Allegations that East Hampton Town officials had improperly intervened in decisions regarding the issuance of a building permit for renovations at the former Ronjo motel in Montauk are “totally baseless,” the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Government Corruption Bureau has determined.
The allegations were made in a letter to the The Independent newspaper by Zachary Cohen, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for town supervisor in 2011. In a letter sent yesterday to John Jilnicki, the East Hampton Town attorney, Christopher McPartland, the Division Chief of Investigations, wrote that, “after a thorough investigation” it was determined that “each and every allegation of illegal conduct or misconduct in the letter is totally baseless.”
The matter was referred to the district attorney by town officials following a public exchange about the letter between Mr. Cohen and town board members at a meeting last month.
In his letter, published on May 2, Mr. Cohen, who lost his bid for supervisor by 15 votes, claimed that Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley “continue to allow town employees to bypass proper review” of projects — specifically the renovation of the Ronjo, alleging that the owners, Chris Jones and Lawrence Siedlick, had received an unfair advantage from “their friends on the town board.”
Mr. McPartland said in his letter that that suggestion is “totally without merit,” and “there is no evidence at all” to support claims by Mr. Cohen in his letter that “town attorneys, along with the owners’ attorney, encouraged an illegal action by the building inspector,” or that the building permit that was issued was illegal.
Mr. Cohen said yesterday that he would not comment at this time. In an e-mail on Tuesday, Mr. Jilnicki said, “I am very pleased by the D.A.’s determination. I have the highest regard for the individuals in this office and for the building inspector and this determination confirms that they acted properly at all times.”
Mr. Jones and Mr. Siedlick are renovating the downtown property into an upscale motel called the Montauk Beach House. Their purchase of the old Ronjo has been in the news for months, following a proposal by Supervisor Wilkinson to sell a portion of a town-owned alleyway that bisects the site to them for $35,000, without first having the value of the land appraised.
The Democratic minority members of the town board protested, and a petition calling for a public referendum on the sale was circulated. The petition was thrown out on a technicality by Fred Overton, the town clerk. The petitioners, including leadership of the local Democratic Party, sued. Separate appraisals commissioned by the Democrats and by Mr. Jones and Mr. Siedlick set the appropriate price of the alley segment at widely varying levels — $184,000, in the case of the Democrats’ appraisal, and $22,500 in the other.
In his letter to The Independent, Mr. Cohen referred to the acting chief building inspector Tom Preiato’s issuance of a permit allowing the installation of a basement at the motel to proceed, even while a site plan application seeking approval for the work is under review. The terms of the permit required Mr. Jones to sign an affidavit saying that he would proceed with the work at his own risk, as site plan approval was not assured.
“This is not legal under the town code. . . .” Mr. Cohen asserted in his letter. He said Mr. Preiato’s decision followed a “powwow” including the motel owners and their attorney along with the town attorneys assigned to the planning board and the Building Department — roles filled by Kathryn Santiago and Patrick Gunn, though they were not named in the letter.
“The inescapable conclusion is that town attorneys, along with the owners’ attorney, encouraged an illegal action by the building inspector,” Mr. Cohen alleged.
There was no response by press time to requests for comment sent to Ms. Santiago, Mr. Gunn, and Mr. Preiato. Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley also did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Mr. McPartland’s letter, the district attorney’s office conducted “numerous interviews of town officials,” and offered Mr. Cohen “an opportunity to support his claims.”
“Relevant town documents were examined and other evidence regarding this issue was reviewed,” the D.A.’s letter said.
Mr. Jones spoke out yesterday morning about what he called “despicable,” politically motivated actions. “They view this as a game, and it’s not,” he said. “It has really far-reaching impacts.”
“We have upwards of 70 people employed on our project, and all of these kinds of tactics and antics have repercussions,” Mr. Jones said. Controversy over the alley sale, which he said is now proceeding, and then over the permits for his project, has set the motel renovation back by about a month, he said.
News of the allegations and a district attorney’s investigation had caused business associates to question his integrity, Mr. Jones said, “and that has long-lasting and meaningful ramifications.”
“We are very thankful that the town and the D.A. investigated the matter as expeditiously as they did,” he said. “Clearly, there was never any doubt in either Larry’s or my mind as to what the outcome would be. The truth always comes out.”
“As regards Zachary Cohen, I’m very, very sad, quite frankly, that he would resort to slander for his own political gain. That’s an issue that we will review to the extent that there are legal remedies to do so,” said Mr. Jones. The point of any potential legal action, he said, “is not financial gain; the bigger goal is, this needs to stop, and this community needs to recognize that these people should not have a podium to stand on.”
Mr. Jones said he and his staff are “working furiously” to open the Montauk Beach House by June 22.