Paul Sabatino, former chief deputy Suffolk County executive and once the county legislature’s longtime counsel, has gained a major and unlikely ally in his $259.6 million lawsuit that claims Suffolk has overcharged the average Southwest Sewer district taxpayer $3,419 each.
The law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, which has 1,000 attorneys worldwide, has joined Sabatino and veteran anti-Shoreham attorney Irving Like, 93, in their two-year battle in state Supreme Court. The firm will only be paid if they win. And the most improbable part is that Arnold & Porter’s top attorney will be Sabatino’s one-time arch-foe, James M. Catterson, a former deputy county attorney.
“It’s pure Suffolk County, where the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Patrick Halpin, former county executive. “But the backing of a prestigious law firm should be a concern.”
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, called it a pairing he never expected: “It’s like Donald Trump and James Comey [fired FBI director] getting together.”
Sabatino and Catterson clashed in the early 1990s over an $18 million plan to lease 1,800 county cars, which was engineered by Catterson and opposed by Sabatino as wasteful. At the time, Sabatino was dubbed “the 19th legislator” by supporters and “Darth Vader” by foes. Catterson is the son of often combative former District Attorney James M. Catterson Jr. The deal was dumped in midstream amid county and state investigations. Catterson was later elected a state Supreme Court justice in 1998 and rose to become an appellate judge. He was not renominated in 2012, despite the lobbying of former GOP Gov. George Pataki and former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.
While Catterson’s firm brings huge resources to the case, Jason Elan, a spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, downplayed the impact, calling Sabatino a “political hack” and his suit frivolous. “James Catterson and his white-shoe law firm isn’t going to put lipstick on this pig,” he said. Catterson did not return calls for comment.
First filed in 2015, the suit claims that the 75,000 district taxpayers have been repeatedly overcharged because the size of the sewer fund surplus has ballooned as the bonds on the $1.2 billion project were paid off. Initially, the suit claimed property owners were overtaxed $116.9 million, but that has risen to $259.6 million as surpluses grew in the 2016 and 2017 budgets. The suit also alleges the county used $62.2 million to plug holes in the county budget. They are awaiting a ruling from state Supreme Court Justice Peter Meyer for class action status and summary judgment.
“We’ve already short-circuited a Ponzi scheme that was going to balance the countywide budget on the back of Southwest Sewer District taxpayers,” said Sabatino, but added the suit is also crucial to block county officials from “getting free rein to raid all county funds and move the money around.”
Since the suit was filed two years ago, Bellone has lowered district taxes by $19.2 million and proposed a further $5.6 million cut for next year. Bellone aides have maintained the surpluses are necessary because there are $423 million in needed district capital projects, including the $207 million new bay outfall pipe on which construction will start next year. They also note $29 million will be repaid to the district by 2029, starting with first five percent next year.
Bellone’s 2018 budget proposed using $80.2 million of the sewer fund next year to pay cash for sewer projects, including $57.6 million for the outfall pipe, claiming it would save $44 million in interest and lower the sewer fund surplus to $79 million. Sabatino said using cash to pay for capital projects that last 40 years penalizes current property owners to foot the bill and gives a free ride to those who come later.
“It’s not exactly a match made in heaven,” said Gregory Blass, former presiding officer during the car lease controversy, of the Sabatino-Catterson alliance. “But it’s a job that needs to be done, given the wasteful finances of the last few years where corners were cut and short cuts taken and hands have gotten caught in the cookie jar.”