The Bridgehampton Fire District board of fire commissioners claim its longtime secretary-treasurer forged the chief’s signature, which the commissioners said constitutes a felony, and the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Government Corruption Bureau is investigating.
Regardless of the outcome of the DA's investigation, Brad Pinsky, an attorney for the fire district, also said he is prepared to go the Appellate Court to have Charles Butler, who is no longer the appointed secretary but is still the elected treasurer, removed.
At a fire district meeting on Jan. 8, the board authorized its attorney to work with the DA's office to prosecute Butler for allegedly forging the signature of the Bridgehampton Fire Department chief on Feb. 6. The letter in question was sent as part of a claim to the New York State Department of Civil Service Employee Benefits Division, and stated that Butler's house burned down November 2012.
Butler and his wife, Wendy, and their dogs escaped from the fire at their Sayre's Path house in Wainscott just before 4 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2012.
"We believe he has done nothing wrong, and certainly nothing criminal," said Thomas Horn, Butler's attorney, whom he hired after he was stripped of many of his duties as secretary this fall, a position he had held since 1977. "Where is the attempt to defraud or mislead somebody?," he said.
Chief Gary Horsburgh said, at the commissioner's meeting, that the signature on the letter was not his. He declined to comment further.
"The district strongly believes that the treasurer has committed the felony of forgery, by signing the Chief's name to a letter on Fire District letterhead for his own purposes," the board's resolution reads.
According to emails provided by the district late last week that reportedly explain the need for a signed letter from a chief, Butler needed his heart medication and could not provide records because they were destroyed in the fire.
The board also cut Butler's health insurance benefits and his salary to nothing, which they claim is because he has not been fulfilling his duties after he was stripped of his duties as secretary.
Though he is no longer the secretary, he still holds the elected position of treasurer until the end 2015. During the December commissioner election, the district floated a proposition to make the treasurer position an appointed one as soon as Butler's term ran out.
Voters defeated the proposal amidst brewing controversy after the district took out an ad in The Southampton Press alluding to wrongdoings on Butler’s part, such as bad accounting practices and misuse of funds. Chairman Steve Halsey was ousted and write-in candidate Bruce Dombkowski was elected to his seat.
The four remaining commissioners on the board, who passed last week’s resolution, said they sent him two letters late last year asking him to fulfill his treasurer duties.
"He's a person who’s been victimized by being told not to fulfill his duties and now criticized last night for not fulfilling his duties," Horn said.
However, the district also requested Butler resign last month, as well.
Pinsky said on Monday that the district kept quiet with its accusations during the elections to save him from public embarrassment and in the hopes he would resign and agree not to run for office for five years, Pinsky said. "The commissioners decided not to seek blood. I think they really were taking the high road.”
Asked what Pinsky thought Butler's reasoning would have been to forge the letter, he said, "I think it's just consistent with ways he did other things. It fits the character with the way he filled that office," he said.
Asked the same question, Horn said, "The same information could have been culled from numerous unsigned sources, such as the fire marshal's office, or the offices of the police department."
Horn said he and Lawrence E. Kelley, a Civil Rights attorney who he's worked with in the past on suits against local municipalities, would not take the case unless it has Civil Rights implications and litigation is likely, he said.
"They are dissatisfied with the results of their election scheme, and now they are trying to get through criminal proceedings that they could not achieve through the election," he said.
The Suffolk County District Attorney's office did not respond to requests for comments. Pinsky said an investigator has been assigned to the case and that he will be meeting with them in two weeks.
Butler was present at the Jan. 8 meeting, the district's first of 2014. Horn, who accompanied him, said he was there to open the organizational meeting, as he had traditionally done, especially since the former chairman Steve Halsey was not re-elected in December, and a new chairman had to be selected.
Pinsky opened the meeting instead. Ray Topping Jr. was selected the new chairman of the board.