Port Jefferson Village officials have appointed a special prosecutor for the trial of a political activist charged with holding a 2020 parade without a permit.
John M. Shields, a lawyer with Smithtown law firm Devitt Spellman Barrett and a former state prosecutor, was hired after the attorney for defendant James Robitsek said the village prosecutor originally assigned to the case may be called as a witness, officials said.
Robitsek, founder of the pro-Trump group the Setauket Patriots, is charged with holding an event honoring Sept. 11 terror attack victims on Sept. 12, 2020, after the Port Jefferson Village Board rejected his application for a permit.
Village officials said parade participants marching on sidewalks along Route 112 had obstructed traffic and caused road closures.
Robitsek is due to appear Tuesday before Village Justice John F. Reilly in Port Jefferson Village Court.
The village board on Dec. 13 voted 4-0 to hire Shields, a former assistant Southampton Town attorney and former Legal Aid lawyer. Shields will be paid $225 per hour, up to a maximum $15,000.
Shields did not return a call seeking comment.
Shields replaces deputy village attorney Richard Harris, who had been slated to prosecute Robitsek.
Robitsek's attorney, Vincent Grande III of Copiague, told Newsday he planned to call Harris as a witness because Harris had been involved in reviewing Robitsek's permit application.
"It’s not so much that it’s a conflict of interest. It’s a lack of a separation of duties," Grande said Wednesday in an interview. "He’s putting himself into the position of being, and should be, called as a witness."
Village Attorney Brian Egan confirmed Harris was one of several people who had reviewed Robitsek's application, adding the arrangement was "not unusual" for a small village with limited staff.
"The strategy was just to resolve it" by appointing a special prosecutor, Egan said.
Robitsek's parade permit application was denied in 2020 because state guidance at the time discouraged large public gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, village officials said.
Grande said Robitsek would be cleared of the charge, adding he believed the village ordinance requiring the permit "was narrowly tailored to deny my client his right to free speech."
He said police told Robitsek a permit was not necessary if participants marched on sidewalks. He said the village had held a 9/11 ceremony the day before.
"It’s our position that no permit was needed," Grande said. "We believe the ordinance gives too much authority to the mayor and the board of trustees."
Egan said Robitsek's and Setauket Patriots' political views were not a factor in the decision to deny the permit or to charge Robitsek.
"The bottom line is the village has to be prepared to enforce the law," Egan said. "It has to be applied to everyone."
Robitsek has not applied for permits since the parade, Egan said.