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Huntington highway chief’s use of campaign funds questioned

Huntington Town Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther in the

Huntington Town Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther in the operation center at the Highway Office in Huntington on Feb. 20, 2015. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

The attorney representing a woman in a sexual harassment complaint against Huntington Town Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther has asked for an investigation into the source of payments to Gunther’s attorney.

Huntington-based Christopher J. Cassar, who represents highway department employee Laurie Beth Austin, questioned what he said appears to be the use of campaign funds for legal services. The highway department supervisor is an elected position.

Cassar sent a letter dated April 22 to Risa Sugarman, chief enforcement counsel for the Division of Election Law Enforcement for the New York State Board of Elections seeking an investigation into $24,655 in payments to Manhattan-based attorney Michael T. Cornacchia from Gunther’s “Friends of Peter S. Gunther” campaign account.

Records show two disbursements from the account went to Cornacchia. On Aug. 26 a $10,000 payment was made and another on Sept. 27 for $14,655.

Cassar said he thinks the payments violate New York State Election Law because they were for legal services unrelated to his position as highway superintendent. State law does not strictly prohibit the use of campaign funds for legal services, according to the New York State Public Interest Research Group.

“Use of public donations for a candidate to defend a sexual discrimination case is reprehensible,” Cassar said.

Gunther referred questions to Cornacchia, who declined to comment.

NYPIRG executive director Blair Horner said campaign contributions should be used only for campaigns. He said his group believes it’s inappropriate and the law should strictly prohibit it.

“If he [Gunther] were an appointed highway superintendent he would have to do what any other nonelected public official would have to do” to pay for his legal defense himself, Horner said. “But instead, too often elected officials in New York view their campaign contribution kitty as a legal-defense fund.”

Other elected officials on Long Island have used campaign funds to pay for legal services, including for attorneys in the criminal cases of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto and former state Senator Dean Skelos, Newsday has reported.

A New York State Division of Human Rights public hearing has been set to hear testimony in the sexual harassment complaint filed against Gunther and the town of Huntington.

In January, division officials announced that after an investigation, they found “evidence that Mr. Gunther was pursuing a personal relationship with” Austin, a senior account clerk typist in the highway department, and that the complaint could go to the judge.

Gunther denied the allegations during the agency’s investigation.

The hearing is set for May 8 and 9 before New York State Division of Human Rights Administrative Law Judge Robert M. Vespoli in Hauppauge.

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