In a federal lawsuit filed last week, former East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson is accused of retaliating against a Montauk whistleblower who alerted state officials to environmental violations committed by Keith Grimes, a contractor and longtime Wilkinson political supporter and friend.
The plaintiff, Harry J. Ellis, asserts that Mr. Wilkinson, in his official capacity, engaged in a pattern of intimidation and retaliation against him, violating his civil rights. “During his tenure as supervisor of the Town of East Hampton,” the lawsuit charges, Mr. Wilkinson “and his political allies repeatedly and systematically targeted enemies and subjected them to retaliation.”
The class-action suit was brought “on behalf of all those citizens and residents of the [Town of East Hampton] who have been or are likely to have been intimidated in the exercise of their Constitutional rights by the actions and policies of defendant Wilkinson. . . .”
Speaking by phone yesterday from Haiti, James S. Henry, a Sag Harbor lawyer who is representing Mr. Ellis, said that his client, a longtime Montauk resident, had provided “enormous service to the community by helping to protect the environment.”
“He stuck his neck out,” said the lawyer. He said Mr. Ellis “was just one of several such environmental activists or whistleblowers who was singled out. . . .”
The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Wilkinson fast-tracked the construction of a 6,000-square-foot drainage retention pond, parking lot, and public footpath on wetlands adjacent to the Ellis residence on East Lake Drive in Montauk, “in direct retaliation” for Mr. Ellis’s role in bringing illegal activities by Mr. Grimes to light.
The contractor, along his wife, Susan Grimes, and Rick Gibbs, the owner of Rick’s Crabby Cowboy Cafe on East Lake Drive, was charged by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation with numerous violations of state environmental law, including dredging in Lake Montauk without a permit, constructing a road in a tidal wetland without a permit, and depositing dredge spoil in state navigable waters.
In June 2010, the lawsuit says, following complaints by Mr. Ellis, the D.E.C. began an investigation that resulted in 20 notices of violation, which could have subjected the Grimeses and Mr. Gibbs to fines of more than $2 million. Ultimately the parties were assessed penalties of between $75,000 and $130,000.
The morning after the D.E.C. issued the summonses, the lawsuit says, Mr. Wilkinson was seen at 6:50 a.m. in an official East Hampton Town car “driving back and forth directly in front of the wetland and the Ellis property.” Documents filed with the court include an image captured by a security camera at the Ellis property that purportedly depicts the supervisor in the car.
“In direct retaliation,” the lawsuit says, Mr. Wilkinson pushed forward with plans for the drainage pond on the strip of wetlands. That October, Mr. Ellis filed suit to stop the drainage project and also made a title claim to the strip. Since 1974, the Ellis family had been using a part of it for their driveway.
The title suit (“quiet title” in legalese) is still before the New York State Supreme Court; the class action suit claims town officials have deliberately delayed the proceedings.
The drainage pond project was not fully vetted, nor were other, more suitable locations considered, the current lawsuit says. The project was “not being driven by objective necessity but by reprisal.”
Others named in the suit, although not as defendants, include John Jilnicki, an assistant town attorney; Carl Irace, a former assistant town attorney, Larry Penny, the former the town natural resources director, Susanne Roxbury, an outside counsel for the town, and the current town supervisor, Larry Cantwell.
Mr. Cantwell is accused of failing to respond to Mr. Ellis’s attempts to resolve the underlying issue of the drainage pond. He declined to comment this week.
The civil rights lawsuit against Mr. Wilkinson says that during a September 2010 meeting at the Montauk Library, attended by Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Irace, more than 30 members of the East Lake Association expressed opposition to the stormwater pond project. “Immediately after the meeting, at a local bar in Montauk, a local resident overheard assistant town attorney say, with respect to plaintiff Harry J. Ellis, ‘It’s not like the guy doesn’t have it coming to him anyway.’ ”
The former supervisor’s actions, the lawsuit claims, resulted in a “chilling” of “the willingness to speak out on public issues and cooperate with agencies like the D.E.C. to enforce environmental laws, even against those who have ‘powerful friends’ at Town Hall.”
“Left unpunished, this kind of high-handed behavior by local government officials will continue to happen again.”
Mr. Wilkinson referred a request for comment on Tuesday to Mr. Jilnicki, who said yesterday that the matter had been referred to an outside counsel, Steven Stern of Sokoloff Stern in Carle Place. A call to Mr. Stern was not returned by press time.
Mr. Ellis seeks compensatory and punitive damages “to the extent permitted by law” after a trial, an injunction against the threat of further “retaliatory behavior,” and a judgment declaring that Mr. Wilkinson and others violated his civil rights and those of other residents, and that the former supervisor abused the power of his office.
The lawsuit is the second in which Mr. Wilkinson has been accused of reprisals and violations of citizens’ constitutional rights. In 2010, Mr. Henry, Mr. Ellis’s lawyer, also represented Edward Johann of Montauk and the Third House Nature Center in a similar action against the former supervisor and his deputy, former Councilwoman Theresa Quigley.
That suit was brought after the town evicted the nature center from the town-owned Fort Pond House and made plans to sell the property. Many in Montauk and elsewhere objected vociferously. The suit was settled in 2012 when the nature center was allowed back on site to retrieve property and offered use of another town facility.