by Timothy Bolger ~ The Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach settled for $85,000 a lawsuit in which five former seasonal village police officers alleged that they were wrongfully terminated for not participating in corruption in the department. It was a tepid conclusion to a scandalous case that drew national headlines when the suit was first filed in 2007, as the plaintiffs originally sought $350 million in damages.
“What it really is is a business decision,” Ken Gray, the village attorney, told the public during the Nov. 13 board meeting before the trustees unanimously approved the settlement. “We’re saving trial and appeals. We were anticipating the trial alone to be over… $60,000. And no doubt there would be appeals in this case, because there’s been many appeals so far. This law firm handling the plaintiff’s case is a scorched-earth litigator. They were tenacious, absolutely tenacious.”
Former seasonal police officers Edward Carter, Frank Fiorillo, Kevin Lamm, Joseph Nofi and Thomas Snyder filed the suit after they were fired in 2006 as purported retribution for making accusations that Chief George Hesse, who has led the department for more than a decade, covered up crimes committed by fellow officers and friends, while engaging in alleged acts of debauchery while on the job. They also claim he defamed the men after they were fired.
“Although I loved working in the village, every time I tried to help clean up the department I was ridiculed by Hesse and his cronies, and eventually fired for doing my job as a police officer,” Nofi said shortly after the suit was filed.
The suit was initially filed in Central Islip federal court, but in 2011, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a U.S. District Court judge’s dismissal of the claims. Among the federal claims that were tossed out was an alleged violation of the Fourth Amendment, the right to due process, which the appeals court agreed did not apply because they were at-will seasonal employees with no expectation of being rehired. The appeals court also affirmed the dismissal of alleged Fourteenth and First Amendment violations.
“Much more is needed than a mere complaint to your supervisor about a workplace grievance, if you are to seek the protection of the First Amendment,” Ken Novikoff of Uniondale-based Rivkin Radler LLP, who represented OBPD and the Village of Ocean Beach at the time, said after the 2nd Circuit ruling.
Other allegations of civil service law violations, defamation and unlawful retention of unfit employees that fall under state jurisdiction were re-filed in Suffolk County Supreme Court in Riverhead, where a judge approved the settlement on Dec.6.
Thompson Wigdor & Gilly LLP, the high-profile Manhattan-based law firm that represented the plaintiffs, declined to comment on the settlement, as did the most recent firm representing the defendants, Marks, O’Neill, O’Brien, Courtney & Kelly P.C.
“This litigation has been dragging on for 15 years and the village has been paying outside counsel to handle the matter because the insurance that we had at the time, we burned through it,” said Gray, noting the village had a $1 million policy that was spent on legal fees. Adding that the settlement was planned for in the village budget, he added, “This was a good business decision on behalf of this board, in my opinion.”
The initial civil suit was filed days before Hesse and a fellow officer were charged by Suffolk County prosecutors with covering up the beating of a drunken tourist in 2006. They were later acquitted at trial. Afterward, the village settled for $600,0000 a civil suit filed by the alleged victim in that case.
Settlement of this case represents the last of the litigation that clouded the OBPD reputation from that era. When approached for comment, Chief Hesse said that a nondisclosure agreement prohibited him from doing so, but did say he was glad that the whole thing is over.
Shoshanna McCollum contributed to this report.
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