Covert Recording Brings Tempest to Trustee Office

The recording at the trustees' office on Bluff Road in Amagansett may have been made several months ago and spans an unknown length of time. David E. Rattray

The Public Integrity Bureau of the Suffolk County district attorney's office has been notified of apparent electronic eavesdropping at the East Hampton Town Trustees' office in Amagansett, after The Star questioned the trustees on Monday about an audio recording that was apparently made surreptitiously.

A recording that includes discussions between the trustees' clerk and two deputy clerks was provided to The Star last week. The trustees who are heard on the recording said that calls from The Star on Monday confirmed rumors that had been swirling for more than a month and that they had taken seriously enough to take to their attorney, the town's attorney, and East Hampton Town police. No formal complaint has been filed with the Police Department, according to Chief Michael Sarlo.

The recording, which was provided in the form of an MP3 digital sound file stored on a thumb drive, may have been made several months ago and spans an unknown length of time. It appears to have been edited to highlight discussions that would reflect poorly on certain trustees. The recipient of the recording said that it was mailed along with a typewritten note that refers to excerpts of the recording. The note, which was shown to this reporter on Saturday, also bears the message, "I think we can do better. THINK before you vote 2019." The envelope is postmarked March 8.

Eavesdropping, defined by the New York State penal code as the unlawful wiretapping, mechanical overhearing of a conversation, or intercepting or accessing of an electronic communication, is a class E felony.

Francis Bock, the trustees' clerk, closed the trustees' meeting on Monday night by addressing his colleagues on the matter. "I'm extremely troubled and upset about a recording apparently made from our trustee conference room," said Mr. Bock, who is heard on the recording. He told fellow trustees that the office of Timothy Sini, the district attorney, had been notified and has launched an investigation. "Every one of us should expect to be interviewed by them. I intend to pursue this as far as we can," Mr. Bock said.

Earlier on Monday, Mr. Bock, a Democrat, became angry when the recording's existence was confirmed to him, and suggested that its dissemination was politically motivated. "Those bastards," he said. "Fuck them. That's a quote. How dare they? How dare they . . . bug the trustees' office?" Asked to whom he was referring, he replied, "I know it's not the Democrats."

Campaigns for elected office have been contentious in the first half of 2019, with the Nov. 5 election still more than five months away. Republicans, Independence Party members, and a faction of the Democratic Party that calls itself the Reform Democrats have unified to take on the 5-to-0 Democratic town board and the 7-to-2 Democratic majority among the trustees. The group of candidates seeking to align itself on an East Hampton Fusion Party ticket on the Nov. 5 ballot plans to submit nominating petitions to the Suffolk County Board of Elections ahead of the May 28 filing deadline.

Bill Taylor, a deputy clerk who is heard on the recording, is also a Democrat. Jim Grimes, the other deputy clerk, who is also heard on the recording, is a Republican whom the Democrats have endorsed for re-election.

Mr. Bock said that he had not informed the district attorney previously because he had no evidence. "Now I have no choice," he told The Star. "We meet in our room, we're entitled to do that. We meet in small groups, we do not do quorums" -- the minimum number necessary to conduct business, five in the trustees' case -- "and conversations can go in any direction. If we can't have a sanctuary to do business because these fucking assholes are so anxious to push us out of office, something is very wrong. These people are out of control."

Conversations heard on the recording include Mr. Grimes and an unidentified man, apparently an applicant or applicant's agent, discussing the cutting of phragmites. Mr. Grimes is heard telling the man that he should cut the invasive species as often as he wished, regardless of any limitations specified in a required State Department of Environmental Conservation permit.

Told about the exchange on Monday, Mr. Grimes also pointed to "political involvement" in the alleged eavesdropper's motive. "They're trying to malign members of our board, is what it would seem to be, to try to create a politically advantageous position," he said, adding that "I've never engaged in any illegal activity as a member of the board."

At the Monday meeting, Mr. Grimes told his colleagues that, "What I find particularly disturbing is when somebody, whether it's another member of our board or a member of the public, comes to us to have a meeting or discussion about an application or issue, they're coming to us with the understanding that they're having a private conversation. If some member of this board felt the need to spy on other members of this board, it is a crime."

"We were approached today by The East Hampton Star," Mr. Grimes continued. "They have listened to the tape. And it doesn't matter what's said on there. The fact of the matter is it was said in private, with the understanding that it was private. . . . If any member of this board was either involved in it, or complicit . . . or had knowledge of it, I would expect that there's going to be some hell to pay. . . . I feel violated. I think any member of the public who came to us and is on that tape should feel violated, because they didn't come to our offices to get spied upon."

Mr. Grimes said the recording "would almost have to" have been made by someone with access to the trustees' conference room, in the Lamb Building on Bluff Road.

Dell Cullum, a trustee, surprised at least some of his colleagues when he said that he had heard the recording, "and I've got to say it's pretty disturbing."

"It doesn't matter what's on it," Mr. Bock replied.

"It doesn't, Francis, you're right," Mr. Cullum said. "It wasn't legal and it's not right, you're absolutely correct."

"Dell, if you've listened to the tape, I can only assume you were complicit [in] the recording or distribution of this tape," Mr. Grimes said to his colleague.

None of the other trustees had heard the recording, Mr. Bock told Mr. Cullum, although it was unclear if he was referring to the other eight trustees, seven of whom were present, or just those whose voices are heard on it.

Mr. Cullum said on Tuesday that he too had received the recording in the mail several weeks ago, and provided a description of the envelope and its contents that was nearly identical to those viewed by The Star. Unsure what to do, he had kept it to himself until learning that another resident had also received such a package, he said.

"I don't know where they get off saying it doesn't matter what's on that tape," he said on Tuesday. While some of the recording's content is "petty and insignificant," he was critical of Mr. Grimes's exchange with the unidentified man. "Of course, their privacy was violated," he said of those heard on the recording, "as has everyone's who used that office.” Nonetheless, "I still think what was said on the tape is very serious." 

The Democratic committee did not endorse Mr. Cullum, a Democrat, for re-election. Along with other candidates for trustee, town board, and other elected offices, he will appear on the Independence Party line and, should its nominating petitions meet the filing deadline and withstand any challenges, the East Hampton Fusion Party.

The recording also depicts Mr. Taylor and Mr. Bock discussing the proposed South Fork Wind Farm. The developer of the wind farm, Orsted U.S. Offshore Wind, has asked the trustees for an easement so that it can land the wind farm's transmission cable at an ocean beach in Wainscott. Mr. Bock and Mr. Taylor are also heard speculating on the political aspirations of members of the town board and trustees, as well as whether or not Mr. Bock should attend a public event.

Arlene Tesar, the trustees' secretary, and Mr. Grimes are heard discussing which trustee would be the best to serve as clerk. And David Rattray, the editor in chief of The Star, is heard talking with Mr. Grimes and John Aldred about historical records referring to a freed slave to whom the trustees gave property in the 17th century. Mr. Rattray said on Monday that he had visited the trustees' office to discuss the boundaries of Gardiner's Bay on Oct. 4 last year. The conversation, Mr. Grimes said later on Monday, had veered into a range of topics.

Mr. Taylor defended the trustees before the meeting on Monday. "We have a lot of things going on that are sort of confidential," he said, referring to negotiations over the proposed wind farm. "We set up a committee to meet with our lawyers" about the proposed installation. "We have committee meetings all the time where different subjects are raised."

Unless a quorum is present, "it's a bunch of people shooting the shit," Mr. Taylor said. "You might get a more candid opinion of things."

An email and call to the district attorney's office had not been answered as of Tuesday afternoon.