By Rick Brand | newsday.com
Suffolk Conservative Party secretary Michael Torres has filed a federal lawsuit, claiming Republican Elections Commissioner Nicholas LaLota illegally fired him from his $105,000-a-year elections board job because he repeatedly refused to back Republicans' choice for a District Court judgeship.
LaLota said there is "absolutely no merit behind his lawsuit," which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.
The suit claims LaLota told Torres he "would be terminated from his job at the board if he did not support having the Conservative Party nominate" candidate Tara Scully over Howard Heckman, who recently became Torres' father-in-law.
Heckman, a Conservative, later received Democratic cross-endorsement for the state Supreme Court. The minor party then backed Democrat Stephen Ukeiley, a former District Court judge, over Scully.
Torres said he felt Scully, a Republican and a 2004 law school graduate, "did not have the necessary experience or qualifications to be a judge."
Within days after the cross-endorsements, LaLota fired Torres as senior assistant elections commissioner.
"To maintain his job, Torres was required to pledge his political support for a judicial candidate he did not believe in," Torres' attorney, Alan Sash, said in court papers.
"Torres was penalized for his personal beliefs that are fundamentally protected by the Constitution," Sash said.
Torres is seeking $1 million in punitive damages, reinstatement, back pay and attorney fees.
Republicans attacked the suit, claiming that Torres did not have power over the judicial nominations. "The bottom line is that it's a frivolous lawsuit brought by a desperate individual who is fighting legal battles on multiple fronts," said John Jay LaValle, Suffolk GOP chairman.
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an ongoing war between Suffolk Conservatives and Republicans. The dispute began in September with the Conservative cross-endorsement deal in which the minor party backed two Democrats in return for Heckman's endorsement by Democrats. All three won. Since then Conservatives, whose ballot line draws as much as 12 percent of the vote, have threatened to refuse backing Republican state senate candidates as long as LaValle remains GOP chairman.
Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed Torres' election board records including emails, travel records and his work, dating back to 2007, moves Conservatives say were prompted by the GOP. Torres also is facing a local felony charge that he concealed criminal convictions on his application to become a member of the Islip Zoning Board of Assessment Review. Torres has pleaded not guilty.