Four Southampton Town justices have recused themselves from presiding over a criminal case that charges the owner of a popular Hampton Bays diner with code violations for allegedly operating his eatery as a nightclub.
It's the latest chapter in a long-running dispute that pits the Hampton Bays Diner owner and his family against the town, its police and code enforcers who he alleges have harassed him for years.
Disclosure of the justices' refusal to preside over the case came in a court filing by lawyers for diner owner Frank Vlahadamis in his related $25 million lawsuit against the town. Vlahadamis charged that police targeted his diner for violations after he began hosting Hispanic nights in 2005. None of the justices is named.
Vlahadamis faces up to six months in jail for the misdemeanor code violations. His lawsuit previously ended in a mistrial, but was scheduled to be retried this year.
Southampton Town has hired a special prosecutor to pursue the criminal case -- the same lawyer who is fighting the civil suit against the town by Vlahadamis. Jeltje DeJong, an attorney, said she previously has defended the judges in unrelated cases, saying that could be the reason for their recusal. "It may be because they wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety," DeJong said.
DeBorah Renee' Brathwaite, chief court clerk, confirmed in a statement that the four justices declined to hear the case, adding, "I cannot tell you why they recused. "A judge does not have to give a reason to recuse themselves."
Andrew Campanelli, a lawyer for the Vlahadamis family, called the recusals, revealed in the Oct. 15 filing, and the appointment of a special prosecutor for code violations unprecedented. Campanelli said the moves are part of a pattern of abuse by the town against the diner since 2005.
"What is so noble about a code violation that you have to hire a special prosecutor?" Campanelli asked.
Vlahadamis said he has spent more than $250,000 defending himself against numerous code violations and court actions, and on his civil suit. He said his diner has fallen on hard financial times as a result. He recently began closing for part of the week for the first time in the diner's more than 30-year history, and wants to sell the parcel to a drugstore chain and open a smaller diner on an adjoining property. "I'd get out tomorrow if somebody gave me the money," he said.
Campanelli said the diner sold almost all food, and little alcohol, on the nights it was charged with operating a night club in the rear of the diner.
Tiffany Scarlato, Southampton Town attorney, didn't return a call seeking comment.
DeJong denied the town targeted Vlahadamis with zoning violations, saying similar establishments also were cited at the time. "It's not based upon discrimination," DeJong said. She said the civil case against the town was without merit.For Vlahadamis, a Greek immigrant who has operated the diner with his wife, Maria, and his three sons, the legal wrangling prolongs problems he said he has endured since he attempted to cater to Southampton's burgeoning Hispanic community in 2005.
In his original 2008 suit, Vlahadamis alleged the town directed the police department, fire marshal and code enforcement to "conduct a series of raids and operations in calculated efforts to trump up false violations," and have the diner's liquor license revoked.