WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – Westchester County spent about $220,000 in legal fees to defend District Attorney Janet DiFiore in a 2008 civil lawsuit. Now, the plaintiff in that lawsuit, Sam Zherka, wants DiFiore to pay that money back and announced Monday that he had filed another lawsuit in state Supreme Court on behalf of the taxpayers.
Zherka, publisher of the Westchester Guardian, claims that DiFiore should have paid for her own defense in the 2008 lawsuit, which alleged that she became irate during a phone call and threatened him. Zherka’s weekly newspaper had printed a story about her husband’s involvement in her 2005 bid for the Independence Party’s nomination.
"Her defense in federal court was that she was acting as a private citizen and not as the Westchester County district attorney when she called and made those threats," Zherka said. "The court saw it her way."
That, Zherka said, brings him to Section 17-18 of the New York Public Officers Law, which requires the state to provide defense for a government employee "acting within the scope of his public employment or duties." Based on the court’s ruling in the 2008 lawsuit, Zherka says that DiFiore wasn’t acting in her capacity as the district attorney, but as a private citizen. Therefore, he wants DiFiore to pay back up to $175,000 of the legal fees spent for her representation by the firm Epstein, Becker & Green.
DiFiore said in a statement that public officials are entitled to be immune to such lawsuits.
"Motivated by his own personal and political agenda, Sam Zherka has brought a series of frivolous, meritless lawsuits against me and others in Westchester County," DiFiore said in the statement. "These lawsuits have wasted the resources of the courts and the County at the taxpayers’ expense."
The latest lawsuit was filed Thursday by Nubreed Ent. Inc., which Zherka said he oversees.
DiFiorer said she expects the courts will side with her again, and calls Zherka’s claims baseless.
"It is particularly ironic, hypocritical and two-faced that Mr. Zherka claims to represent Westchester taxpayers when he is the one filing these lawsuits against Westchester public officials, abusing the process at the taxpayers' expense, and then the one complaining that there is a taxpayer expense," DiFiore said in the statement. "He does not care about the Westchester County taxpayer."
The county Department of Social Services is investigating how DiFiore's maid, Marina Buchanan, was approved for welfare benefits after being denied three times before. DiFiore denies allegations of using improper influence.