IT COMES AS NO surprise in Copake that Sal Cascino walked out of the Columbia County Courthouse earlier this month a free man. All it took was the legal equivalent of: The dog ate my homework.
That wasn’t actually what he told acting state Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Nichols, but recent statements in County Court by his lawyer were equally bizarre and might make you laugh if it weren’t for the calamity Mr. Cascino has caused by transforming one of the region’s most scenic landscapes into an illegal solid waste landfill.
It bears repeating that Mr. Cascino, who is 76 and a grandfather, is not a victim of anyone but himself. He was in the waste hauling business in the Bronx for years and expanded into Dutchess and then Columbia County until he was convicted of a state felony involving his business records. In Copake he built structures without permits, messed with a trout stream and defied state highway rules while truckloads of construction and demolition debris (C & D) spread waste over 300 acres of farmland.
Judge Nichols ordered him to stop and Mr. Cascino ignored him. The judge ordered him to pay fines Mr. Cascino seldom did. Instead he sought postponements and engineered delays. When challenged in court, he acted as if each new charge against him was a big surprise. He indulged in these long-game scofflaw antics over nearly two decades while continuing to dump.
Finally, last winter Judge Nichols rediscovered the case and slapped Mr. Cascino in jail for 69 days for contempt of court. Mr. C. was told to remedy some of the damage he’d done if he wanted to get out of jail. But what stunned some observers was the judge’s order on removing C & D that Mr. Cascino had dumped on the property. The judge wanted him haul away less than 7% of the total estimated amount of illegal materials in his landfill. That’s hardly a cleanup.
The judge released Mr. Cascino from jail in May before he had fixed all the things that put him behind bars in the first place. Key among them, he hadn’t finished properly disposing of even that small amount of C & D. Judge Nichols, having learned something about how Mr. Cascino operates, wanted records of where the C & D had gone: the names and addresses of who drove what where when and how much it cost.
You’d think that Mr. C., who has a felony conviction involving the records he kept of his Bronx waste hauling business, might understand the need to keep the books straight. Or, maybe you wouldn’t. The waste removal receipts were a mystery to Mr. C.’s latest lawyer. He told the court that he could not “in good conscience” submit Mr. C.’s waste removal receipts. The lawyer also said his firm hasn’t been paid and doesn’t want to represent Mr. C. anymore. He seems to know his client.
It’s all about the money. Using outdated industry figures and court case estimates that are on the low side, it’s easy to imagine that Mr. C. could have made millions of dollars by using his property as an unlicensed and unregulated dump. Maybe on balance the threat of a few more weeks in jail is a small price to pay for the fortune he’s made.
At the urging of Mr. C.’s lawyer, Judge Nichols agreed to hold a hearing on the evidence of the receipts August 26. It means another delay and increases the cost and inconvenience to the taxpayers of Copake and the county. Perhaps the judge suspects that false or intentionally misleading documents have been submitted. Until now Mr. C.’s actions in Copake have been civil matters not criminal cases, but trying to hoodwink the court is a crime.
Should we trust Mr. Cascino on this? You can bet he’s not good with names, dates and amounts, though you’d have to believe that he knows exactly what he got paid for each load of nasty stuff dumped on his property.
As Judge Nichols faces the practical question of how long to let this case go on before giving up, he should visit the trout stream that runs through the Cascino property. Fill a jug with the stream’s water as it filters through that debris. Take the water home and imagine asking family members to drink it, not knowing what Mr. Cascino buried there or what he’s removed. Keep the jug handy while deciding whether to grant any further delays.