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Former Southold cop claims he lost job over ‘political pressure’

06/18/2016 7:50 PM |

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A recently fired Southold Town police officer filed a wrongful termination lawsuit this week against Southold Town, claiming that “high-profile arrests” he made during his tenure as a cop caused political blowback that led to his termination last month.

In a 62-page notice of petition filed in Suffolk County Supreme Court Wednesday, Garrett Lake claims his arrest of Steven Romeo in connection with a deadly limo accident last summer as well as the arrest of a Jamesport fire chief in an unrelated alleged drunk driving incident caused the fire department and the vice-chairman of the town’s Republican Party to pressure the Town Board to end his employment.

He is seeking to be reinstated as a police officer and to be awarded back pay for missed time, as well as other relief determined by the court. 

“Lake’s employement was terminated as a result of the performance of his job duties in an exemplary manner and without regard to the identity of the potential defendant,” the petition claims. “The Town impermissably and in bad faith terminated Lake’s employment because he would not ignore … fundamental constitutional principles of equal justice for all.”

When reached Friday night, Town Supervisor Scott Russell called the claims “baseless,” but declined to comment further.

Police Chief Martin Flatley also declined comment.

Reached Monday morning, Mr. Lake’s attorney, Eric Bressler of Mattituck, declined to comment on the petition, saying “the papers have been filed.”

Mr. Lake had been hired in November 2014 after working for the Southampton Town Police Department and was terminated at a special meeting of the Southold Town Board on May 19, four days before his probationary period as a police officer was due to end. While a probationary member, a police officer can be fired without the employer having to prove “just cause” for the termination, according to the state attorney general’s office.

All board members at the May 19 meeting voted to terminate Mr. Lake. Board member Louisa Evans was not present.

The termination came two weeks after Mr. Lake had stood next to the Town’s Police Chief Martin Flatley and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to accept a “Top DWI Cop” award, which went to police officers who made the most arrests of alleged drunken drivers.

That award was based purely on the number of arrests — not convictions — made by each officer in each Suffolk County department.

In his petition, Mr. Lake cites the award as an example of his “exceptional performance” as a police officer. Mr. Lake claims to have received “uniformly favorable reviews” during his time as a police officer. Mr. Lake was also commended by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, according to a letter provided in the petition.

The Town has refused to provide copies of Mr. Lakes’ performance reviews, according to the court documents.

Mr. Lake claims that he was terminated because the Town Board “responded to political pressure” over the arrests of Mr. Romeo and Jamesport assistant fire chief David McKillop.

Mr. Romeo was involved in the deadly July 18 crash that killed four young women who were riding in a limo on Route 48 in Cutchogue and injured six others. According to prosecutors, Mr. Romeo was intoxicated when the pickup truck he was driving crashed into a limousine making a U-turn at the intersection of Depot Lane.

Mr. Romeo was ultimately charged with misdemeanor DWI in relation to the crash after investigators determined he could not have avoided it. He pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Mr. Lake’s petition claims he arrested Mr. Romeo properly after apprehending him near the scene of the crash and smelling alcohol on his breath. Mr. Lake claims that John Helf Sr., the vice-chair of the town’s Republican party, was seen near the crash and was “friendly” with Mr. Romeo, who “attempted to become involved in Lake’s investigation.”

The petition also alleges that Suffolk County assistant deputy police commissioner for finance Joseph Sawicki contacted the town’s police captain days after the arrest inquiring about the propriety of the arrest.

Mr. Lake’s petition claims Mr. Sawicki — who was a Republican while serving as Suffolk County Comptroller — also contacted the Town Board.

Mr. Helf was unable to be reached for for comment on the allegations. Mr. Sawicki declined to comment.

The next high profile arrest involved Mr. McKillop, who was arrested on Feb. 13 and charged with misdemeanor DWI after allegedly crashing his Jamesport Fire Department chief’s vehicle in Mattituck.

According to Mr. Lake’s petition, Mr. McKillop, his son in the car, and an unnamed Jamesport Fire Department commissioner “demanded ‘special treatment’ and asserted ‘connections’ to other law enforcement agencies.”

After the arrest, the petition claims, commissioners from the fire department complained to the Town Supervisor, Mr. Russell and Mr. Flatley about the arrest and later reviewed tape of the arrest. According to the petition, Mr. Flatley supported the arrest. 

Jamesport fire commissioners declined comment on the lawsuit Saturday. Jamesport Fire Chief John Andrejack didn’t make a comment about Mr. Lake’s claims, but did say that Mr. McKillop was on leave while his case moved through the courts.

Like Mr. Romeo, Mr. McKillop pleaded not guilty.

The court documents also claim that when Mr. Lake’s termination was brought up before the Town Board, Mr. Flatley opposed it.

The petition claims Mr. Lake was warned by Mr. Flatley, Police Captain Frank Kruszeski and Sergeant James Ginas that the chief was being pressured by “politicians” to fire Mr. Lake.

The petition further states that “at no time were any of Lake’s arrests determined to be improper” and that he was never directed to make any changes to his “obviously effective policing practices.”

After he was let go, Mr. Lake was allegedly told by the police chief that there was “no investigation of Lake’s policing practices” and that the chief would give Lake a “favorable recommendation” for another law enforcement job, according to the petition’s claims.

Despite that, Mr. Lake’s petition claims he has not been rehired by his former police department in Southampton.

“The Town’s actions have at this juncture rendered Lake functionally unemployable in his chosen field and effectively ended his career in law enforcement,” according to the petition.

Mr. Lake was not told why he was terminated, according to the petition. Mr. Russell, Mr. Flately and Town Attorney Bill Duffy declined last month to publicly comment on the reason for the termination, citing state labor laws.

After Mr. Lake’s termination, The Suffolk Times filed Freedom of Information requests for additional information on all of Mr. Lake’s arrests. As of Saturday, the paper had received only acknowledgement of its request and the town stated it needed more time to fulfill it.

With reporting by Grant Parpan.

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Photo: From left, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Southold Town police officer Garrett Lake and Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley. Mr. Lake was honored May 3 as Southold Town Police Department’s top DWI-catching cop. (Credit: Courtesy)

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