A photo of State Senator Jack Martins in Mineola. (Nov....

A photo of State Senator Jack Martins in Mineola. (Nov. 3, 2010) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

As state attorney general in 2007, Andrew M. Cuomo, working with the state Labor Department, waded into a court fight over whether "service charges" imposed on customers by a dining-cruise company should have gone as tips to waiters, busboys and other service workers.

Cuomo's office cited in a friend-of-the-court brief how the labor law barred employers from retaining "any part of a gratuity" or "any charge purported to be a gratuity for an employee." The following year, the employees in the case, who sued the World Yacht companies in New York City, won 6-0 in the Court of Appeals.

Numerous lawsuits from employees and ex-employees -- possibly worth hundreds of millions of dollars statewide -- have since confronted catering firms, a significant number of them on Long Island, seeking payout of back "service charges." Claiming they adhered to what they believed was existing law, several of these businesses are pushing a legislative bill that could retroactively spare them this major expense.

Whether Cuomo, as governor, would sign this measure if it reaches his desk marks only one intriguing part of this Great Tips War -- in which the catering industry seems to be rolling out the bipartisan big guns like so many dessert carts.

At the big-league lobbying firm Park Strategies, Robert McBride and other staff are registered to help the caterers' cause, as is major lobbyist Brian Meara. As lawyers, Thomas Suozzi, a former Democratic Nassau County executive, and Thomas Garry, county Democratic vice chair, are working with the recently formed New York Catering Association, among others at the firm Harris Beach.

In the GOP-controlled State Senate, rookie Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) sponsors the bill. Backers whose names adorn the Assembly version, sponsored by Phillip Goldfeder (D-Rockaway), include Long Islanders Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck), Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head) and Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue), plus Michael DenDekker (D-Jackson Heights) and David Weprin (D-Little Neck).

Lawyer Jeffrey Brown, representing nonunion employees as plaintiffs in the lawsuits, forcefully disputes the bill sponsors' claim in a memo that the 2008 high-court ruling "radically altered" legal paradigms and suddenly "subjected catering halls to significant retroactive liability."

Brown cites a host of Labor Department and court opinions to contend the rules have been consistent. He calls the bill "bad public policy" and "politics at its worst."