THE U.S. ATTORNEY for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was in Albany this week, where his agenda included speaking engagements on corruption in state government. That’s a topic he knows about, having recently won convictions in corruption cases against two of the most powerful figures in the state legislature.
Among the points he made was that the corruption was obvious to anyone who cared to look for it, and people have to say something if they want corruption to stop. Juries found that the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and the majority leader of the state Senate, Dean Skelos, a Republican, had used their offices to enrich themselves or family members. That’s not what they were elected to do. It’s illegal.
Last year, before his cases were beginning to make headlines, I used this space to ask Mr. Bharara to look into a different kind of case here, one where it looks like the power of government to enforce the law has been derailed while violations of law that started almost two decades ago continue. I felt like Mr. Bharara was the only person with the will and the authority to take on this case. He didn’t respond, and if he even noticed my call for help, he could legitimately claim that he had other, more pressing business.
Meanwhile, there has been no enforcement of the contempt of court orders against Mr. Sal Cascino. Local and state officials have evidence that illegal dumping continues at the 300-acre industrial waste processing facility he calls Copake Valley Farm. Nor has there been full restoration of the trout stream that flows through his property despite court orders requiring specific steps Mr. Cascino must take.
A condensed list of state and local charges against Mr. Cascino over the last 18 years was reported in this paper last week by Diane Valden. She has covered this story since Mr. Cascino was first charged with violations in 1998. The office of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman did have success once in a case involving another site; Mr. Cascino pleaded guilty to a felony related to false paperwork and had to sell his Bronx waste hauling business.
But that conviction didn’t end the flow of debris to his Copake property, where heavy construction machines bury it. Some years ago Acting State Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Nichols, following a lengthy hearing, issued rulings against Mr. Cascino for contempt of court. But the judge, whose rulings have been upheld by an appeals panel, has done nothing since. What is going on here?
Mr. Cascino has a right to due process. But he’s had his day in court. Many of them. So heeding Mr. Bharara, do those of us who live here need to say again we see the steel bridge that should never have been built and remains though the judge ordered it removed? We see it.
Do we need to say that we have seen debris from huge trucks being dumped on his property? We’ve seen that too. What more can citizens do but shout that we can see the demands of a judge being ignored.
At the very least, don’t we have a right to know why Mr. Cascino is free to violate the law?
The judge has the power to put Mr. Cascino in jail for criminal contempt. It’s not punishment for anything Mr. Cascino has done. Holding someone in jail for contempt is the way judges can convince a person like Mr. Cascino to comply with the court’s decision.
It’s a power that should be used sparingly. But this is the time to do it. By allowing Mr. Cascino to continue activities he’s been told to end and to ignore illegal structures he must remove, the judge weakens the power of the law. The principle of equal treatment under the law has no meaning if a guy like Mr. Cascino thumbs his nose at the rulings of a judge.
No one should act surprised to learn that one of the ways Mr. Cascino has drawn out a showdown over his contempt charges results from his ability to pay loads of lawyers to stall the process. That’s the way the system works. What’s hard for non-lawyers to understand is why Judge Nichols hasn’t decided that Mr. Cascino can coordinate his defense just as well from inside the Columbia County Jail until the damage he’s done is repaired.