, it had to do with me.”
Mr. Dunlop said he did not know who might have added the paragraph to his inspection report. “It twisted what I had done. If they added it, why wasn’t I told? Everybody knew they didn’t want him there. Look at the chain of command. Reports are generated by the secretary, but she would not have done this on her own.”
David Artsen, an attorney with the firm Devitt, Spellman, and Barrett of Smithtown, represents East Hampton Town in the civil rights action. Also named in the action are former Town Supervisor Bill McGintee, four former town board members, East Hampton Town Police Lt. Thomas Grenci, Ms. Narvilas, Mr. Jilnicki, and Dominic Shirripa and Kenneth Glogg, former code enforcement inspectors. Mr. Artsen did not return calls for comment.
There were two raids on Automotive Solutions in 2009, the one in June and another on Sept. 14, both conducted on the grounds that the business posed a danger to “the greater Montauk community,” a description at odds with the stated opinion of Mr. Dunlop, the town’s most experienced official in matters of hazardous materials. The report of Mr. Dunlop’s May inspection stated that “no violations of the state and local code were noted . . . We would like to congratulate you on this attention to fire safety in your place of business.”
The two raids resulted in the confiscation of equipment and a subsequent tax lien on Mr. Ferreira’s property. Thomas Horn, a former town fire marshal, and Lawrence Kelly are representing him in the case.
Michael Johnson was Mr. Dunlop’s superior at the time of the first raid, when over $150,000 worth of equipment was seized. He said on Monday that in the week before it took place he had worked with Ms. Narvilas to create a document she said was needed “for court.”
“I thought she was going for a search warrant. I was floored to learn of the raid. Our office was not involved in it,” Mr. Johnson said. The raid was conducted without a warrant.
Mr. Johnson said Ms. Narvilas enlisted his help in justifying the raid three days before it took place, during a meeting attended by Mr. Jilnicki. In three strongly worded paragraphs, the document in question urges that Mr. Dunlop’s positive inspection report be ignored, and asserts that numerous flammable and combustible liquids from abandoned vehicles “present the real possibility of a potential catastrophe.”
The document draws a distinction between a “repair area,” which falls within the jurisdiction of the town fire marshal, and the rest of Mr. Ferreira’s property, which it says comes under the governance of the town code enforcement department. In rebuttal, Mr. Ferreira contends that all of 63 Navy Road was considered an auto repair facility under state law. At the time of the raid he held, and still holds, a state license to operate an auto repair shop, as well as a fire marshal’s business permit. He maintains that even if part of his property fell under the state property maintenance law, as the document asserts, code enforcement had no authorization to administer that law.
“She knew the town had no authority under section 167-12 of the property maintenance code,” the section that Ms. Narvilas cited to justify the raid, said Mr. Horn.
Asked by town attorneys to authorize both the June 22 and Sept. 14 raids, town board members were referred to inspection reports written by Mr. Glogg, the code enforcement inspector, who had warned of the danger of gasoline, oil, and “possibly diesel fuel” stored in vehicles.
According to Mr. Ferreira, Mr. Glogg never inspected the vehicles at Automotive Solutions other than to check their registrations.
Mr. Johnson insisted on Monday that the June 19 memo “was not based on Jim Dunlop’s inspection.” He said he had helped with the wording of it, as requested, but that his input was based solely on a drive-by inspection. “I told them I wasn’t going on the property.”
The former chief fire marshal said he could not explain how a second version of the memo later appeared, on fire marshal office stationery, backdated to June 18, the day the town board approved the raid. It is headed “From Michael Johnson, chief fire marshal,” and directed “to Madeleine Narvilas, assistant town attorney.”
“I don’t know if it’s mine or not. I don’t understand the two dates,” said Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Ferreira’s lawyers, Mr. Horn and Mr. Kelly, obtained the June 19 memo through a freedom of information request of town attorney Robert Connelly, who found it on Ms. Narvilas’s computer. (Ms. Narvilas left the town’s employ in July 2010.) They found the version on the fire marshal’s stationery in town records. Except for the date, the wording of the documents is essentially the same.
“In seeking to pass on the responsibility for the suppression of the Jim Dunlop May 15 inspection and clean bill of health, John Jilnicki and Madeleine Narvilas instead provide . . . sufficient proof of their complicity,” Mr. Kelly wrote as part of an interrogatory exchange with the defendants’ attorneys. Mr. Kelly maintained during that exchange that the amended Dunlop letter and memo from the chief fire marshal to Ms. Narvilas were meant to create “false business records.”
In a telephone conversation, the lawyer said it was done “to hide the fact that Mr. Ferreira’s civil rights had been violated,” and “to cover up the fact that town officials had conspired,” with civic groups and at least one real estate agent seeking to sell the mechanic’s neighboring house, to drive Mr. Ferreira from his home and business.
Mr. Kelly said Ms. Narvilas acted after Mr. Ferreira’s lawyer at the time caught wind of an impending raid and threatened on June 16 to seek a restraining order. Mr. Horn concurred, saying the town attorney had “falsified a public record. She would have relied on a falsified document in front of a judge.”
Pat Mansir, who was on the town board at the time, has said the board was never shown Mr. Dunlop’s inspection report before it voted to raid the Ferreira property. Nor, she said, was the board shown a 2003 memo from the late Donald Sharkey, then the chief building inspector, informing Mr. Ferreira that he had a pre-existing, nonconforming right to use of the property as a car-repair facility despite its location in a residential neighborhood.
Ms. Mansir has retained counsel separate from the other defendants.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Mr. Kelly as a former federal prosecutor. Mr. Kelly was a senior rule of law advisor for the United States State Department in southern Iraq. He is a former Suffolk assistant district attorney and senior assistant county attorney.