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Long IslandSuffolk

Judge has personal, political links to Melius ally

Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan.

Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan. Credit: New York Law Journal / Rick Kopstein

A Suffolk County Supreme Court justice backed an effort by Gary Melius to seize control of a private company at the same time the politically influential developer sought to name a close associate of the justice -- state Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay -- to the company's board of directors.

Justice Thomas Whelan granted Melius' motion last year to force John Ruocco, the founder of Interceptor Ignition Interlocks, to hold a shareholders meeting in May. Minutes entered into the court file show that during the contentious meeting, Melius attempted to nominate MacKay to the company's board of directors.

MacKay is Whelan's longtime political benefactor, and Whelan is the godfather of MacKay's daughter.

Whelan, a member of MacKay's Independence Party, did not disclose his connections to MacKay and did not recuse himself from hearing the case. His Dec. 24 ruling stripped Ruocco of most of his ownership stake and effectively handed Melius the company, which makes ignition locking devices that prevent drunken driving.

State rules require that judges disqualify themselves when "their impartiality might reasonably be questioned." The language mirrors the American Bar Association code of judicial conduct.

"It is clear that he should have recused himself," Monroe Freedman, a Hofstra University School of Law professor and expert on judicial ethics who has published numerous books on the subject, said of Whelan. "There is no question."

By failing to step aside, Whelan "created an unacceptable risk that there will be substantial harm," Freedman said.

Melius has prominent ties to many of Long Island's political figures and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates of various parties. Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota are among those who visited Melius at the hospital after a masked gunman tried to kill him Monday. The unknown gunman is still at large.

Melius also has strong ties to the Independence Party. The party's Nassau County chairman is Rick Bellando, the father of Melius' grandchildren and the catering manager at Oheka Castle, the lavish estate where Melius has for years hosted Long Island's politicians and power brokers.

Ruocco said in an interview he was unaware of Whelan's connections to MacKay.

Ruocco said he attended a shareholders meeting on Feb. 21, the first since the justice's ruling. New board members were expected to be appointed, but MacKay was not among those named to the company's board, Ruocco said. He would not say who had been appointed and declined to comment further, saying he intended to appeal Whelan's ruling.

Whelan, who is up for re-election this year, did not respond to a phone message left at his home. A woman who answered the phone at his chambers referred a reporter to Suffolk Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs, whose office turned the reporter over to a court spokeswoman, who declined to answer questions.

MacKay said in an interview he knew little about Interceptor, had never been appointed to the company's board and had never spoken to Whelan about the case. He hung up the phone as a reporter tried to ask further questions.

Melius and Ruocco signed an agreement in 2010 that would give Melius shares in Interceptor if Melius helped in "the enactment or amendment of laws" requiring the technology that Interceptor could provide.

Later that year, Suffolk County lawmakers passed such a law, earning Melius his shares, according to Whelan's ruling.

In his decision, Whelan wrote that Melius' testimony was "self-serving at times" but "credible." Melius had delivered the "governmental access and personal and bank financing" that he'd promised to Interceptor, the justice ruled.

Meanwhile, Whelan called statements by Ruocco "some of the most confusing and uncooperative testimony imaginable." He wrote "the Court must conclude that nearly all of [Ruocco's] testimony was incredible and simply an after-the-fact attempt to backfill for previous actions undertaken in his running of Interceptor."

Whelan awarded Melius 3.5 million Interceptor shares and wiped out all but 500,000 that Ruocco owned, according to the justice's ruling.

Newsday has previously reported that Whelan acted as a legal adviser to MacKay during his rise to Independence Party chairman. MacKay, in turn, was among those who helped resurrect Whelan's public career.

In 1988, Whelan crossed the median on the Southern State Parkway in Wantagh and collided with an oncoming car, seriously injuring a Commack man. He was charged with second-degree assault, vehicular assault and driving while intoxicated.

Whelan ultimately was convicted of three misdemeanors and a traffic violation. In July 1989, a judge sentenced him to 3 years' probation, revoked his license and ordered him to seek treatment for alcoholism.

At the time, Whelan served as Babylon Town attorney. After the accident, the town suspended him, but the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court ordered him reinstated eight months later -- over the objections of then-Town Supervisor Arthur Pitts. Whelan was not reappointed as town attorney when his term expired.

Whelan's public career got a boost in 2000 when he was nominated for a judgeship. He secured Democratic backing after the Independence Party -- headed by MacKay -- agreed to support other Democratic candidates.

State campaign finance records show that MacKay gave $1,000 to the campaign of Whelan's wife, Theresa, who ran for Family Court judge in 2007.

Her campaign paid to attend two Independence Party fundraisers in 2007 and 2008.

At the heated Interceptor shareholders meeting in May, as the appointment of directors became a source of conflict, Melius was involved in a tense exchange with a lawyer representing Ruocco's company, a transcript shows.

The meeting ended before a vote on the board of directors after Ruocco's irritated lawyer suggested they adjourn and reconvene later in a courthouse.

"I like that," Melius told him.

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