Just weeks before the start of a police excessive force trial that ended last month with a stunning $19.6-million verdict against a Nassau County police officer, new Republican County Attorney John Ciampoli retained a $225-an-hour lawyer to defend the case after letting go an in-house Suozzi administration lawyer who had spent months preparing for the trial.
Ciampoli said the eleventh-hour shift of defense lawyers occurred because of concerns about how the case was being handled in-house, and it was unfair to blame the new attorney for the outcome in the suit brought by Thomas Hartmann, a former construction worker from Long Beach who lost his right leg in 2004 when an officer ran over him.
The county's loss in the case has resulted in criticism of Ciampoli's decision to replace Michael Sordi, a deputy county attorney, with Brookhaven-based Garrett Swenson.
Former county attorney Lorna Goodman, Ciampoli's predecessor, said she believed Sordi was let go because of ties to former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, and the shift may have compromised the county's chances in the case.
"There was a lot of complex evidence here, a lot of experts," she said. "That's a very difficult case. It is foolish to change horses at the last minute . . . I can only think it was because of his political affiliation."
She described Sordi as a "very experienced trial lawyer" who had been engaged in "nonstop trial preparation" for months.
Ciampoli, in an interview, said that after he was chosen to head the law department by incoming GOP County Executive Edward Mangano in mid-December, he asked to see preparation materials for a key upcoming pretrial filing in the case and was told by Goodman nothing was ready.
Sordi and Goodman both tell a different story. They say that trial preparation was going fine when Sordi's name appeared on a list of lawyers to be eliminated that Goodman received from Mangano's staff - not Ciampoli - on Dec. 20.
Although he never spoke directly to Sordi, Ciampoli said, he decided he needed to make a shift - and politics had nothing to do with it. "The county was in a compromised position and I needed to act and I needed to act affirmatively," he said. "My judgment was that we needed to go in a new direction."
Even before the verdict, some county Democratic officials had expressed concerns about Ciampoli's efforts to downsize the county attorney's office and make more use of outside lawyers.
"If this is the trend . . . it's shortsighted and downright boneheaded," said Wayne Wink, the ranking Democrat on the county legislature's finance committee.
Hartmann, 41, was run over during an arrest for making harassing calls to his wife, a misdemeanor. The driver, Nassau Det. Karl Snelders, said he thought Hartmann had a gun, but he didn't. After a three-week trial that began Feb. 1, the jury awarded Hartmann nearly $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Experts say that last-minute lawyer shifts are risky. "It is unusual to switch lawyers in a complex case three weeks before trial," said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor. "It is not unheard of. The risk is that the new lawyer, good as he may be, will not be able to get up to speed in time even if he is experienced."
Sordi said it was wrong to replace him. "They made a political decision to fire me without taking the time to consider the consequences to a major case scheduled for trial, and without having a replacement in place for weeks after that," he said.
Ciampoli said Swenson, who was paid $225-an-hour in court and $175 for out-of-court work, had substantial experience in the Suffolk County attorney's office.
"Mr. Swenson is an accomplished federal litigator with an impeccable record defending police" in suits like Hartmann's, Ciampoli said. "The matter is not closed, and the county will continue to vigorously defend against this case."