Will Suozzi's private roles affect public opinion?

Former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi speaks about

Former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi speaks about issues as he announced he is running for county executive at his office in Uniondale. (Feb. 14, 2013) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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In the 3 1/2 years since he was voted out as Nassau County executive, Thomas Suozzi has had several private-sector gigs. Now, as he campaigns again for his former post, at least one of Suozzi's recent private roles is drawing the political spotlight.

Suozzi, a Democrat, serves as counsel to the law firm Harris Beach. He announced his candidacy in February at the firm's Uniondale office -- where he still defends catering companies in an ongoing legal battle with some of their current and former employees. Suozzi has worked for the caterers alongside county Democratic Party vice chairman Tom Garry, also of Harris Beach. They had a hand last year in organizing the New York Caterers Association trade group.

Many millions of dollars in pay claims, largely from Long Island, are at stake in state courts in a dispute over whether service fees charged by caterers were supposed to be paid as tips to staffers.

Caterers also have hired prominent lobbyists and contributed scores of thousands of dollars to political campaigns as they push for legislation that could avert what both sides say could add up to huge costs.

The prime sponsor of their bill is state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), who says businesses should be held harmless from an unfair burden.

Since last year he has received more than $45,500 in contributions from area catering enterprises including Scotto Brothers Enterprises, the Fox Hollow Inn and Richard Monti of the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury, campaign finance records show. Martins insists he's acting on the merits of the issue.

Like Martins, Suozzi argues vehemently for the caterers' cause.

"Quite simply, these guys were not stealing the tip cup. Employees were paid above minimum wage and were often high school or college students," Suozzi said. "If I felt that these employers were taking advantage of their employees I'd be the first to criticize them."

As for Suozzi's role, his Democratic primary rival Adam Haber calls it "disheartening . . . People work hard and deserve to be paid fairly. Anyone in public service should support this principle and as county executive I will do just that, to make Nassau work for all our families."

Attorneys for the workers say the legislation would give these businesses an unheard-of immunity from litigation.

Years ago, the question arose whether caterers' service charges to customers were supposed to have been passed along to employees as gratuities. The businesses argued otherwise, but a key 2008 high court decision involving one company went for the employees, most of them nonunion.

As late as 2011, Suozzi argued, the state Labor Department did not deem these service charges to be tips. The state Court of Appeals case was based on a single tour company's wrongful actions, he said. He called the legal situation "a discrepancy between the executive and judicial branches that needs to be clarified and rectified by the legislative branch."

One political question is whether Suozzi's hiring by business for a high-profile labor dispute affecting state policy will give the pro-union Working Families Party pause about endorsing him, as it has in the past. According to the final tally for the 2009 county executive's race, Suozzi won 3,631 votes on the Working Families line in a race he lost by only 286 votes.