Thursday, July 31, 2008
We Need Second Look Programs
In The Prosecutor’s Office
In the last issue of The Guardian, I mentioned the shining example that Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins represents in vigorously pursuing not only convictions of the guilty, but also in taking the lead in the battle against wrongful convictions. In case anybody missed last week’s issue, I will review very briefly: Watkins not only lobbies for change in the law to prevent wrongful convictions, and testifies at legislative hearings, giving frequent public presentations, but also has a “Conviction Integrity Unit” in which his staff looks for wrongful convictions. Thus far, the number is up to seven in terms of the DNA exonerations in Dallas since Watkins started the Unit, reviewing
old cases in which his predecessor, Bill Hill, successfully blocked defendants’ requests for DNA testing in court.
The Bronx DA’s Office
The Bronx DA’s Office was selected for this article because there have been known wrongful conviction there, and because of it’s proximity to Westchester. Alan Newton served 21 years for Rape before he was exonerated by DNA evidence. His wrongful conviction was based upon misidentification. Newton was wrongfully convicted in 1985, and according to the Innocence Project’s website, he “first requested post conviction DNA testing on August 16, 1994.
The Court denied his request on November 3, 1994, because “the kit could not be located.” In 2005, at the request of the Innocence Project, the Bronx County District Attorney’s Of-fice asked the Property Clerk Division of the Police Department to conduct a search for the victim’s rape kit, despite claims made by officials at that Office, over the course of 11 years, that the kit “could not be located and was presumed destroyed.”
In November 2005, the kit was found after a physical search of the evidence barrels at the Pearson Place, Queens warehouse. The rape kit was found in “the same barrel that was indicated on the evidence voucher.” When the DNA proved that the semen found in the victim did not come from him, Newton’s conviction was overturned, and he was exonerated. The District Attorney’s Office joined in the Defense
motion to vacate his conviction.
The Guardian contacted the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and explained that an article was being written about the presence, or absence, of a Conviction Integrity Unit within various Prosecutors’ offices, including The Bronx. A request was made to name the personnel who worked in such a unit, to list their titles, and to mention what the day-to-day work of that unit typically looked like. It was further explained
that if there was no Conviction Integrity Unit, The Guardian would like to know why, especially in light of Newton’s wrongful conviction.
Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, through his spokesperson Steven Reed, released the following statement: “Investigating post conviction claims of innocence is an integral part of my responsibility. Our mandate to see that justice is served permeates the entire organizational structure of the Office. One example of this occurred several years ago when the Innocence Project asked for our help in locating DNA evidence which was in the custody of the police department’s Property Clerk.
Although the NYPD repeatedly insisted that the rape kit had been lost, the evidence eventually was located because of the persistence of the Chief of my Sex Crime Bureau. Her determination in approaching this matter, which ultimately led to the exoneration of Alan Newton, is not unique. Many times, defense attorneys have approached our Office with claims of innocence, and requests that we investigate, and all such requests are given full consideration. All of the lawyers in this Office, particularly those in the Appeals Bureau, have been instructed to review claims of innocence on a case-by-case basis and, in so doing, not to rely solely on technical legal arguments concerning questions that have been raised regarding issues of guilt or innocence.”
Analysis Of The Response
Before getting to the merits of the response, I want to first give credit to Bronx DA Robert Johnson for not fighting against Newton once the DNA did not match him. This is in marked contrast to the, too often seen, all-out fight, no matter what, to preserve convictions at all costs; knowingly fighting against innocent defendants such as I have previously written about.
Former Dallas D.A. Bill Hill in fighting against DNA Testing, Thomas Spota in the Marty Tankleff case, and Jeanine Pirro in fighting against all of my appeals come immediately to mind. In terms of the content of the statement, I certainly agree with Bronx DA Robert Johnson that investigating post conviction claims of innocence is part of his job. It is nice to hear somebody say that, considering the marked contrast
with the attitudes and occasional public statements from some people in positions of authority. For example, the two Dallas County Commissioners who voted against Watkins getting the necessary funding, made public statements to the effect that they were against giving the funding because it would “place the district attorney in the role of defense counsel.”
Similarly, unlike my personal past experiences, along with many other cases in which district attorneys preserve wrongful convictions, by hook or by crook, including fighting claims of innocence by the use of technical legal arguments, it is refreshing to hear someone in a position of authority acknowledge that moral fact.
Those statements however, merely acknowledge a duty, they are not tantamount to action. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office has no Conviction Integrity Unit. In fact, when The Guardian called about the subject, Mr. Reed was quite surprised to hear of the presence of one in Watkins’ office. That alone proves that there is no such division and no one whose daily job it is to work there. The very concept is very
foreign to such Assistant District Attorneys. Analyzing the statement that was made further, I would like to point out that investigating claims of innocence once a defendant’s attorney has made such a claim, while laudable, is waiting until a possible wrongful conviction is
brought to you, as opposed to being proactive and poring over old cases, as Watkins’ staff is doing.
Furthermore, I would like to know how many cases have there been where a defense attorney has asked the DA’s office to reinvestigate? What are the names of the cases? What were the outcomes? Why? Who worked on them? Alas, we will never know, because when The Guardian placed a further phone call to the Bronx DA’s Office pointing out the difference between proactively investigating wrongful convictions, and waiting for requests to do so from defense attorneys, looking for a further comment, Mr. Reed swiftly and curtly responded by stating that they had already given a statement, thereby making clear that the dialogue was over.
Such actions are consistent with being defensive and evasive. People who are evasive, rather than being forthcoming, are typically hiding something. I do not agree with the way the Bronx DA is trying to spin his Office’s role in the Newton case. Although, at the end, the Sex Crime Bureau Chief went and found the evidence, what about everything that went down before that?
I would like to point out that at the time of his exoneration, all of Newton’s appeals had long since been exhausted. He had raised, among other issues, his innocence. Far from reinvestigating a case when innocence is alleged, they, the Bronx DA’s Office, successfully
fought against all of his appeals. Recent court documents reveal that the Bronx DA failed to investigate Newton’s alibi. Additionally, what happened during all of the searches prior to the last search? Why could nobody find the evidence, when it was right where the voucher had said that it would be during the whole time? It is also worth noting that Newton is suing the Bronx DA, so clearly he does not regard them
as pro-active heroes in his case.
The Manhattan DA’s Office
Who could ever forget the “Central Park Jogger” case, in which Yusuf Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, and Antron Mc- Cray, were wrongly convicted before being exonerated by DNA, with the real perpetrator identified? The case was heavily sensationalized. Salaam served five and a half years, Richardson five and a half, Wise eleven and a half, Santana five, and McCray served
six years. The following facts are taken from The Innocence Project’s website: “After prolonged interrogation, the defendants confessed. The defendants were between 14 and 16 years of age. Richardson, McCray, Sanatana, and Wise all gave videotaped confessions. The confessions were presented as evidence though they differed in the time, location, and participants of the rape. At trial, the prosecutors also presented forensic evidence, including hair found on one of the defendants that ‘matched and resembled’ that of the victim and a hair found on the victim’s clothing that was believed to have originated from one of the defendants.
Also presented as evidence was a rock found near the scene of the crime that had blood and hair on it; evidence that was believed to have come from the victim. The following year, all five teenagers were convicted, in two separate trials, of charges stemming from the attack.
Raymond Santana was tried as a juvenile and convicted of rape and assault. He was sentenced to five to ten years.
In early 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, admitted that he alone was responsible for the attack on the Central Park jogger. Reyes had already committed another rape near Central Park days earlier in 1989, using the same modus operandi. The victim of that rape had described the rapist as having fresh stitches in his chin and an investigator quickly linked Reyes to this description.
Although the police had Reyes’s name on file, they failed to connect Reyes to the rape and assault of the Central Park jogger. Eventually, the
evidence from the crime was subjected to DNA testing. The DNA profile obtained from the spermatozoa found in the rape kit matched the profile of Reyes. Mitochondrial DNA testing on the hairs found on one of the defendants revealed that the hairs were not related to the victim or the crime.
Further testing on hairs found on the victim also matched Reyes. Neither blood nor the hair found on the rock matched the victim. The evidence corroborates Reyes’s confession to the crime and is consistent with the other crimes committed by Reyes. He is currently serving a life sentence for those crimes.
The investigation of the convictions of these five teenagers has raised questions regarding police coercion and false confessions, as well as, the
vulnerability of juveniles during police interrogations. In retrospect, it is clear, these young men did not know where, how, or when the attack took place. On December 19, 2002, on the recommendation of the District Attorney, citing the DNA evidence, the weakness of the case, and how the statements were conflicting, the convictions of the five men were overturned.”
In addition, in a case touched on in a prior issue of The Guardian, David Lemus and Omar Hidalgo served time wrongfully in a shooting murder-known as “The Palladium Case”. They both served more than a decade before they were freed. A big factor in their being freed was evidence pointing to the real killer. There were numerous witness statements implicating the real murderer which were hidden from the
Defense, including third party admissions that he made to people. The assistant prosecutor, Daniel Bibb, himself became convinced of Lemus’ and Hidalgo’s innocence.
With these cases, it becomes clear that the Manhattan DA’s Office has had significant problems with wrongful convictions. The Guardian placed a call to the Manhattan D.A’s Office. Jennifer Kushner, spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morganthau,
mentioned the following statement, when asked whether they have a Conviction Integrity Unit: “We review cases when the facts demand it”. When asked what the criteria were for reinvestigating cases, she said “No Comment.”
Analysis Of The Response
Much like Bronx DA Johnson’s Of-fice, Manhattan DA Mogenthau’s Office was not totally forthcoming, to say the least. Merely claiming that they reinvestigate cases whenever the facts demand it, is not the same thing as taking a proactive position of having a review office look for cases of wrongful convictions on their own, without being prompted by a defense attorney or an outside agency. There is no Conviction Integrity Unit in the Manhattan DA’S office, despite the numerous wrongful convictions.
In terms of how the Central Park Jogger Case was handled, the same inconsistencies that were cited in support of dropping the case, were present at the time that they were convicted. So again, like Johnson, some credit at the end may be called for, but well deserved criticism for what went on before that.
They did reinvestigate the Lemus and Hidalgo case once evidence started popping up, but the investigation process was really stretched out far longer than necessary. In fact, the detectives who turned up the evidence of innocence grew quite impatient. Then, even after the prosecutor went to his superiors and told them that he was convinced of the defendants’ innocence, he was told to go into the post conviction hearing and try to uphold their convictions anyway.
Finally, even after the conviction were overturned, the Manhattan DA’S office retried David Lemus, despite the evidence. Next week we’ll take a look at the Westchester DA’s Office.
Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Seniors Caught In A Squeeze
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, announced last week that Congress was reviewing additional ways to stimulate the economy including the possibility of another tax rebate program, further interest rates cuts, or the reduction of gasoline taxes. Pelosi, and other members of
Congress on both sides of the political fence, voiced the economic concerns facing taxpayers. What Congress did not address, however, was how the potential solutions for the nation’s economic woes have had an adverse effect on the individuals least able to recover in the long
term – our nation’s seniors.
The Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates nine times in the past 1½ years in an unsuccessful effort to stimulate the economy. The Federal Funds interest rate has declined from 6.25 percent in June 2006 to 2.25 percent in April 2008. The reasoning behind lowering interest rates was to provide lower cost loans to businesses so they would be able to purchase more equipment and/or hire more employees.
Banks borrow money from the Federal Reserve at this discount rate and base their interest rates to their customers on the Federal rate. When federal rates decline, the rates the banks charge for loans likewise decreases. However, since the banks are now receiving lower rates on their loans to customers, they, in turn, must reduce the interest rates they pay on the deposits kept at their bank.
Anyone with savings in bank accounts or bank certificates of deposit (CD’s) may currently be earning four percent less interest on their savings than what they earned only two years ago. On $100,000 worth of savings, that represents $4,000 less in annual income. The majority of CD owners are seniors who depend upon the interest earned on their accounts to supplement their Social Security checks.
At a time when the costs of transportation, energy, taxes, and food are dramatically increasing, seniors also have to deal with lowered income. And, unlike younger age groups, they may not have the benefit of time on their side to “ride out” the current downturn in the economy.
Seniors are literally being squeezed from both ends, with higher costs and lower income, in today’s economy.
The Westchester County Department of Seniors is seeing a dramatic increase in severe economic distress among local seniors. Margaret, name changed, a volunteer with the agency, gave The Guardian examples of severe situations. “One elderly woman called us and told us that she could no longer afford to keep her car but she was concerned about how she would be able to get around without it. She was unfamiliar with the county’s bus system and worried about how she would handle an emergency without transportation. She felt like she was losing her independence,” Margaret said. “The seniors we speak to are dealing with less and less. They feel that the government cuts back aid to seniors and children first because they can’t fight back.”
Margaret gave two heartbreaking examples of struggling seniors: one local resident is an elderly mother struggling to care for her disabled son. She could not afford to pay for his medication out of her Social Security check and turned to the County for help. The second case was an elderly man who was looking for an affordable place to live. He was sleeping in Grand Central Station at night. “It’s heartbreaking to think that this is how our elderly are ending their lives, after giving so much to their communities,” Margaret noted. “We have so much money in this County. We need to make sure than none of our seniors are sleeping on the streets.”
Local government representatives agree with the need for more affordable housing for seniors but note the strong opposition in the communities where such housing is being proposed. Paul Feiner, the Supervisor of the Town of Greenburgh, told The Guardian that there is a
great need for affordable housing for seniors in our County. “Westchester County has the third highest cost of living in the nation” Feiner said. “Our seniors are being forced out of their homes. They do not want to move from our communities.
They appreciate the services they receive here and want to stay near their families and familiar surroundings.” Medical professionals note that as mobility and sensory ability decline with age, seniors manage better in a familiar environment. Dementia, hearing loss, and other physical difficulties could make it impossible for an older person to adapt to a new environment. In 2007, Feiner proposed a program where seniors could work off a portion of their town property taxes by tutoring schoolchildren, doing legal or accounting work, or even working in the town parks for tax “credit”. When proposing this program, Feiner noted “There are many seniors who are having difficulties paying their property taxes, people on fixed incomes. This program could help them stay in the community. The town benefits, because we’re able to take advantage of the considerable talents of senior citizens.”
Feiner is also considering other options for seniors to control their property tax payments. “We should examine a way to let seniors pay taxes a little at a time, not in one large lump sum. And it’s diffi-cult for a senior to absorb a 10 percent annual increase in property taxes when their Social Security checks are only increasing 3 percent a year. So we should also examine a way to freeze the annual property tax increases that a senior has to absorb – possibly allowing them to pay the same amount of taxes each year and hold the increases in taxes against the equity in their homes so the tax increases are not due until their house is eventually sold”.
Feiner stressed that all local leaders have to look for options to enable seniors to stay in their homes. “Seniors do not have many options and assisted living is too expensive, so government has to look for options to make the communities more affordable. “We need to eliminate layers of local government and examine the feasibility of county government.” Feiner said. Even seniors at the upper end of the economic spectrum are concerned about the economy. Gemma Maver, the Director of Marketing and Community Relations for Kendal on Hudson, a continuing care retirement community in Sleepy Hollow, told The Guardian that their residents typically invest on Wall Street and are ‘holding tight’ as a result of downturns in their investments.
Residents of Kendal pay entry fees ranging from $187,523 for a studio apartment to $921,725 for a large two-bedroom suite with views of the Hudson River. “Our residents have already sold their homes so they do not have those concerns. But they do pay monthly fees to the community so we’re trying to keep those down despite increases in our energy and transportation costs.” Maver noted.
“We have a very informed, active community that is very energy conscious. We have a sustainability program to control our energy use and our residents support those efforts,” she said. But Maver has noticed some changes in the residents’ behavior. She explained, “Many of our residents drive but they are carpooling and taking advantage of our transportation to get to the train station or local appointments”.
After a lifetime of frugality and savings, some area seniors have amassed a considerable amount of money. These seniors, however, are more concerned with news of bank difficulties than with housing or the job market. Bob Stimpson, a local Branch Manager for Capitol One
Bank, noted that the biggest concern his customers express is whether their money is safe in the bank. “These customers remember
the effects of the ‘Crash of ‘29’ and the aftermath of World War II,” Stimpson noted. “We have customers who have placed their savings in trust for their children and grandchildren and may have more than the $100,000 maximum insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation (FDIC). When they hear that the FDIC is watching over 90 banks carefully right now, they get scared”.
On July 18, the FDIC set new rules for banks to speed up payments in the event of a bank failure. The new rules were in reaction to the July 11 collapse of IndyMac Bank in California – the FDIC took over IndyMac Bankcorp Inc. and its $19 billion in deposits after the bank
failed to raise cash. The collapse of this bank has led customers of other banks to reduce their deposits below the $100,000 insured levels which in turn reduces the ability of those banks to make payments and offer credit, reducing the availability of cash even further. Senator Charles Shumer, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, voiced his concerns in June over IndyMac’s high level of mortgage defaults. This disclosure triggered a run on the bank by customers, resulting in the FDIC takeover.
Stimpson reassures local bank customers not to worry about their accounts, even if their savings are greater than $100,000. “There are ways to split up a customer’s bank balance to guarantee higher levels of FDIC insurance protection” Stimpson said. “Customers should be aware that their IRA accounts are insured up to $250,000. And any accounts held in trust are insured separately from their individual accounts. A
husband can have an account in trust for his wife and vice versa resulting in a combined $200,000 of insured accounts. By mixing and matching trust beneficiaries, a married couple with three children, both sets of parents alive, and two IRA’s , could have FDIC coverage up to
$1.7 million in total”.
Based on the Westchester County census in 2000, the County’s Planning Department projected that by 2010, approximately 184,000 local residents will be 60 years of age or older. The Planning Department expected that number to increase to over 200,000 by 2015. For the same period, however, the County expects the largest wage-earning group, ages 25 to 59, to decrease from 449,000 to 442,000, resulting in fewer wage-earners to cover the taxes needed to subsidize a growing elderly community. But while the current crop of seniors is facing severe economic difficulties, the upcoming groups of seniors could fare far worse. According to Stimpson “Our elderly customers remember the Great Depression and the lack of jobs greeting returning vets at the end of World War II.
They grew up having to economize. They are not impressed with name brands and will use an item until it falls apart. But our younger customers are in bigger trouble. For many of them, if they lose their paychecks it could mean losing their house in Scarsdale and having
to move to an apartment. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they don’t have the survival techniques to deal with a prolonged downturn in our economy.”
The Planning Department is updating its population projections to determine where the need will be greatest in the upcoming years. In the interim, those seniors struggling economically can contact the county’s Department of Seniors for assistance. In addition, each town and local municipality has a Department of Elder Americans and a Senior Center to aid local residents.
County Government Ought To
Practice What It Preaches
Last Monday, July 21, the County’s largest public employees’ union, the Civil Service Employees Association, representing some 4,000 Westchester County workers, held a press conference outside the County Office Building on Martine Avenue, White Plains. They were carrying petitions signed by more than 3,000 of their members seeking “a liberalization of the modified work week clause;” a four-day work
week with 10-hour workdays, wherever possible and practical.
CSEA 9200 Local President Jack McPhillips told reporters present, “We are imploring the County Executive to institute a four-day work week, where applicable, to coincide with his initiative to reduce the County’s carbon footprint.” Such a change, McPhillips pointed out, “would reduce gasoline consumption and cut back on air pollution.”
Accompanied by The Guardian, McPhillips, together with five other Union member/County employees from the Departments of Public Works, Rye Playland, and Social Services, then entered the County Office Building, bent on delivering petitions containing more than 3,000 signatures to the County Executive’s Office, as well as to the Chairman of the Board of Legislators, Bill Ryan.
Arriving first at the ninth floor, having called ahead, the Union delegation was avoided by County Executive Andy Spano, Deputy
County Executive Larry Schwartz, and Chief Advisor Susan Tolchin, and was compelled to leave the petition signatures with a receptionist in the corridor, at the front desk.
From there, the delegation proceeded to the eighth floor, where they were cordially greeted by Bill Ryan, Chairman of the County Legislature, recovering from his recent heart surgery. Ryan, sitting in a rocking chair and looking much thinner and healthier than before his
operation, told Union President McPhillips, “You have always tried to balance your members’ needs with the needs of County residents.”
McPhillips responded, “We are not trying to shut the County down for a day, but merely suggesting that County government practice what it is preaching with regard to the environment, and its carbon footprint wherever possible.”
Chairman Ryan responded, “You’re putting another good idea on the table.”
It should be noted that County employees have been working without a contract for two and a half years. And, currently, both sides are communicating through a mediator.
Prior to the arrival of the delegation, The Guardian spoke with Republican County Legislator from Cortlandt, Minority Leader George Oros. Oros indicated that he would be willing to consider the Union’s four-day, ten-hour proposal in those areas where it was feasible, “provided there was no loss of productivity.” Oros stressed the notion that County government, as the largest employer in the County, might serve as a model for private industry.
In Our Opinion...
At The Heart Of The Harrison And Yonkers Police Department Problems Lies DA DiFiore
Across Westchester, from Yonkers, on the Hudson, to Harrison, on the Sound, people are beginning to get wise to the problems they are experiencing with the police; by no means all, or even a majority of police in those two departments, in particular, but rather a nasty clique of rogue cops in each department. The Harrison Police Department, with a total of some 75 officers, is little more than 10 percent of the Yonkers force, of some 670.
The size of each department is of little consequence. What matters is that they have come to share the same tarnished image; accusations of police brutality, and corruption, law-abiding civilians living in fear of violent cops; and, yes, the top of each department is involved in an unholy, unhealthy, relationship with DA Janet DiFiore.
The citizens of Harrison are situated precisely as the citizens of Yonkers, and realize that they have no recourse with the District Attorney’s Office, and certainly none with the police department whose officers have brutalized and abused them. They are, in effect, between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.”
The simple truth is that Janet DiFiore, since being “installed” as District Attorney, nearly three years ago, has time after time not only refused to investigate and prosecute complaints of police brutality and civil abuse lodged by innocent citizens and their attorneys, but also has actively prosecuted such victims on bogus charges.
DiFiore is the common denominator because her incestuous relationships with Chief Hall and Captain Marraccini, in Harrison, and Mayor Amicone and Commissioner Hartnett, in Yonkers, not only prevent her from lawfully discharging her duty to investigate and prosecute
serious allegations by credible victims; but also apparently compel her to turn her staff loose against innocent, law-abiding individuals, victims of her benefactors.
The decent, hard-working, taxpaying citizens of Westchester County must not continue to labor under the treachery of such a conspiracy because of the “installation” of Janet DiFiore as District Attorney. Many in the media are beginning to question what it is that Hall and Marraccini, Amicone and Hartnett, are holding over her that would cause her to repeatedly sacrifice innocent civilians and good police officers, while, at the same time, wrecking the reputation and careers of prosecuting attorneys in her of-fice. There is a reason why half of her attorneys and investigators have walked out.
Word around the DA’s Office is that Pat D’Imperio, Chief Administrative Assistant with more than a decade on the job, is “headed for the door.” Repeated attempts to secure confirmation, and cause, from DiFiore’s spokesperson Lucian Chalfen, have been stonewalled, raising suspicion that all may not be right with the Office’s financial situation.
With each passing day, it becomes increasingly apparent that Janet DiFiore is incapable of discharging the duties of District Attorney fairly and competently. Because of her unlawful response to civilian and police plaintiffs in Harrison, with respect to Hall and Marraccini as well as Officers Light and Lucas, and others, fearful, abused residents have turned to Town Supervisor Joan Walsh in their desperation.
We have been calling for a full-scale investigation by the FBI in Harrison, the only way in which public confidence may ever be restored. The Bureau must not only uncover the evidence supporting the complaints of innocent civilians and police officers, but also the circumstances through which Chief Hall, Captain Marraccini, and other accused police officers, continue to enjoy the DA’s protection and assistance.
Our Readers Respond....
Legislator Burton Takes Issue With Columnist Wilson
The article by Catherine Wilson entitled The County’s Proposed Social Host Law, published in The Guardian issue of July 17, is fundamentally in error when it states that “[S]hould this law pass, a parent can now run afoul of the law by serving a glass of wine to their own teenager at dinner in their own home.”
The author is wrong. New York State law specifically exempts from any alcoholic beverage law enforcement several classes of consumption
by underage persons. In no particular order and not exhaustively, state law exempts serving alcoholic beverages to one’s own children or in religious observances or in food preparation.
Westchester’s Social Host law seeks to do one thing: close a loophole in state law that fails to hold accountable adults who host parties that provide alcoholic beverages to underage drinkers.
The Social Host law was championed by Legislators Jim Maisano (New Rochelle) and Vito Pinto (Tuckahoe) and was approved by the Legislation Committee of the Westchester Board of Legislators, which I chair. It gained broad support as the committee carefully considered the impact of the law through testimony from law enforcement, civil libertarians, victims of underage drunk driving, and advocacy groups.
While these groups did not agree completely on the wording of the law, most supported the legislation for its success in closing a loophole in New York State legislation.
As Ms. Wilson acknowledged, Assemblywoman Galef stated that State law has this loophole, and that she has introduced legislation to close it. What the writer failed to report is that this bill did not pass in Albany in the recently-closed session.
So here’s the choice: ignore the problem of adult-enabled underage drinking and wait for someone else to address the problem, some day. Or take local action through a county law. In my personal opinion, Westchester County will be a better place if this law passes.
Whether you agree or not, I invite you to voice your opinion at the Board of Legislators’ Public Hearing to be held on Monday, August 11, at 7:30 p.m. The meeting will be held at the 8th floor of the County building, 148 Martine Avenue, White Plains. Readers of The Guardian are also welcome to call me at (914) 941-0407 to discuss this issue.
Chair, Committee on Legislation
Westchester County Board of Legislators
Facts From The Inside
Kudos for striking a direct hit in the battle against patronage and inefficiency in County government. Ron Gatto is nothing more than a
political patronage appointee and ally of the Spano administration. The “Environmental Security Unit” taking enforcement action against an unlicensed contractor installing garage doors is highly suspect; but even more disturbing is the pomposity of the unit’s “director”. Ron Gatto is NOT a county police officer, he holds no civil service rank within the Department, nor is he a member of the Department’s collective bargaining unit (PBA). His quote “No,I’m a cop. I don’t know what you’re talking about” (Westchester Guardian, July 17, 2008 page 6) does a great disservice to the men and women who are, in fact, the sworn members of the Department of Public Safety. For him to state that he is a “cop” is a bald-faced lie and supports your assertion that he was lying in other statements as he is simply not a “cop”.
Despite wearing a badge that says “deputy sheriff ” and portraying himself as a police officer, he is a civilian appointee holding the title of “Director”. In fact, his position was the target of a grievance filed by the real police officers in the PBA who alleged that his appointment
bypassed the civil service process and should have been a sworn police of-ficer (or supervisor). Unfortunately, the PBA was ruled against by a Spano sympathetic arbitrator.
At a time when budget belts are being tightened, perhaps the right place to consider saving money is in such political patronage appointments. At the very least strip Gatto of his take-home vehicle. What he needs that for is a good question for County government.
And place him under the direct supervision of a real police supervisor. To have Gatto supervising a police detective (or anyone else for that matter) is a travesty and hopefully your calling attention to this will yield some results.
The Real Deal
No Balm In Gilead
“Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jeremiah 8-22), is the question that came to me when I asked God what’s going on in the City of Mount Vernon. And are there no honest people in government? Jeremiah asked the question when pondering how to heal the heart and soul of the masses. How can Mount Vernon be healed? For surely there is no balm here.
The Board of Education Trustees hired a superintendent for close to a quarter of a million dollars, and he hired an assistant, but cut music, art, wood work, band day, etc.., but the education department and city officials are fighting to keep sports going in the High School.
Not Olympic sports, like gymnastics and the like, but basketball because every two to three years a student makes it to have a chance to become a professionally paid basketball player, and the hundreds of others go on to meet gang members on the community basketball courts, and spend their days playing basketball on the prison courts. No balm in Gilead! Adding insult to injury the city marshal and her family are milking hundreds of thousands of dollars from not only Mount Vernon homeowners but Westchester County tax payers and nothing is
being done to stop them or make them pay restitution. Only the newspapers write about it, and though we read about it, as some of us wait for the moving van to come, we still do nothing about it, knowing that the city officials’ actions are the reason some of us have been taxed
out of our homes. No balm in Gilead.
When I heard that Mount Vernon’s new city administration is paying two commissioners of the recreation department while our local parks are in need of water sprinklers and new play sets; and no one from the department is going around to the local parks doing summer recreational programs with the children whose parents can’t afford summer camp. I, like Jeremiah, asked God, is there no balm in Gilead?
“We the people”, are supposed to be the balm, we’re supposed to be able to control government and stop them from infecting us with their corruption and greed. The government is us, we just elect people into office and pay them to fight for us, not take our homes and ruin our children. I’d like to say this is just going on in the City of Mount Vernon, but since the whole United States of America citizenry can’t get their children out of Iraq, nay the Middle East and its million year-war, it’s the whole country.
My question to you is, how long does it take a nation built on republic and democratic principals to become a third world nation? Answer: A little over two hundred years. Just long enough to bring to this country the very government immigrant forefathers came here to get away from? Unfortunately there is no balm in Gilead, yet.
The Court Report
By Richard Blassberg
Brieant: A No-Nonsense Purveyor Of The Law,
With A Great Big Heart Full Of Compassion
The passing last week of District Court Judge Charles L. Brieant, a giant of a man, who wore the power of his position with great humility and thoughtfulness, was truly a profound loss to the Westchester community. I had the pleasure of meeting Judge Brieant, for the first time in chambers, in August of 2006, shortly following the 35th anniversary of his appointment by President Richard M. Nixon. He had graciously agreed to grant The Guardian an interview despite his busy schedule of court cases.
I recall how very proud he was of the gallery of nearly three dozen photographs of young law school graduates who had interned with him, that adorned the walls, many of them having achieved prominence in public and private law careers. He was quick to point out that his work was “up to date”, due mainly to his “loyal conscientious staff.” Asked how he would characterize “the single most notable difference” in
the types of actions coming before him two years ago, as opposed to when he was first appointed, he had quickly responded, “There’s a tremendous difference; it has become the Court Of Working People.” He explained, “Where we were once the Court Of High Finance
and the High Seas, we’ve become the Court Of The People.” And, that seemed to suit Judge Brieant just fine.
He was gentle, but firm; a no-nonsense purveyor of the law, with a great big heart full of compassion. However, he was no one to fool with. He was willing to give a contentious litigant the benefit of the doubt, perhaps “enough rope”, as in the $600 million suit by former Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis and Company.
The Judge was never more interested in anything than he was in bringing about just and equitable solutions; help to those in need of help. And, to that end, he would congratulate and encourage lawful and ethical conduct, even from unlawful and unethical prosecutors engaged in the worst of prosecutorial misconduct, as from ADA Valerie Livingston, if only at the 11th hour in the Anthony DiSimone case.
Seconds before Brieant would gavel open what promised to be a long, protracted, and very revealing evidentiary hearing, in which literally hundreds of pages, and scores of items, all exculpatory to Anthony DiSimone, concealed in what Second Circuit Judge Calabrese had called, “The worst Brady violation” he had seen in 12 years on the bench, Livingston, trembling, declared that the DA’s Office “would not oppose Mr. DiSimone’s writ of habeus corpus” after all. The Judge, so relieved that, back to the wall or not, the State Prosecutor, who had lied to his face and to the faces of his colleagues in the Court above for some time, was now doing the right thing, that he warmly congratulated, calmed, and encouraged her.
In the Paul Cote case, Brieant demonstrated his uncommon courage and his willingness to stand up against malicious prosecution and injustice. Apparently having nothing better to do than to reprosecute, this time in Federal Court, a case against a former County Correction
Officer that a jury in State Court had had trouble buying seven years earlier, the United States Attorney’s Office, beyond the statute of limitations, would attempt, nevertheless, to try Paul Cote in the death of an inmate from the County Jail, who never recovered from the head trauma actually inflicted by a fellow Correction Of-ficer, John Mark Reimer, now a sergeant.
In pre-trial hearings, the Judge, in a not-too-private sidebar, had told Prosecutors Cynthia Dunne and Andrew Schilling, “If your case fails, I will not be sad.” Proceeding forward, despite every good reason not to, the United States Attorney’s Office achieved a conviction, even though all of the credible evidence pointed to 6’3”, 300-lb body slammer Reimer, who had literally bounced the victim/inmate’s head on
the concrete floor of Cellblock G-1. It came as no surprise to us when Brieant overturned that conviction as inconsistent with the evidence, particularly the scientific evidence, presented at trial. Apparently everyone in the courtroom, for a week of testimony, except the jurors, understood that the prosecution was bogus.
There are several fine jurists upholding, daily, the United States Constitution in the courthouse at 300 Quarropas Street, White Plains. However, I cannot honestly state that I would ever have expected what Charles L. Brieant did, in the case of Paul Cote, from anyone else.
Before parting company with thegood Judge that August morning nearly two years ago, as 9am and his busy calendar were fast approaching, I asked, “Years from now, when judicial historians reflect upon your many years of service to the citizens of the Southern District of New York, how would you prefer to be remembered?” Pausing for a moment, he responded, “Remembered that I cared and wanted to help people.” Those who knew and admired Judge Brieant know that his wish will be granted.
Of Multimillion Dollar Mortgage
And Insurance Fraud Scheme Pleads Guilty
MICHAEL J. GARCIA, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that DOMINICK DEVITO
pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court before United States District Judge BARBARA S. JONES to participating in a scheme to commit
mortgage fraud and insurance fraud and to obstruct justice.
According to the Indictment, other documents filed in the case, and statements made during the guilty plea proceeding: From January 2002 through November 2004, DEVITO was the leader of a fraudulent real estate investment scheme, which had as its primary objective the purchase of multimilliondollar residential properties in various communities in Westchester County - - including Purchase, New York -- with
loans obtained through the submission of false and misleading information to banks and other lenders. Many of the loans were for amounts equal to or more than one hundred percent of the property’s actual sale price, so that DEVITO and his co-conspirators did not have to risk any of their own money in the transaction. DEVITO identified properties for sale, orchestrated the purchase of the properties, and performed construction work at the properties.
In furtherance of the fraud, DEVITO submitted to various federally-insured banks loan applications, contracts of sale, deeds, real estate transfer documents, title reports, and other documents which contained materially false or misleading information about the income,
assets, existing debt and creditworthiness of the borrower, the chain of title to the property, and the sale price of the home.
DEVITO and his coconspirators also indicated the borrower’s intent to reside in the property as a primary residence, when the properties were typically purchased for investment purposes. DEVITO ultimately “cashed out” on certain properties by taking additional private loans against the already fraudulently-inflated sale price of the properties. The proceeds of these loans, which were never repaid in full, were
deposited in a bank account used for DEVITO’s benefit.
As a result of DEVITO’s scheme to defraud, DEVITO obtained millions of dollars in loan proceeds, and was able to control certain properties that he otherwise would not have been able to purchase and finance. The banks, on the other hand, lost millions of dollars
when DEVITO and his co-conspirators defaulted on mortgage payments and caused several of the properties to go into foreclosure.
In addition, from January 2003 through February 2005, DEVITO engaged in a scheme to defraud insurance companies by submitting false
and misleading insurance claims and supporting documents for water damage caused by broken pipes at several of the homes he and his co-conspirators had purchased as part of the mortgage fraud scheme.
Also, DEVITO obstructed justice in connection with his sentencing in 2003 in Manhattan federal court after he was convicted of racketeering
and mortgage fraud in an earlier case. Specifically, DEVITO submitted false and misleading information regarding the value of his assets and his personal net worth following his sale of a property located in Purchase, New York.
DEVITO, 44, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and one
count of obstruction of justice. He faces a total maximum prison term of sixty years and mandatory restitution to the victims of his crimes. DEVITO also agreed to forfeit a total of $1.4 million. He is scheduled to be sentenced by United States District Court Judge BARBARA S. JONES on October 24, 2008.
Of the three other defendants charged in the case, one has pleaded guilty and the other two await trial, which is scheduled for September 2, 2008. As to the defendants awaiting trial, the charges are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. Mr. GARCIA praised the work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the investigation of this case. Assistant United States Attorneys KATHERINE R.GOLDSTEIN and JONATHAN B. NEW are in charge of the prosecution.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Wrongful Convictions Just
Keep Coming Out - Part 3
In an effort to continue to sound the alarm that legislative changes are needed in order to prevent future wrongful convictions and as well as correct current injustices, I again point out still more wrongful conviction cases that have come out since my last installment in this series.
As I have mentioned in prior issues, although the cases have come from around the country, the exact same de-ficiencies that have led to them in other states exist in New York. To date, despite 23 DNA proven exonerations in New York, and several non-DNA exonerations, New York has failed to enact one single reform to prevent future injustices.
Nine years after dying in prison due to asthma, a DNA test has posthumously shown that Timothy Cole was innocent of the rapes for which he spent the last years of his life wrongfully imprisoned. The facts of this case are taken from a series by Elliot Blackburn of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, and from T Chris on the internet site TalkLe: On Dec. 27, 1984 the first victim tied to the Texas Tech rapes, a nurse, was abducted from the parking lot of Lubbock General Hospital. A second victim was abducted from a parking lot near a law school and raped on Jan. 13, 1985. On Feb. 1, 1985 a third victim was taken from St. John’s United Methodist Church parking lot. On Feb. 3, 1985 a fourth victim, a Denny’s waitress, was taken from a parking lot outside her restaurant.
A fifth victim, a Texas Tech sophomore was taken from church parking lot and raped east of town on March 24, 1985. The police investigation focused on Timothy Brian Cole after he flirted with an undercover police detective. A victim identified Cole’s picture in a photo array, then identified him in a lineup. Another victim identified a different suspect who had been arrested earlier. A search of Cole’s property found nothing that incriminated him, and the forensic evidence was inconclusive. Cole’s lawyer wanted to present evidence at his trial of a similar rape, but it was ruled inadmissible. He argued the jury should have been allowed to hear the striking similarities between the March rape and another attack in the same parking lot in February. The woman was taken by an attacker fitting the same description and
following the same methods. The victim never identified Cole, and fingerprints recovered from the earlier victim’s car didn’t match. The circumstances should have raised doubt that Cole was involved in almost the same crime more than a month later, Brown argued.
Cole lost his appeal. Ten years after he committed the rape, Jerry Johnson decided to confess, declaring, “I knew that I probably couldn’t be charged with the crime,” he said. “And it had a lot to do with my case. And my trials had a lot to do with me not coming forward before that. And that’s understandable, but, pretty much I just knew that that was the time, you know, to try and free him.” He asked in a February 1995 court filing to be put in touch with Mike Brown and for a judge to consider a confession he wanted to make. Nine years after Timothy Cole went to prison, Johnson wrote the Lubbock district clerk that he had committed the rape keeping Cole behind bars.
Five years passed, and Johnson wrote again to a supervising judge. He worried there was an effort to conceal a wrongful conviction. He couldn’t understand why the case wasn’t being pursued. “Judge, its hard to imagine attorney Mike Brown has made [no] attempt to contact me to start the process of getting information to finally prove his client was in fact innocent but wrongfully convicted,” Johnson wrote. “It is more hard to imagine when you look at the documented facts that Mike Brown sought to show at the man’s trial that I committed the crime.”
The case was transferred in a reshuffling of the courts not long after his letter. In a one-sentence filing issued six months after he asked why nothing had been done, another judge dismissed the case, writing “The case having been transferred to this Court, it is ordered, without necessity of a hearing, that the relief requested in the petition herein is denied.”
Six years later, on May 11, 2007, Jerry Johnson, thinking that by then Cole would be home on parole, attempted to let Cole know of the confession by writing Cole’s mother’s address. He was unaware that Cole had died in prison of asthma on Dec. 2, 1999. Prison conditions took their toll on Cole. He never managed more than three years without a trip to infirmary units or the Galveston hospital throughout his 13-year prison stay.
“I have been trying to locate you since 1995 to tell you I wish to confess. I did, in fact, commit the rape Lubbock wrongly convicted you of,” Johnson wrote. “If this letter reaches you, please contact me by writing so that we can arrange to take the steps to get the process started. Whatever it takes, I will do it.”Though they had the letter, it was not enough for authorities, and so both the District Attorney’s Office and The Innocence Project Of Texas began investigating. Finally, in May of 2008, after much frustration by Johnson due to the time everything
was taking, DNA test results proved that he had committed the rape.
Cole’s attorney Jeff Blackburn, of the Texas Innocence Project, recently requested that a court of record declare to Cole’s family that he was innocent, and expressed his resolve to not stop until that happens. If ever there was anything worse than being wrongfully incarcerated, it would be dying while there. That was a horrible fate, and my heart goes out to both Timothy Cole and to his family. In the Cole case, tunnel vision on the part of police was at fault, as were misidenti-fications. Misidentification continues to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions at seventy five percent. Unfair rulings by trial judges, in this case not allowing Cole’s attorney to argue an alternative perpetrator
based on a similar modus operandi, also factors in. Kangaroo Court appeal proceedings also factor in when Johnson wrote the judge, confessing, and that didn’t set off alarms and a rush to investigate and then free Cole. The carte blanche brush off that post conviction judges frequently give to post conviction proceedings reared it’s ugly head as well.
One of the things that really strikes me is the hypocrisy involved: Had Johnson not been writing, informing the Court that an already-convicted prisoner was innocent, but instead been offering to provide testimony implicating someone in exchange for a plea bargain, I am sure that there would have been a rush to act on what he wrote. Courts frequently won’t accept the uncorroborated reports of a prisoner exonerating another one, but they will accept it as evidence with which to prosecute, convict, and keep in prison. Why is that? In reality,
testimony from those who seek to get a benefit from such information is unreliable and has led to wrongful convictions in 15 percent of the now 218 DNA proven exonerations.
On July 3rd, 2008, Patrick Waller was released from prison in Dallas, Texas, after serving 16 years for kidnapping, robbery, and rape. I take the facts of the case from The Dallas Morning News, in an article by Jennifer Emily: “Mr. Waller was cleared of crimes in which two men in March 1992 abducted a couple at gunpoint in the West End, forced them to withdraw money from an ATM and took them to an abandoned house in Oak Cliff. The woman was raped. Another couple who pulled up in front of the house was also abducted. The men attempted to rape a second woman but were scared o by a Dallas schools security guard who drove by. Mr. Waller was later incorrectly identified in
police lineups as one of the attackers. A jury convicted Mr. Waller of aggravated robbery in December 1992 and sentenced him to life
in prison. Mr. Waller then pleaded guilty to two aggravated kidnapping charges in exchange for dual, 30-year prison terms. He thought jury trials would lead to even longer sentences.
In April 2001, Mr. Waller was one of the first inmates from the county to request testing. But he was twice denied post-conviction DNA tests – in 2001 and 2005 – under previous District Attorney Bill Hill. Only after Craig Watkins succeeded Mr. Hill and began the conviction integrity unit did Mr. Waller get his test. The test showed that the DNA did not match Mr. Waller but because there were two men tied to he crimes, he was not automatically cleared. Then, the DNA matched a convicted criminal in a state database. That man confessed to the crime and pointed out his accomplice, who also confessed. Both men told a grand jury – under penalty of perjury – that they and not Mr. Waller were responsible. The statute of limitations has expired, so neither man can be prosecuted. Had the DNA test been granted under Mr. Hill, who has not returned calls seeking comment, the DNA test may have been used to keep one of the true perpetrators from gaining parole on a home invasion case. He had served 15 of 45 years on that case.”
When Judge Don Adams announced that Mr. Waller was “free to go,” Mr. Waller, again according to the article by Jennifer Emily, “jumped from his chair and raised both fists in the air in victory. Mr. Waller, now 38, then turned and held his mother in a bear hug. They had embraced many times during her visits to prison. But this was the first time since 1992 that he hugged her as a free man. He wept, and his mother clung to him. “Honey, it’s all right. It’s over,” his mother, Patricia Cunningham told him. “It’s going to be all right now.” She wiped away his tears with a crumpled tissue. “We’re going home,” she said. “It’s OK, baby.” Before leaving the courtroom, he used a cellphone
for the first time to call his aunt and niece in North Carolina to share the news. “I’m free,” he told them As I have done in previous installments of this series, I will point out commonalities in this case with other wrongful conviction cases. In the Waller case, we see that
misidentification, which has been the cause of seventy five percent of the now 218 DNA based exonerations, again rears its ugly head. As Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld have wondered about out loud many times, I wonder how many other innocent people are wrongly convicted based on misidenti-fication but whose cases do not have DNA in them to test? Considering that there have been no legislative changes in New York to institute better identification practices that research has shown would improve the accuracy of identifications, I similarly wonder about how many such cases will occur in the future.
Waller being denied DNA Testing twice illustrates the need for legislation allowing prisoners, as a matter of right, access to DNA testing in all circumstances where there is material to test, including instances where the defendant has previously pleaded guilty. Waller pleaded guilty
to the two kidnapping charges in order to avoid additional prison time after he had been wrongfully convicted of the rape. There have been exonerations by DNA in instances when the prisoner had previously pleaded guilty. Those cases, along with Waller’s, illustrate the reality that innocent defendants, understandably skeptical of the accuracy of the court system as it is currently constructed, sometimes plead guilty
falsely. The testing allows justice to be done for the factually innocent defendant, while also allowing society the possibility to identify
the real perpetrators and punish them. Had Bill Hill allowed the testing, the real perpetrators would not have escaped prosecution.
Under Craig Watkins, a pro active district attorney concerned about justice, Dallas County has had more inmates cleared by DNA than any other county in the nation since 2001 when the state Legislature approved post-conviction DNA testing. There are a variety of reasons for this. Unlike other jurisdictions, Dallas County has preserved most of its evidence. For another, there is District Attorney Craig Watkins,
who is a shining beacon of what every prosecutor should be.
Watkins has given many presentations in Texas about wrongful convictions and the need to enact reforms. He also participated in a Summit On Wrongful Convictions in Texas, during which he said “It can be argued that Texas ... may have one of the worst criminal justice systems in this country. We have to start where we have the most problems.”
In a story reported by the Dallas Morning News, Watkins advocated for incarcerative penalties for prosecutors who intentionally withhold evidence of innocence. “Something should be done,” said Watkins. “If the harm is a great harm, yes, it should be criminalized.” Watkins said that he was still pondering what kind of punishment unethical prosecutors deserve but that the worst offenders might deserve prison time. He said he also was considering the launch of a campaign to mandate disbarment for any prosecutor found to have intentionally withheld
evidence from the defense. In the interim, he has adopted, as an internal policy, the practice of firing prosecutors who do so. To illustrate the seriousness with which he views the subject, prospective employees are asked if they are familiar with the case Brady v. Maryland. The term refers to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which held that prosecutors violate defendants’ constitutional rights if they intentionally or accidentally withhold evidence favorable to the defense.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, chief author of the Texas law that created the compensation system for wrongfully convicted inmates, said he, too, would support criminalizing the intentional withholding of evidence by prosecutors. No criminal charge exists in Texas for a prosecutor who intentionally commits a “Brady violation.” Speaking to the necessity of such a law, Senator Ellis said “Why wouldn’t we have a criminal statute to keep prosecutors from lying when they know the truth?” Given that prosecutors have been known to intentionally withhold
Brady material and evidence of innocence, it is obvious that such a law is needed. But the most important thing that Watkins has done has been the setting up of a Conviction Integrity Unit. The Unit is an in-house oversight unit within the District Attorney’s Office, which is designed to look at previous cases, scanning for possible wrongful convictions. As I reported in the Jan 17, 2008 issue of The Guardian, there
are a variety of objectives that the unit tries to achieve: Ensuring that past injustices are undone, ensuring that only the guilty are convicted and that those convictions are not achieved through police or prosecutorial misconduct; and studying the causes of wrongful convictions with an eye toward preventing them in the future. Included in their review is a determination of whether there was any inappropriate patterns and
practices involving the police and prosecutors.
Watkins obtained funding from county Commissioners. He hired two attorneys, one investigator, and one secretary. In order to make up for the lack of funding, he has collaborated with the Texas Innocence Project, which has law students, working with paid staff review cases. The total number of people that have been exonerated as a result of the Conviction Integrity Unit now exceeds 25.
Dallas County prosecutor Mike Ware, who oversees the Conviction Integrity Unit and approved the DNA test in the Waller case, said agreeing to the test was an easy decision. “Why wouldn’t I?” said Mr. Ware. “I believed that we can learn important facts about what happened with this case with a DNA test. I had no idea how it would turn out.” If not for the DNA test, said Mr. Waller’s attorney, Gary Udashen, “he probably would have spent the rest of his life in prison.”
Why is that Texas, which in general has an awful track record in defendant’s rights and a fair court system, has a Conviction Integrity Unity, but the rest of the country, in particular New York, does not? The shining example of prosecutorial work at it’s best: buried knee deep in the quest for justice both in terms of convicting the guilty, freeing the innocent and trying to prevent wrongful convictions that Craig Watkins
is doing, should not be ignored. Instead, it needs to be emulated. All of us concerned citizens should want, and in fact insist, that all district attorneys have such a program. For if they do not, that means that they are okay with wrongful convictions continuing to occur.
In the next issue of The Guardian I will report the results of my contacts with various District Attorney Offices throughout New York, in an effort to ascertain whether such a program is in place in their jurisdictions and, if so, which personnel work in it. Conversely, if an office does not have one, I will ask why not. All of the responses, and an analysis of those responses, will appear in next week’s issue of The Guardian.
The presence of such programs goes a long way toward creating public confidence in the accuracy of court proceedings, and therefore neither they, nor the particulars of the program, ought to be a secret. After all, New York is currently third in the nation with the most demonstrated wrongful convictions by DNA, with 23, and it is clear that our state government, as a whole, is not doing anything about it.
Therefore, as a natural part of my mission and life long battle against wrongful convictions, I intend to shine the spotlight on those who are trying to help bring about changes, and on those that are resistant, whoever they may be. My loyalty is strictly to those that are against wrongful convictions and injustice and take all reasonable actions towards those goals, and is dependant on their continued adherence to that
goal. Armed with the info I bring to light, I hope that voters will, as I do, value this most important issue, and decide if they are happy with the people in office’s actions or lack of actions. I lost 16 years of my life due to a wrongful conviction. I did not have a record, nor was I a high school dropout. It happened to me, and it can happen to anybody at anytime.
Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Rob Astorino thinks About 2009
Westchester County Executive, Andrew Spano, will be up for re-election in November 2009. Although the election is sixteen months away, prospective candidates are starting to consider the feasibility of mounting an opposing campaign. One of the possible candidates is Rob Astorino, a resident of Mt. Pleasant, currently a producer for SIRIUS Radio’s Catholic Channel. Astorino has not yet announced that he will run for the office, but acknowledged that he is considering the possibility.
Astorino, a 42 year old father of two, is a Communications graduate of Fordham University. His political experience encompasses a two-year stint on the Mt. Pleasant Board of Education and eight years as a Town Councilman for the Town of Mt. Pleasant. He ran for Westchester County Legislator in District 3, Mt. Pleasant and environs, in 2003 and narrowly won election over John Nonna, former Mayor of Pleasantville, and current district legislator, with 52% of the vote.
Astorino served one term in that position and ran for County Executive in 2005 against Spano, receiving 42% of the vote. In preparation for a possible rematch in 2009, Astorino is currently Rob Astorino inks About 2009 soliciting support before further evaluating his options.
The Guardian spoke with Mr. Astorino recently to discuss his concerns and ideas for the County.
Guardian: “What do you see as the biggest issue facing our County?”
Astorino: “Taxes are completely out of control and people are really hurting. The current situation will continue to spiral unless we get it under control. I know of many former residents who moved to Fairfield County where the cost of living is so much cheaper. They can still keep their friends and their jobs but pay far less in taxes. Older residents are moving to Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas to escape the high taxes. We’re losing the fabric of our communities. And, the costs keep increasing.
The County just found three different reasons to purchase a building (the new Board of Elections building) to pay off political debts. We can’t have that.”
Guardian: “What solutions do you propose?”
Astorino: “We need to reform County government. We need to look for ways to consolidate and merge departments. Union leaders and county workers need to be involved in the process. We need better solutions than simply buying supplies like paper in bulk. It might mean merging police departments and sharing highway services. But that could improve services since we could see the ‘big picture’ county-wide.
We also need to examine the view of abolishing County government or reducing its size. The larger the County government grows, the more painful it is for residents to absorb the taxes to pay for it.”
Guardian : “Are there other ways the County can cut back to reduce taxes?”
Astorino: “We have to rethink where we’re spending taxpayers’ money. Playland has to be fixed; we cannot keep losing $4 million on this, alone, each year. We have to question everything. The current administration is not doing that. After twelve years in office they’re
simply running out of steam and losing sight of issues.
Take the County Phone Contact System.
The purpose of this system was to notify residents of local emergencies, not to make phone calls for political purposes. Residents are getting calls to inform them that there are free movies in County parks. If the system is used like this, it’ll become like the boy who cried wolf; when residents see they have a call from the County, it’ll get ignored.”
Guardian: “In the interim, what about adopting the ‘circuit-breaker’ approach to County taxes, proposed by Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, that ties property taxes to income?”
Astorino: “I don’t know enough about this program, I’d want to see if this is just shifting the cost to higher earners.”
Guardian: “In light of the recent financial abuses in County government, would you increase audits and other investigations of County resources and open the County books and budgets?”
Astorino: “Government needs to be transparent.
The budget process needs to be more open. The budget is now released in November, after the election. It doesn’t give the taxpayers
a chance to know what will be spent in advance; it only gives the Board of Legislators four weeks to review. The budget should be submitted by mid-October, at the latest. I’d also strengthen the audits of the County books, beginning with the County Executive’s office.”
Guardian: “What do you see as the most significant social issues facing our County?”
Astorino: “The handicapped and elderly will always need services and we can always do better in providing those services. That is a core function of government – to help those who cannot help themselves. That makes it even more important to run a lean operation to be able to handle these issues.”
It is noteworthy that Astorino did not elaborate further on other social issues affecting local residents such as education, immigration, employment, and medical insurance. As a County Legislator, Astorino was involved in sponsoring legislation and approving County funds in the following areas:
He obtained unanimous legislative support for a $1.4 million construction project to build a Little League field in Mt. Pleasant in November 2004. He joined in bipartisan support for amendments to the 2006 County budget to cut back the 95 new positions proposed by the County, cutting $6 million from various welfare programs, and adding $500 thousand for day care, while calling for the appointment of
an Inspector General to audit County spending and adherence to procedures and policies, in December 2005. As a member of the County’s Committee on Public Safety, and Criminal Justice, he voted against legislation requiring the registration of ATM machines. This registration, which passed, mandates that all ATM machines in the County must post an ATM Consumer Advisory notifying users of safety steps to take while using the machine as well as which County office to contact with concerns and problems, in June 2004. Astorino also voted against modifications to this legislation two months later.
As Chairman of the Parks Committee, he voted for a $2.2 million bond to replace the roof of the boathouse at Playland, in November 2004. However, at a previous hearing, Astorino voted against a $1.25 million bond to restore the Dragon Coaster at Playland, in September 2004.
Bill Ryan, Chair of the Board of Legislators, subsequently replaced Astorino as Chair of the Parks Committee, claiming in a press release dated December 30, 2004 that “He (Astorino) couldn’t attend the Budget Committee’s briefing on parks because of his job”.
Ryan then appointed Jose Alvarado to replace Astorino. In his first hearing as Chair in January 2005, Alvarado passed the legislation to approve the Dragon Coaster funding.
Astorino was involved in other issues while serving as a County Legislator. Among them: licensing of county property to be used as parkland, amending sewer districts and approving sewerage and water treatment budgets, co-sponsoring legislation curtailing the use of eminent domain seizures, and protecting domestic violence victims from eviction by landlords.
All of Astorino’s voting record and committee meeting minutes can be obtained through the Board of Legislator’s website at http://www.westchesterlegislators.com/. The County political makeup has changed since Astorino last held office. In 2004, in his home town of Mt. Pleasant, campaign contributions to Republicans outnumbered Democrats 56% to 24%, with the remaining campaign contributions going to political action committees.
In 2008, that statistic has been dramatically reversed; area Democrats now receive 49% of local contributions as compared to only 20% for Republicans. In addition, the County Board of Legislators has been threatening to put limits on campaign contributions and spending for local political races, including County Executive. However, the Legislature has, as yet, to pass any such legislation, though past efforts received
significant support from outside groups such as the League of Women Voters and local residents.
If next year’s campaign for County Executive concentrates on such issues such as County government spending, perhaps a good place for the candidates, whoever they may then be, to exhibit their own prudent fiscal policies, would be with their own campaigns.
Peekskill Mayor Mary Foster Acts Decisively
Appoints New Board Of Housing Commissioners
Last Tuesday morning, July 15, saw the dawn of a new day at the City of Peekskill’s Housing Authority. Calling it a “fresh start”, Mayor Mary Foster, who was elected last November on a platform calling for an overhaul of the City’s Housing Authority, made good on her commitment. Stepping up to the plate, she discharged the existing Board of Housing Commissioners, which included Chairwoman Leesther
Brown, who had proven to be highly controversial and obstructive; Eric Hines, Sandra Bond, and Lorraine Robinson. All had been named as defendants, together with former Mayor John Testa, in a civil rights, job discrimination suit brought by former Authority member, and employee, Gheevarghese A. Thankachan.
The new commissioners, who took office immedi-ately, include Leyla Ditterlizzi, Deputy Mayor Don Bennett, Laureen Sutton, former Mayor Jay Bianco, and Renée Smith, former bureau chief at The Westchester Guardian. The new appointees were widely welcomed
by local residents, grown weary of the rancor and disharmony in recent years, in a city with an uncertain residential and commercial future
Mayor Foster, in changing commissioners, cited expired terms, failure on the part of some to sign oaths of office, and lack of certification
to the Department of Housing and Community Renewal, as partly motivating her decision. Also cited was her concern that the Housing Authority had been labelled “troubled” by examiners from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, which had found unacceptable document practices, and the awarding of contracts to “politically connected” firms.
In one instance, a $69,000 contract for installation of security cameras at Bohlmann Towers, was awarded to Advantech despite the company’s having been the highest of three bidders. Advantech had done thousands of dollars of work on the local Republican Committee’s
website. That contract was nullified upon discovery by HUD on a complaint filed by the competing low bidder.
The Mayor declared, “There are still serious outstanding issues from the 2007 HUD onsite review that need to be addressed by the
Board of Commissioners.” She went on, “HUD officials have continued to express concern to me about the Peekskill Housing Authority’s
progress and leadership.” Anxious to move forward, Foster stated, “The new commissioners I have appointed have an array of expertise in both government and public housing, and, they know this city well.” She went further, explaining, “This is an opportunity to start fresh and
put the interests of public housing tenants first. One of the commissioners appointed in November, 2007 has been asked to be part of the newly-constituted board, so that there is some continuity with the Executive Director hired earlier this year.”
Looking ahead to engaging her new Board of Commissioners with the Executive Director, and the HUD adviser, the Mayor observed,
“They have a big job ahead of them, but I am confident they will be able to bring stability and good governance to the Peekskill Housing Authority.” Readers are reminded, it was Mayor Foster, who, in 2007, as a councilwoman, had pressed for federal oversight, stating at the
time, “Now that these findings have been issued by HUD, it’s time to demand closer HUD oversight of the Peekskill Housing Authority.
The purchasing improprieties are another example of the Board’s inability to effectively discharge its duty.”
Under the City’s charter, five members of the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor. Two members are elected by the tenants. City residents, particularly those families in public housing, are hopeful that the Housing Authority will quickly stabilize and address itself to the many issues that have gone unattended, including security, for many months.
In Our Opinion...
Why Would Anyone Want To Be A Cop In Westchester?
In a county where the present District Attorney, and her predecessor, have each had a preference for making up the “facts”, particularly in serious incidents involving law enforcement personnel, it is dif-ficult to understand why anyone would want to be a cop here in Westchester; a good cop, that is. Consider DA Jeanine Pirro’s knowing, wrongful prosecution and conviction of Matthew McKerrick, a New Rochelle
McKerrick, a popular officer, was off-duty and out with a few buddies in the Village of Mamaroneck. Having had too much to drink he gave the keys to his car to one of his companions and dozed off in the back seat. While driving through the Halstead Avenue area, three of his companions decided to borrow McKerrick’s billy club from his trunk and pay a visit to a Latino fellow and his wife, who they would later claim owed them some money. While McKerrick lay asleep in his car, his friends assaulted and robbed the occupants of a basement apartment.
Offered a plea deal for a crime he was no way involved in, McKerrick went to trial and was convicted by suborned perjury, despite the fact that ADA Robert Neary, now a judge twice rejected by voters, but three times appointed to the bench, knew he was totally innocent. McKerrick served six years of an eight-year sentence, his life, and his parents’ lives, irreparably damaged.
When confronted with the fact that the DA’s Office knew all along that he was innocent, Mike Hughes, of the DA’s so-called Public Integrity Unit, wrote to Jim McKerrick, Matthew’s brother, an attorney, that it didn’t matter if the DA knew she was prosecuting an innocent man.
Then there was New York City Transit Police Officer Richard DiGuglielmo, a 12-year veteran of the force who shot and killed a wildly belligerent 32-year-old amateur prize fighter, and bodybuilder, who had just broken the officer’s middle-aged father’s hand and seriously injured his leg, and was now swinging the metal bat at his head. All three individuals who actually eye-witnessed the tragic incident were coerced, manipulated, and pressured by the entire Dobbs Ferry Police Detective Squad, together with Police Chief George Longworth, for five days and nights, until two of them, fearing for their jobs, gave in and changed their story to suit District Attorney Pirro’s version.
Officer DiGuglielmo has already served nearly 11 years for his totally justified and lawful actions, indeed, his sworn duty as a police officer.
DA Pirro decided a bias crime scenario would best serve her political agenda, as the bat-wielding perpetrator was an African-American, and instructed prosecutors Patricia Murphy and Perry Perrone to use whatever means (prosecutorial misconduct) was necessary as revealed by two witnesses at a hearing before Judge Rory J. Bellantoni several months ago.
Then there is former Mount Kisco Police Officer George Bubaris, recently acquitted of Manslaughter, or any other involvement in the death of Rene Perez, a homeless Guatemalan immigrant, found injured and near death on Byram Lake Road in Bedford. Prosecutors James McCarty, Perry Perrone and Michael DeLohery came to Court without a shred of evidence, or a clue between them. The intelligent jury hearing the case needed less than four hours to reach their verdict. However, despite being acquitted, Bubaris must now face a possible federal prosecution and a civil wrongful death action.
It’s all about Image v. Reality; the prosecutor’s Image v. the Reality of the incident. And, once the lie has been put in motion by the state prosecutor, the district attorney, the United States Attorney’s Office frequently picks it up and runs with it, further perpetrating the lie, no matter how wrong-headed, no matter how illogical, when compared with, and reconciled against, the known facts.
Such was the case with former Westchester County Correction Officer Paul Cote, an officer who came to the aid of another CO, John Mark Reimer, who had body-slammed an inmate, causing catastrophic head injury from which the inmate ultimately died fourteen months later. Reimer, playing the game that former DA Pirro was only too happy to engage in, ran to the DA’s Office and cut a deal to testify against Cote. Reimer’s testimony in State Court against Officer Cote, and the body of evidence presented by prosecutor Robert Neary, was so
weak that it resulted merely in a compromise conviction for a low-level assault and a sentence of three months in jail.
Six years later, in fact, beyond the statue of limitations, the United States Attorney’s Office, for whatever unreasonable reason, reprosecuted Cote. Once again Reimer, now having been promoted to sergeant, testified, this time in Federal Court. The evidence presented by federal prosecutors was so preposterous, so inconsistent with guilt on Cote’s part, and so indicative of Reimer’s guilt, that Judge Charles L. Brieant vacated the conviction inexplicably returned by the jury.
Given the modus operandi of the present District Attorney, Janet DiFiore, and her predecessor, Jeanine Pirro, as well as federal prosecutors with respect to serious crimes, particularly homicides involving law enforcement personnel, one wonders why anyone would want to be a cop in Westchester.
Our Readers Respond...
I read with much interest the “memorandum” from Anthony Futia (Westchester Guardian, June 19, 2008). Since when is Larry Schwartz (and County government) concerned about approaching the public regarding how our money is spent? I could not help but think of Hudson Hills Golf Course, the cost of which went millions beyond the $10 million requirement for a referendum. Let’s see; how did Westchester County get away with that thing? The general public is not made aware of the many projects that, if known, would be sold as in our best interest.
If some clever billing procedures come into play; if expenses exceeding the $10 million cap are reported as going to existing golfing facilities, voilà, who needs a referendum? How much longer will County Government get away with this? The public is not taken care of, just taken.
Where are our legislators? They were certainly not looking out for the public interest regarding Hudson Hills.
This altered billing thing was (is) common knowledge amongst golf employees. It appears that those who were closest (unwittingly) are
“off the record”.
Concerned About Referendum Avoidance
The recent federal report of the deaths of 18 women, including three New Yorkers age 12, 17 and 18, who used the Gardasil vaccine should
scare women silly. Gardasil is the Merck and Company vaccine that is supposed to protect women against four (there are over 100 strains
or types) of the human papillomavirus – HIV – the sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical and other cancers.
Include with the above statistics the almost 8,000 “adverse events” of girls and women who since injected with Gardasil have become seriously ill with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, seizures, miscarriages, blood clots, arthritis, paralysis and hospitalizations. Women should be in the streets shouting! Instead, many stand by in a public information dead zone, downplaying cautionary information. Compared to the push to use Gardasil, only a handful of media sources, doctors and clinics are sharing the latest federal report on girls and women who got the three-series, $150/shot vaccine and its consequences. Why?
Gardasil got the heavy marketing push, with girls as young as 10 smiling into the camera saying they were “just one more” protected. A pharmaceutical company’s desire to sell a product is expected, but the role of some liberal women’s groups in promoting this is unconscionable.
The same groups who seek to sexualize the very young for profit are successfully working to mandate this vaccine in all schools, effectively overriding parental roles. Political influence is also being used to promote it to state and local governments for use in clinics like Planned Parenthood, at taxpayer expense, of course.
Demand the facts. Make informed decisions. Tell your personal story. Women should be helping, not hurting, women.
Hudson Valley Coalition For Life Croton-on-Hudson
It’s Time For A Change
The campaign to open up the White Plains Democratic City Committee to new ideas, new blood, and a new vision was offi-cially started on Thursday, July 10, 2008. With the filing of almost 2000 signatures from at least 58 White Plains Democrats who are tired of the current leadership and its positions regarding core democratic issues, change will be initiated on September 9, 2008.
With regard to the current Democratic City Committee, many of the current district leaders are inactive, many district leader positions have not been filled, and the Chairperson, Liz Schollenberger, is now playing “musical chairs” with “stand in” names of people who were active in the past, and who have no ability or interest in representing their districts currently, or in the future. Schollenberger’s tactics are a cynical attempt to hold on to control with deception and coercion. She, and others, are now calling district leader challengers and begging them to get off the ballot. I am currently aware of ten district leader challengers who have been called, or approached.
Pressure has been exerted, threats have been made. Their names cannot be released for publication without their permission, but I can give a deep background on every situation. I can say without equivocation that Paul Schwarz, Ben Boykin, Rita Malmud and Liz Schollenberger have made these calls. I can also say, without equivocation, that at least one County worker has been approached and warned.
Many Democrats want a change in party leadership given Chairperson Liz Schollenberger’s knee-jerk backing of Westchester County Board of Legislator’s Chair William Ryan. Mr. Ryan, who is a member of the White Plains Democratic City Committee, has allowed the growth of County spending to approach $2 billion, with no end to its explosive growth in sight. Ryan has arrogantly waged a relentless campaign to make himself one of the highest paid legislators in the country. Over the past 15 years, the patronage, both in the County Legislature and the County Executive’s Of-fice, have sky-rocketed. Now the legislature needs 41 highly compensated assistants. Recently Ryan, against the objections of many citizens from Greenburgh, allowed a sweetheart deal to be made over a piece of property in Ardsley. The cost to the taxpayers will be between $13 and $20 million.
There needs to be openness, transparency, reform; and reform now! It starts in White Plains! Ryan’s highly compensated aide is now being investigated for improprieties regarding purchasing and the abuse of sick leave. A public office is a public trust, and the stories regarding the use of limousines, free meals, cell phone charges and the like, fall into the lap of Ryan. Change is needed! The leadership of the White Plains
Democrats punished former Councilperson Arnold Bernstein for his independent, pro-taxpayer, stances. But for pure political reasons, the leadership excused and ignored Benjamin Boykin’s similar voting record. There have been accusations that Democrats on the White Plains Common Council have been caucusing without all of the Democratic members present. There are “open meetings” laws to enforce “openness
and transparency” in government. I believe that this needs to be investigated and the tactics of “retaliation” by the party leadership have to be exposed.
The quality of life in Westchester is intimately connected to keeping Westchester County affordable. With that end in mind, with falling sales tax revenues, the dramatic increase in certioraris, and the incredible cost of living in this region, commercial and business growth is essential. Without this balance, the burden of greater and more onerous taxation will fall on the local property owner by way of escalating taxes.
I joined with, and I support, many independent-minded fellow Democrats, who have sought to challenge this leadership in the September Democratic Primary. Hopefully this will initiate a strong reform movement beyond White Plains, which will get Democrats back on the path to supporting core issues like, housing, jobs, education, healthcare and the quality of life.
Richard J. Garfunkel
Reader Fed Up With Cablevision
I am appealing to you to publicize and serve as witness to my experience with Cablevision during this past year. I live in New Rochelle. As soon as Cablevision announced that it was possible to receive channel 251, I signed on. However, almost immediately, I experienced problems with the service. Every time I turned to channel 251, there was a sign across the television screen which read, “This channel is currently not available. Please try again later. Return to previous channel.”
This continued for a long time. I kept calling the repair center at Cablevision, without any results. Even today, channel 251 is impossible to receive. On the rare occasions that it does come through, it does so with heavy interference, making it impossible to watch.
I wrote to the CEO of Cablevision on two occasions, July 19, 2007 and December 12, 2007. These letters were sent by certified mail. I did not receive any response from Cablevision, although I requested that someone respond. As far as I can understand, my letters were received by James Gaglione, the Area Operation Manager of Cablevision in Southern Westchester.
I called many times asking Mr. Gaglione for help in resolving my problem. I continued to have service problems and was unable to view channel 251. On April 16, 2008, I wrote Mr. Gaglione a letter. There was no response and no improvement in service.
My patience is wearing thin. To this day, channel 251 does not work. Now, since June 2008, I am experiencing difficulty viewing other channels. Channels 714, 723, 728, and 729 display the same screen on a regular basis. I ask that you publicize my letter. I propose to have a discussion of this matter by inviting other specialists as well as those from Cablevision. I would be happy to participate in such a discussion.
Personally, I cannot understand that even after such a long time, Cablevision still has not been able to restore service.
The Court Report
By Richard Blassberg
Retired Mount Vernon Official Pleads Guilty In U.S.
Court To Accepting Bribes From Waste Haulers
MICHAEL J. GARCIA, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that JAMES CASTALDO, a former high-ranking supervisor for the City of Mount Vernon Department of Public Works, pleaded guilty today to accepting bribes from waste haulers in return for allowing them to overbill the City of Mount Vernon by at least $1.25 million for the removal of debris from a municipal storage yard.
CASTALDO pleaded guilty before United States District Judge KENNETH M. KARAS in White Plains federal court a two count criminal Information (the “Information”) charging bribery and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. An Indictment against waste haulers involved in the scheme was unsealed on March 19, 2008 (the “Indictment”).
According to the Information, the Indictment and the criminal Complaint against CASTALDO unsealed on April 1, 2008, a Westchester
waste-hauling company, A & D Carting, obtained a contract with the City of Mount Vernon in November 2001 to remove waste
from a City storage yard at a price of $397 per 30-cubic yard container removed. To bill the City of Mount Vernon under the contract, A & D Carting was required to submit invoices identifying how many 30 - cubic - yard containers were removed on particular dates, together with a pre-printed receipt form (which is commonly referred to as a “ticket”) for the removal of each container.
The tickets were supposed to be signed by a City of Mount Vernon employee at the yard at the time each container was carted away. From 2002 through March 2006, Albert Tranquillo III, who controlled and operated A & D Carting, defrauded the City of Mount Vernon by submitting tickets and invoices claiming that far more waste had been carted away from the yard than had actually been removed, it was charged. According to the Information and Complaint, CASTALDO and another DPW employee who worked at the Mount Vernon
storage yard agreed that the employee would initial as many tickets as A& D Carting drivers gave to him. These tickets falsely represented
that A & D Carting had carted away far more debris from the Mount Vernon storage yard than had actually been removed. These extra tickets were then mailed to the City of Mount Vernon together with invoices which significantly overstated the amount of waste removed.
As a result, the City of Mount Vernon is alleged to have been defrauded of at least $1.25million.
CASTALDO, who retired in 2005, accepted bribes from A & D Carting as part of the scheme to overbill the City of Mount Vernon. When
A & D Carting received checks from Mount Vernon, CASTALDO would call A & D Carting and, using code, request a payment from Tranquillo or his relative. CASTALDO, the Complaint alleges, paid a portion of the bribes he received to the DPW employee who initialed the fraudulent tickets.
CASTALDO, age 61, admitted to Judge KARAS this morning that he had taken bribes from the waste haulers and that he had conspired
with them to defraud the City of Mount Vernon. CASTALDO faces a maximum sentence of 30 years’ imprisonment as well as financial penalties, including restitution to the City of Mount Vernon. CASTALDO is scheduled to be sentenced on October 24, 2008, at 12 noon.
Mr. GARCIA praised the investigative work of the FBI and stated that the investigation is ongoing. Assistant United States Attorney
ARLO DEVLIN-BROWN is in charge of the prosecution.
The charges contained in the Indictment against the waste haulers are merely accusations, and those defendants are presumed innocent
unless and until proven guilty.
The guilty plea offered by James Castaldo, former high-ranking Supervisor in the Mount Vernon Department of Public Works, in United
States District Court, White Plains, last Wednesday, July 16, is very likely the first of several from former Mount Vernon officials that will be witnessed over the next several months. Gerrie Post, Mount Vernon’s former Planning Commissioner, and Wayne Charles, real estate developer, each under federal indictment since March in connection with the steering of City contracts and the questionable handling of a
loan and the purchase of properties, may very well soon follow suit.
In announcing Castaldo’s guilty plea, the United States Attorney’s Of-fice was careful to indicate that their investigation was “ongoing”, a sure signal that more indictments and arrests can be expected. Of course, the carting industry has been a fertile field for investigation by both state and federal prosecutors for decades; with numerous companies owned and operated by individuals with connections to organized
crime, whose activities are most often interstate, involving landfills, transfer stations, and recycling facilities in New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as New York.
With regard to the carting industry in the tri-state region, given the federal government’s recent investigations and prosecutions in Putnam County and Fairfield County, as well as New Jersey, it is somewhat surprising that the United States Attorney’s interest in trash-hauling activities in Westchester has thus far been limited to the City of Mount Vernon. Given some of the more outrageous activity by Westchester
County Government, involving a Connecticut hauler that New York City had specifically declined to do business with because of its alleged mob connections, one would think the U.S. Attorney’s Office would have broadened the scope of its investigation. Approximately three or four years ago the County Executive’s Office intentionally failed to renew an existing five-year, $70 million contract with a company Commissioner Landi admitted had been doing a good job, to instead sign a contract for $87 million, for the same services, over the same
five-year term, with the very company the City of New York refused to do business with. When asked why he allowed the existing contract, for $17 million less, to expire without exercising the five year renewable option “given the choreographed nature of the industry”, Landi responded, “We wanted to test the waters.”
Looking back at that County Legislature Committee On Solid Waste meeting, chaired by Tom Abinanti, and the control, one legislator at a time, exerted by Larry Schwartz, standing in the doorway to the meeting room, and summoning them out into the hallway and lobbying them to approve the ripoff of County taxpayers, the whole affair very much resembled the Ardsley Partners ‘white elephant’ shoved down taxpayers’ throats two weeks ago.
However, with respect to the City of Mount Vernon, two thoughts come immediately to mind: Firstly, anyone familiar with the prior administration knows that nothing ever went on under Ernie Davis that he didn’t have a hand in. Given that fact, one can only assume that
those boxes carried out of City Hall by FBI agents last fall; an action that was heavily criticized by Ernie’s cronies as “politically motivated”, may soon yield justification.
Secondly, what about our District Attorney, the one who goes around telling everybody that she’s from Mount Vernon? How could all of this corruption have been going on, right under her nose, in her home town, no less, and she knows nothing, and does nothing, about it.