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Something Missing in Airport Documents?

Thu, 07/21/2022 - 10:45
At issue in a recent motion filed by attorneys for plaintiffs seeking to thwart East Hampton Town's plans to privatize its airport is contact info for an F.A.A. official and the text surrounding it. Attorneys said it was missing from court filings, the town says they were looking in the wrong place.
Durell Godfrey

In a charge amplified in a New York City tabloid on Friday, attorneys for plaintiffs who have so far thwarted the East Hampton Town Board’s plan to privatize East Hampton Airport have claimed that the town deliberately altered documents that were submitted to New York State Supreme Court, allegations the town’s outside attorneys say are “unfounded” and show a lack of due diligence.

James Catterson, an attorney representing East End Hangars, Hampton Hangars, and five Montauk residents, submitted a motion asserting that the town’s outside counsel had changed documents submitted as exhibits pertaining to communications with the Federal Aviation Administration despite affirmations that they were “true and correct” copies of the original correspondence.

The allegation was made in the context of a motion to Justice Paul Baisley Jr. seeking to revoke the “pro hac vice” admissions of William O’Connor and Andrew Barr, both of the Cooley law firm and both representing the town in matters relating to the airport. Attorneys are typically licensed in a particular state. Courts generally permit a process in which an attorney licensed in one state can be admitted “pro hac vice,” meaning “for this occasion only,” to practice on a case in another jurisdiction by entering into an agreement with an attorney who is licensed in that jurisdiction. Mr. O’Connor is based in San Diego, Mr. Barr in Denver.

“Clearly this is grandstanding,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said of Mr. Catterson’s motion at the town board’s meeting on Tuesday. “This is an attempt to discredit the town” and remove its attorneys, “which I think are doing a fantastic job.”

At issue are two letters sent from the F.A.A. to the town, each a “notice of airport analysis determination.” One stated that the F.A.A. had no objection to the town’s plan to deactivate the airport on May 17, the other stated no objection to establishment of a private-use airport. Both are signed by Diogenes Ramos of the F.A.A.

In the former document, Mr. Ramos’s email address was redacted along with the words “You will need to acknowledge and return an email indicating you want to proceed with the De-Activation on May 17th, 2022 to,” and his email address and telephone number were also removed along with the phrase “If you have any questions concerning this determination, please contact me at.”

That phrase was also redacted from the latter document, which was otherwise unaltered.

“Both documents were clearly edited to remove text,” Mr. Catterson wrote. “All contact information for F.A.A. personnel in both documents was removed, including that of Diogenes Ramos.” The redacted text, he wrote, “indicates that [the town] needed to confirm its intent to deactivate the airport after it represented to” the plaintiffs and the court, in February, “that the town would ‘not be undertaking deactivation or closure of the East Hampton Airport prior to May 17, 2022.’ “ Town officials had initially sought the airport’s closure and reopening to occur in February, and postponed the dates until May based on consultations with counsel and the F.A.A.

The town, Mr. Catterson alleged, “misled both this Court and [the plaintiffs] regarding the ‘administrative’ steps it was taking toward deactivation” of the airport.

The explanation, according to town officials and outside counsel, is both simple and innocuous.

And in fact, Mr. O’Connor wrote in a July 13 letter to Mr. Catterson, unredacted copies of the F.A.A. letters “were already filed with the Court. Your assertion that you were only able to discover the discrepancy through a [Freedom of Information Act] response received in June is thus patently false.”

“Not only did you fail to confer with Mr. Barr or me before making these serious and unfounded allegations,” Mr. O’Connor wrote, “but you apparently failed to conduct any diligence whatsoever.”

Had he conferred with the Cooley attorneys, Mr. Catterson “would have learned that, unbeknownst to Mr. Barr or me, a town employee, who was instructed to partially redact only F.A.A. staff member email addresses, mistakenly redacted the text surrounding the contact information before uploading the documents to the town’s website in March, to which some of the court filings linked,” he wrote.

In an affidavit submitted to the court last Thursday, Joanne Pilgrim, chief of staff to Mr. Van Scoyoc, said that in preparing a March 22 press release related to the two F.A.A. letters, “I decided to hyperlink the F.A.A.’s letters for the public’s convenience.” To do this, she asked the town’s Information Technology Department to upload the letters to the town’s website.

“Because the letters would be publicly available on the town’s website, they were intended to be redacted to protect an F.A.A. staff member’s direct contact information from being publicly disseminated,” Ms. Pilgrim said. “There was no intent to mislead anyone.”

Mr. Barr, in a March 23 email, told Ms. Pilgrim that “Before posting to website we should redact Mr. Ramos email address from those letters.” He suggested “a black redaction line over his name and then have the text start at ‘@’.” Mr. Ramos’s email address appears in both letters, he noted.

Ms. Pilgrim refers to Mr. Barr’s instruction in the affidavit. He “did not ask for or authorize any other redactions to be made,” she said.

She then asked Anne Bell, an executive assistant to the supervisor, to redact the F.A.A. staff members’ contact information “consistent with Mr. Barr’s instructions.” She did not instruct Ms. Bell to redact anything beyond the contact information itself, she said. “However, Ms. Bell redacted the entire sentence containing Mr. Ramos’s contact information as well as his signature block. Ms. Bell did not flag that a redaction had occurred, but instead simply deleted those parts of the letter. This was inconsistent with the instructions I provided to her and inconsistent with my communications with Mr. Andrew Barr.”

When she discovered that the redactions went beyond what had been authorized, “I did not act to have any changes made as I believed the difference to be insubstantial,” Ms. Pilgrim said, nor did she inform anyone.

Redacted and unredacted versions of the two letters are posted on the town’s website.

A statement issued from Town Hall to The New York Post, which published an article about Mr. Catterson’s motion on its website on Friday, said that the redacted versions of the F.A.A. letters were not provided to its counsel, “but counsel used documents from our website for certain exhibits in the related proceedings,” including the two letters. “It is unfortunate that the litigants have chosen to attack our lawyers in court this way without reaching out to them first to confirm they didn’t ‘doctor’ anything.”

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