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Huntington: Paying for defendant's defense has precedent

Town of Huntington officials said Thursday their offer to pay the defense costs for the highway superintendent they've sued is consistent with previous cases.

The town filed suit this week against William Naughton over his actions in filling jobs recently without town board approval. The town adopted a hiring freeze in November.

The board approved paying Naughton's legal fees and offered him a list of five lawyers willing to accept $200 an hour.

Town code does not specify paying for an employee's defense in cases brought by the town.

It does call for the town to pay the defense of an employee in any civil action stemming from their employment.

But the code goes on to say that "defense shall not be provided where such civil action or proceeding is brought by or on behalf of the town."

That provision applies only in certain circumstances, town spokesman A.J. Carter said Thursday - such as when an employee is accused of stealing from a petty cash box.

"Case law says that a public official that is sued arising out of his actions in his official capacity has a right to counsel," Carter said.

The town has paid legal fees for employees who have been in litigation with the town, town officials said.

But Huntington Station attorney and former chief deputy Suffolk County executive Paul Sabatino said state and town statutes clearly state the town is not obligated to agree to pay fees at the beginning of a legal proceeding.

"All things being equal, you wouldn't [agree to] make the payment in the beginning. You would let the case be litigated," Sabatino said, and seek to recover fees afterward.

Carter said because Naughton is entitled to legal representation, to avoid a conflict of interest town code calls for the town to provide him with a list of attorneys and fees.

"That's not out of the ordinary," Sabatino said about the list of attorneys. "That's normal procedure."

But Naughton's attorney, Thomas Levin of Garden City, countered that his client "is allowed to pick the lawyer of his choice. Would you want the person suing you to tell you who your lawyer has to be?"

Huntington Town Attorney John Leo said Naughton can choose a lawyer who's not on the list - "but we will dispute that we have to pay for it."

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