The owners of the Wandering Dago food truck are suing state officials in federal court, alleging their truck was improperly barred from doing business this summer at the Empire State Plaza and Saratoga Race Course.
The Schenectady company — at the center of controversy much of this summer over its name, which offends some Italian-Americans — is claiming a violation of its First Amendment rights by high state officials.
Read the full complaint on the Capital Region Scene blog.
The state Office of General Services in May refused the food truck a permit to sell during the summer outside the Empire State Plaza in Albany, and the lawsuit alleges a high state official also pressured the New York Racing Association last month to keep it out of the Saratoga Springs thoroughbred track.
“One or more state officials have acted because they determined the name is offensive, and that’s illegal and unconstitutional,” said George F. Carpinello of Albany, who is representing the Wandering Dago.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for Northern New York, names state Commissioner of General Services Roann M. Destito and several other OGS officials, as well as NYRA and NYRA officials, including President and CEO Christopher K. Kay.
The lawsuit seeks compensation for an estimated $350,000 in lost business, a court injunction barring the defendants from again banning the Wandering Dago, and “such other relief as the court deems just and proper.”
The case will be heard by U.S. District Court Judge Mae A. D’Agostino.
State OGS spokeswoman Heather Groll said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
“OGS is reviewing the lawsuit,” she said Tuesday.
NYRA spokesman Eric Wing also said there would be no comment from the association, which operates thoroughbred racing in New York under state supervision.
Carpinello said the Wandering Dago’s owners estimate they lost about $300,000 by being prevented from selling their barbecue and other foods during the 40-day race meet, plus about $50,000 from not being allowed to sell outside the Empire State Plaza, where many state workers eat lunch during the warmer months.
“The actions of OGS defendants and the NYRA defendants were not in good faith and constitute knowing and willful denials, deprivations, and/or violations of plaintiff’s civil rights and liberties and constitutional rights, privileges and immunities,” the lawsuit states.
Carpinello, who is Italian-American, said the term “Dago” as Wandering Dago owners Andrea Loguidice and Brandon Snooks use it is not intended to be offensive.
“Our clients are Italian-American, and they do not find this offensive,” Carpinello said. “They use it in a playful and irreverent manner.”
In public statements and letters to newspaper editorial pages, however, a number of people have said they find the term to be an offensive slur on Italian-Americans and say the business’ name is offensive.
The lawsuit says the company was issued abrupt denials to operate at both Empire State Plaza and the track, even after negotiating for necessary permissions.
Starting in February, the company had numerous contacts with OGS officials about participating in the Empire State Plaza summer outdoor lunch program, the lawsuit states. Ultimately, the company applied for an OGS permit, and was told by voicemail from OGS special events coordinator Aaron Walters on May 10 that OGS “would approve” the application. Then, on May 20, another voicemail message from Walters said the application had been denied, the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, OGS attorney William F. Bruno Jr. subsequently told the Wandering Dago’s owners the application was late and incomplete and the business name had been deemed offensive. The lawsuit says the application was not late or incomplete.
The lawsuit alleges Bruso was acting under the direction of Destito, Deputy Commissioner Joseph J. Rabito “and other unknown officials in OGS and the New York state government.”
At Saratoga Race Course, a NYRA official ordered the Wandering Dago off the grounds July 19 after the first day of this year’s Saratoga meet. The lawsuit said the order came even though the company had negotiated since January with Centerplate, a private company that manages the track’s food vendors, and its name was featured in promotional materials.
The Wandering Dago bought a 6-foot barbecue smoker and other equipment and hired five additional employees in anticipation of the business it would do at the track, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit says that at 10 p.m. July 19, with the Wandering Dago truck on the grounds but not yet operating, NYRA Vice-President Stephen Travers called and said the truck had to leave the next morning “because a state official complained about plaintiff’s name.”
Since then, the Wandering Dago truck has offered lunches at various locations around the Capital Region, but the lawsuit says it’s had nowhere near the amount of business that would have been expected were it at the track with the large racing crowds six days a week.
“We were told state officials just said to get out of here. We don’t know who those state officials are. We’re going to find out,” Carpinello said.