Government

Yorktown Supervisor’s Publicly Funded Legal Defense Questioned

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Supervisor Michael Grace delivers the State of the Town address in March. Credits: File Photo/Brian Marschhauser
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YORKTOWN, N.Y. - A complaint has been made to the New York State Bar Association against Supervisor Michael Grace, and the town board’s decision to fund his legal defense is being scrutinized by those who believe his alleged misconduct occurred in his capacity as a private attorney, and not in his duties as town supervisor.

Earlier this year, Grace, who maintains a law practice across from town hall, appeared in court defending Yorktown Auto Body against allegations that the company damaged a car while it was impounded. Yorktown Auto Body, located on Front Street, has also held the town’s towing contract for 15 years.

Susan Siegel, a former supervisor and councilwoman, claims that Grace’s representation of a company that does business with the town is unethical. On Aug. 26, she filed a complaint with the Grievance Committee for the 9th Judicial District, saying it was a “clear-cut violation of the conflict of interest provisions of the New York State Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct.”

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Deputy Supervisor Gregory Bernard said that on Sept. 26, the town board, in a closed door meeting, unanimously agreed to fund Grace’s defense in the proceeding. Councilman Vishnu Patel claims the board voted to expend money at that meeting, which Bernard disputes.

“There was nothing done in closed session that was illegal or [untoward],” Bernard said. “It was a discussion whether it was appropriate to put this on tonight’s (Oct. 3) agenda.”

At the televised meeting on Oct. 3, the board voted 3-1 to contract the services of attorney Marvin Ray Raskin in an amount not to exceed $2,500, with Grace abstaining and Patel voting no.

Patel, the lone Democrat on the board, initially agreed to fund Grace’s defense, but changed his stance at the televised meeting. Patel said he was not given all the details in the closed door meeting.

“The disciplinary proceeding relates to the ethical violation by Mr. Grace in his capacity as attorney, licensed to practice in New York State. It does not relate to his performance as supervisor of the town of Yorktown,” Patel said, reading from a prepared statement. “The residents of Yorktown should not be required to pay Supervisor Grace’s violation of the canons of ethics governing his professional conduct as a lawyer.”

Bernard took issue with Patel’s characterization of the complaint.

“Mr. Patel just made himself judge and jury by predisposing that there is an ethical violation here,” Bernard said.

Bernard said the town board agreed that it was “appropriate” for the town to support Grace against the “frivolous” complaint by Siegel. He also alleged that Siegel wrote Patel’s prepared statement for him, a charge they both refuted. Patel told Yorktown News that a “high-powered lawyer” drafted the statement for him.

Grace said he also took exception to Patel’s remarks. Both Grace and Patel are seeking re-election.

“I’m not going to comment, I just take exception to the idea that you think there was any unethical violation by me,” Grace said. “There wasn’t and it is election season and I’ll leave it at that.”

Grace criticized the grievance filed by Siegel, who, he said, has “no first-hand knowledge” of the situation. He maintained his innocence, telling his critics that Yorktown Auto Body has done more volunteer work for Yorktown than any of them.

“The guy (owner Perry Gusikoff) does more for this community than anybody I know,” Grace said. “You’re pro-business, but you have no problem sending your reporter political hacks to malign a business that’s given more to this community than any of you all combined. That’s what you ought to be ashamed of.”

Late in the meeting, several residents took to the podium to question the town board’s vote.

“How is this defense of Supervisor Grace associated with the business of the town?” resident Melvyn Tanzman asked.

Ilan Gilbert, Democratic candidate for supervisor, declined to comment on the issue because it is under investigation.

Resident William LaScala, a member of the planning board, said he is upset by the number of “frivolous” lawsuits and complaints Siegel has filed against the town.

“This latest one is just another political ploy to further her agenda,” LaScala said.

Town Attorney Michael J. McDermott began to answer the public’s questions, but Siegel approached the podium and began refuting his comments. Grace then ended the meeting.

In an interview with Yorktown News, McDermott defended the town board’s vote as an appropriate use of public funds. He cited Siegel’s own letter to the bar association, which, in the second paragraph, states: “In 2016, acting in his capacity as an elected official, e.g., Town Supervisor of the Town of Yorktown, Mr. Grace voted to award a towing contract to a local business. A year later, while still in office, Mr. Grace, acting in his capacity as a private attorney, represented the towing company — that still had a contract with the town of Yorktown — in a legal matter having nothing to do with the town.”

“The lead-off sentence directly relates the issue as including his position as supervisor,” McDermott said.

Siegel, however, said the paragraph clearly establishes the complaint is about Grace as a private attorney, not as town supervisor. She recently sent a follow-up letter to the New York State Bar Association with an addendum to her August complaint.

“The complaint was against Mr. Grace’s action as a private attorney, not as town supervisor,” Siegel wrote in a letter dated Oct. 6. “As such, his use of public funds to defend his private actions constitutes a gross misuse of public funds and constitutes unethical and unprofessional behavior.”

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