EDITORIAL: Cascino decision defies logic

SAL CASCINO HAS BEEN A GUEST of the taxpayers of Columbia County for the last two weeks, housed and fed at the public’s expense. The hospitality is long overdue.

He was sent to the Columbia County Jail by Acting State Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Nichols, who enforced “longstanding” charges of criminal and civil contempt of court dating back to 2013 or 2009 or 2006 or even earlier depending on when you start the clock. Mr. Cascino will remain behind bars for at least another six weeks and won’t get out until he undoes a little bit of the damage he’s done by operating an illegal dump adjacent to the hamlet of Copake.

For years Mr. Cascino, who owns 300 acres of mostly cleared land bisected by a trout stream, has ignored town and state laws, trucking in thousands of tons of construction and demolition debris. At the same time he built structures without obtaining permits and modified the stream while disregarding lawful efforts to stop him. When the town of Copake took him to court, he dumped more and built more as if he was above the law.

Mr. Cascino caused similar problems in the Dutchess County Town of Dover, where he also faced charges involving waste disposal. Learning from that, Copake’s strategy was to get its case into state Supreme Court, where judges have broader powers. That happened, but the dumping and the building continued despite Judge Nichols’ orders to stop.

In his 29-page decision that put Mr. Cascino in jail, Judge Nichols blames the town for delays in the case, saying Copake did not have to wait until Mr. Cascino exhausted all of his appeals; the town could have asked for a ruling years ago. But the town stuck with its plan and now Mr. Cascino, who’s 76, is getting a taste of life behind bars. He also has to reimburse the taxpayers of Copake for their Cascino-related legal bills and he has to figure out from his cell how he’ll comply with the judge’s order to clean up some of the mess he’s made.

To a layperson it sounds like the judge was trying to tread carefully between the evidence presented to him and the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Cascino plays by his own rules and profits from his defiance. And to a person untrained in the law it sounds like Judge Nichols proceeded cautiously, his ruling concerned his decision might be appealed. It’s understandable. He’s not a prosecutor or a detective. For judges and non-lawyers alike, in court we’re all innocent until proven guilty.

But that makes it all the more difficult to understand what standard of proof the judge applied when considering Mr. Cascino’s most flagrant act of contempt: large scale waste dumping despite a court order and his failure to remove the debris that threatens to pollute the community.

In 2012 Judge Nichols ordered Mr. Cascino to remove 150,000 cubic yards of “fill” dumped on his property and to remove “all solid waste” there. But last month the judge decided that only 9,650 cubic yards of materials must go. That amount was documented by a state investigator and it happened long after the original 150,000 cubic yards was dumped.

But what about the other 140,350 cubic yards?

Judge Nichols decided that the town didn’t prove that the 150,000 cubic yards of waste is still there. How can the town prove that nobody saw thousands of phantom truckloads hauling away the waste. It didn’t happen. What did happen was that during the time he was supposed to be getting rid of waste Mr. Cascino was actually dumping more forbidden stuff there–at least 9,650 cubic yards of it.

There is no evidence cited in the judge’s decision that Mr. Cascino has ever removed any waste from Copake. The Copake building inspector testified that he did not believe the original 150,000 had been removed. The judge calls the inspector “credible and candid” but rules that the law requires us to accept that Honest Sal Cascino did as he was told. This is tortured logic.

Even if the judge is correct that Copake has not met the burden of proof, the people of Copake and Columbia County have a right to know what legal standard the judge will require to assure Mr. Cascino’s compliance with his order to remove even the fraction of the waste covered in his order.

Without at least that to guide future decisions, Mr. Cascino will walk out of jail a winner, having established the precedent that his waste disappears by magic.

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