Ex-Yonkers Mayor Phil Amicone apologizes to strip club owner Sam Zherka
Standing outside Yonkers City Hall, former Mayor Phil Amicone publicly apologized Wednesday for making "false and defamatory statements" about Sam Zherka, publisher of the Westchester Guardian and co-owner of a Manhattan strip club.
"I deeply apologize on my behalf and on behalf of my administration for causing so much hurt to Mr. Zherka and his family," Amicone told reporters, reading from a letter he sent to Zherka. "I hope this apology will go a long way to healing some of the wounds inflicted by these statements."
At a Republican event in 2007, Amicone allegedly labeled Zherka a "mobster" and a "convicted drug dealer" and a "thug." Zherka filed a $30 million defamation lawsuit that wasn't resolved but had left the city open to further litigation.
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On Tuesday night, a divided City Council voted 4-3 to settle the dispute with the apology and payment of $100,000 to Zherka, 45, of Katonah.
"It took me 5 1/2 years of legal battles to come to this day," Zherka said Wednesday. "I'm glad that Phil Amicone and the city of Yonkers have agreed to put this to an end and accept responsibility."
After a few words, both men shook hands as TV cameras captured the moment.
The city's legal department proposed the settlement last week to avoid a protracted legal battle with Zherka, a controversial figure who's part owner of the strip club Cheetahs.
Christopher Johnson said he and two others on the Democratic-controlled City Council voted against the settlement because they didn't think the city's taxpayers should be held responsible for statements made by Amicone, a Republican, at a political event.
"I don't think the taxpayers should be bailing him out for making these statements out of City Hall," Johnson said.
City Council President Chuck Lesnick, a Democrat, said he voted for the settlement because it "wasn't a First Amendment case" and he felt the move would save the city additional litigation and the possibility of a more costly settlement.
City Councilman John Larkin, the council's Republican minority leader, said he voted for the settlement because he felt it wouldn't be in the best interest of the city to go back to court over the allegations.
"Sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote for something you don't like," he said. "I felt that in order to avoid any further litigation, this was our best option."
Amicone, who has been silent on the issue since he left City Hall last year, sent Zherka a letter of apology Thursday, asking for forgiveness for falsely charging that Zherka was involved "with criminality and wrongdoing."
The settlement and apology are part of a flurry of litigation among Zherka, the Guardian, Yonkers and Amicone.
Amicone, 64, who served the maximum two four-year mayoral terms from January 2004 to last year, was a frequent target of attacks from Zherka's weekly newspaper.
In October 2010, a federal jury slapped Yonkers with an $8 million damage award in connection with a First Amendment lawsuit after Amicone ordered city workers to remove the Guardian's newspaper racks from city streets and instructed police to ticket Zherka's hawkers for distributing the freebie.
The following year, a divided City Council approved a $393,000 settlement in the case.
Although some council members, including Lesnick, called on Zherka to donate the settlement money to a local charity, the newspaper publisher said the money will go into a trust benefiting his eight children.
The news conference outside City Hall drew dozens of curious onlookers, from city employees to residents going into the building for business.
Political activist Eric Schoen placed two paintings of clowns on the steps to City Hall to parody what he called a "circus."
"It's a sad day for Yonkers," he said. "This money could have been used to hire more police and firefighters and other things our city desperately needs."