When Lighthouse president Michael Picker complained to Hempstead Town officials last May that the environmental consulting firm's bills for the proposed Nassau Coliseum project were "unfair," Town Attorney Joseph Ra responded that the fees were "reasonable and necessary in all respects."
In his letter, Ra did not tell Picker he was a longtime friend of the president of the consulting firm, David Stolman, or that Stolman's firm, F.P. Clark, had made thousands of dollars in contributions to Ra's Republican Club in Franklin Square.
Under state environmental law, all land-use applications must be reviewed for their environmental impact. The local municipality selects the consultant who does it, while the developer pays the bills. The Lighthouse group has deposited more than $550,000 in an escrow account held by the town for those bills.
State campaign filings show that Westchester-based F.P. Clark, selected by the town board in April 2008 as its consultant on the Lighthouse project, has donated $2,420 to the Franklin Square Republican Club, of which Ra is leader, since April 2006.
In an interview, Ra defended the contributions as "perfectly legal," but later said he would refund some of them and stop accepting them from the firm in the future.
Although there is no law barring such contributions, "There should be a rule that the town attorney is not involved in political clubs," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Group, a nonprofit organization that monitors campaign activities.
Picker first complained to Ra - who is the town's point person on the Lighthouse project - about at least $350,000 in bills May 12, calling them "inequitable and unfair."
Two weeks after Picker's complaint, Stolman contributed $455 to Ra's Republican club. A little more than a month later, on July 1, Ra defended Stolman's bills in a letter to Picker.
In an interview, both Stolman and Ra said they had been close friends for more than 30 years. Ra said he was not involved in selecting Stolman's firm for the work and that Stolman's political contributions were "not unlike anything that doesn't happen anywhere else in the state.
Ra said Town Supervisor Kate Murray, also a Republican, and town board members were not aware of the relationship, and that the firm had done consulting work for the town on other projects for 25 years.
In a later interview, Ra said that the relationship might have the appearance of impropriety and said he would refund all contributions, or a total of $910, made after he took over the project for the town in September 2008. According to a letter Ra sent to Stolman on Sept. 8, he did so.