By Jano Tantongco
The attorney representing a town typist who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Huntington Highway Superintendent Peter Gunther has called into question nearly $25,000 campaign funds used to pay Gunther’s defense attorney.
Huntington-based attorney Christopher Cassar, who is representing plaintiff Laurie Beth Austin in the case, wrote to the state last weekend regarding two payments made to Manhattan-based attorney Michael Cornacchia, who is defending Gunther.
Cornacchia received two separate payments from Friends of Peter S. Gunther, one for $10,000 on Aug. 26, and another for $14,655 on Sept. 27, according to campaign filings submitted to the state Jan. 17. The first payment is cited as a “retainer for legal fees rendered in connection with official duties as highway superintendent,” and the second is for Gunther’s legal fee balance.
Gunther is not the first elected official to tap campaign funds to pay legal defense fees. Nassau Executive Edward Mangano, former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, former state Sen. Dean Skelos, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto each have used campaign funds in their respective criminal cases, reports show.
Cornacchia confirmed on Monday that he is representing Gunther in the case, but declined to comment further. Gunther did not return a call for comment before deadline Wednesday.
A.J. Carter, a spokesman for the Town of Huntington, confirmed that the town is not paying for Gunther’s defense.
Gunther “has his own attorney due to the potential conflict that could arise between his interests and those of the town based on the allegations in the case,” Carter said Monday in an email.
On Saturday, Cassar wrote to the state Board of Elections seeking an investigation into Gunther’s use of campaign funds. Cassar claims campaign funds can’t be used for “personal use” unrelated to a political campaign, the holding of a public office or a party position.
“Certainly, his duties and responsibilities as town highway superintendent do not include harassment,” Cassar said. “I don’t believe the public would appreciate him using campaign funds to defend a sexual harassment case.”
Austin, who was Gunther’s secretary and is a typist for the town’s highway department, claims Gunther made repeated unwanted advances toward her, despite telling him not to. She filed the complaint against Gunther in July 2016.
In January, the state advanced the claim to go before an administrative law judge. That hearing is set for May 8-9.