Oyster Bay officials have agreed to settle an election lawsuit, provided the plaintiff destroy or turn over videos and photographs that allegedly showed town employees breaking state law by campaigning while working for the town.
Former Bay Constable and onetime town board candidate Christopher Briggs sued the town in federal court in 2013, alleging town officials had violated his civil rights and First Amendment rights during that year's election.
The town admitted to no wrongdoing in the settlement, which is subject to approval by the town board, and was filed in the federal Eastern District court in Central Islip on May 7. The parties have until July 7 to submit their final papers to discontinue the case.
The settlement requires the town to tell its employees they are prohibited from engaging in political activity for a party or candidate during work hours and cannot use town property for that purpose.
Briggs' court filings said he had photographed Deputy Town Attorney Frank Scalera loading campaign signs for an incumbent councilwoman into a town-owned car during work hours in 2013. Scalera relinquished his use of the car after a Newsday reporter witnessed a similar incident. Briggs also said he had recorded town employees using town-owned vehicles while tearing down his campaign signs.
Briggs agreed to turn his photos and videos over to the town's outside counsel and swear that everything had been surrendered or destroyed.
Scalera said he could not comment on the case, and Briggs' attorney did not return requests for comment.
"It is an ordinary part of civil litigation for parties to include the sort of confidentiality provision" that is in the settlement, Hofstra Law school professor Eric M. Freedman said.
Democrat John Capobianco, who is running for town tax receiver, said the evidence should be made public. "They got a judge to sanction the destruction of evidence?" he said. "Ridiculous."
Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, said the surrendered items would be subject to a Freedom of Information Law request. "They would become town records," Freeman said in an email. "A FOIL request would preclude their destruction."
The settlement requires the town board to call a public hearing to consider amending town code on political campaign signs. The proposed code would still single out campaign signage, but it would also include restrictions on "temporary signs" and would prohibit such signs from being installed on public roads. The town would pay Briggs $5,000 to settle damage claims and legal expenses, under the settlement.
Hofstra's Freedman said the proposed rule was "less unconstitutional" than the one it would replace, but it still raised constitutional issues. "Sign ordinances which discriminate on the basis of content are rightly subject to First Amendment challenges," Freedman said.
Last month, the town board also approved paying Briggs $120,000 to settle a 2012 negligence claim stemming from a boating accident that caused injuries requiring surgery when he was on duty as a Bay Constable. According to the board resolution, Nassau County would also pay Briggs $30,000. "It's a fair settlement," Scalera said of the negligence case.