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Mark Cuthbertson, Huntington Town board member, cleared of conflict of interest in Melius vote

Mark Cuthbertson, a private attorney and longtime Huntington

Mark Cuthbertson, a private attorney and longtime Huntington councilman, whose largest single campaign donor is Gary Melius. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Huntington's ethics board has found no "technical ethical violation" in a controversial vote town board member Mark Cuthbertson made in favor of a zone change that allowed a condominium development proposed by Oheka Castle owner Gary Melius.

Newsday reported Oct. 5 that Cuthbertson in March 2012 sponsored and voted for the zoning change for construction of condominiums at Oheka Castle, but did not disclose that he was working with Melius and his daughter on two court-appointed receiverships. The appointments on commercial properties in foreclosure earned Cuthbertson, Gary Melius and Kelly Melius more than $284,000 in fees and expenses, court filings show.

The ethics board opinion was detailed in a letter to Cuthbertson Monday and concludes he "had neither a duty to recuse nor disclose prior to the town board meeting" that he and Melius had the receivership appointments.

In a statement on the town's website, Cuthbertson said he had previously received an informal opinion from James Matthews, the ethics board's counsel, "indicating that I did not have a conflict of interest under the circumstances presented in that article." Cuthbertson wrote that he had sought a formal opinion from the ethics board.

"As reflected in the opinion of the Ethics Board, my actions were in conformance with the applicable ethics code," Cuthbertson wrote in the online posting.

The ethics board noted that "should a similar situation occur in the future, the better course would be simply to place a statement on the record relative to the court appointment."

Cuthbertson said in his online post that he agreed with the board that "while no conflict existed and no disclosure was required, it would have been more prudent to disclose the fact that a judge had appointed me to be a receiver on the same matter in which Mr. Melius had been appointed a property manager."

The ethics board is composed of chairman Howard A. Glickstein, Ralph Crafa and Louis C. England, all of who are lawyers, and Stanley Heller, a retired certified public accountant. Crafa recused himself from the review.

Cuthbertson said he did not disclose the relationship before voting for the zoning change because he had only a "parallel relationship" with Melius. He said it was a judge's decision, not his, to appoint Melius and his daughter.

The ethics board's formal opinion took issue with Newsday's report, which cited the town ethics code as specifically barring town board members from exercising any discretion on a matter before the town that involves a person or business entity "they have been connected with during the previous five years."

Hofstra law professor Monroe Freedman told Newsday at the time that Cuthbertson's failure to disclose his ties to Melius clearly violated the town code.

The board wrote that Newsday's article "omits the language from the code limiting disqualifying relationships to those involving clients," and that based on information reviewed by the ethics board, that two businesses connected with Melius, and Melius himself, were not clients of Cuthbertson, were not a firm or a professional association connected with him or of any other professions with which he shared a business relationship.

"We rendered this opinion after many, many hours of deliberations and reviewing documents," Glickstein said Monday.

Town Supervisor Frank Petrone said, "Mark has always been extremely particular and very careful with any potential conflict." Town board members Susan Berland and Tracey Edwards could not be reached for comment.

An online petition with 155 signatures is circulating in Huntington, demanding that Cuthbertson step down from the elected position he has held since 1998. The petition also seeks a federal investigation into Cuthbertson's acts and an investigation into Huntington Town government, including the zoning board of appeals and board of ethics.

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