Tons of contaminants were illegally deposited at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood and West Hills County Park in Melville. The “mastermind” in one crime got jail. In the other, no one has had to do much more than clean it up.
Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota investigated two high-profile incidents of illegal dumping at public parks during his final term in office — one at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood, the other at West Hills County Park in Melville. Though he initially sounded alarms about both cases, the results ultimately differed significantly. (Credit: Newsday)
By Paul LaRocco
Two years ago, then-Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota labeled the discovery of illegally dumped contaminants at West Hills County Park an “environmental nightmare” even graver than one he’d just investigated at another public park — a scandal that had brought felony indictments of six people and resulted in jail time for the convicted “mastermind” and a $600,000 fine for his company.
Like Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood, West Hills had been filled over many months with scores of truckloads of construction debris laced with hazardous substances such as asbestos and long-banned pesticide components. Nearly 60 trees were destroyed, with one worker telling police that so much material was coming in, “we could not spread it and move it fast enough.”
A small corner of the nearly 900-acre Melville park, a popular equestrian center, was shuttered pending a complex cleanup, just as Clemente was. Owners scrambled to board their horses elsewhere on short notice; some had to settle for stables hours away upstate.
But unlike in the Clemente case, Spota’s tough language quickly evaporated. He never indicted individuals, largely taking imprisonment and six-figure fines off the table, and never announced charges of any kind.
Instead, last fall, his lame-duck administration, with no public disclosure, negotiated pleas with three of four companies — the equestrian center operator and two contractors — it identified as participants.
The deals, executed five days after Spota resigned in the wake of his arrest on unrelated federal corruption charges, require no jail time and simply mandate that the defendants clean up the mess they acknowledged creating.
As that oft-delayed cleanup finally moves forward, a Newsday investigation reveals for the first time how the brazen dumping scheme came together and how its prosecution has stood in stark contrast to that of the Clemente park case.
Still, the motivation behind the quiet agreements, struck only six weeks before a new district attorney was set to take office, remains a mystery. Both Spota and the former prosecutors who finalized the pleas after his resignation have declined repeated requests for comment, leaving an attorney for one offender to defend the deals as fair and driven by both sides’ desire to clean the park as quickly as possible.
Officials in the administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone say they weren’t consulted on the agreements and, in some cases, didn’t even know about them until months later, despite being the ones responsible for the park.
Beyond robbing Spota’s successor, Timothy Sini, of the opportunity to chart his own course in the case, the pleas also significantly slowed the same remediation they center on. Their sometimes-ambiguous terms became the subject of months of legal wrangling over whether the defendants can reuse the nontoxic portion of debris they remove and whether the county — which has also prepared a civil claim against the dumpers — would remain open to covering part of the cleanup cost beyond a specific amount of truckloads specified in the document.
The county initially estimated the job at $5.5 million, when it anticipated handling it itself. While the cost to the companies that pleaded guilty is unknown, experts say it likely won’t be that expensive because they already have the necessary drivers and equipment.
State and county supervised work at the park started Oct. 1, leaving little time to meet the county’s goal of completing the up-to-three-month job before winter frost sets in. It could be many months after that before the riding center can reopen under a new operator.
‘It can’t just be a cost of doing business. You have to pay a price that is commensurate with the damage you caused.’
Suffolk County Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia)
Officials had initially promised that removal would begin in summer 2017 and, when that failed, this past spring.
The toxins, meanwhile, remained piled along riding trails and spread across horse paddocks — covering 14.5 acres of the park marked by temporary fencing and tattered crime scene tape — for more than two years after their August 2016 discovery by county parks workers. County health officials said there was never imminent public risk but at one point warned that the longer the contaminants were present, the more chance there was of them leeching into the groundwater supply.
“Everybody’s primary concern was getting the park cleaned up as quickly as possible, and look where we are,” Suffolk County Legis. William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) said in an interview. “It should have been left up to the next DA — but unfortunately he has to live with what was done by the prior administration.”
Sini’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on the West Hills case, but records show that earlier this month it filed a criminal case against the fourth company Spota’s prosecutors had identified as participating in the dumping without charging or agreeing to a plea with.
The environmental crime of illegal dumping has so plagued Long Island in recent years that new laws and regulations have been passed at the state and local levels, and officials including Sini and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have publicized crackdowns with names such as “Operation Pay Dirt.”
But limiting offenders’ legal consequence to simply conducting the cleanup, as Spota’s office did in the West Hills case, provides little deterrent, Lindsay said.
“I don’t think that anyone who is perpetrating these crimes is fearful of what the penalty is going to be,” he said. “It can’t just be a cost of doing business. You have to pay a price that is commensurate with the damage you caused.”
How it happened
The privately managed Sweet Hills Riding Center was a staple of West Hills County Park, operating since the early 1980s from one end of the hilly 855-acre expanse. At the time the dumping was discovered, Sweet Hills president Louise Privitera was five years into the latest renewal of her licensing agreement, which with options could have extended as far as 2030.
For the privilege of using the county land, Sweet Hills, offering boarding for 100 horses, day camps, riding and lessons to the public, paid the county roughly $50,000 a year plus 6.4 percent of all gross receipts over $100,000. The center had a reputation as a more salt-of-the-earth place to board and ride, compared to facilities in the Hamptons or just west in Nassau County’s exclusive North Shore villages.
Sweet Hills, encompassing about 15 acres inside the county park, was one of the few Long Island stables to give lessons to children as young as 6. A picnic area was nearby, and horse owners could ride the trails for free.
“It’s a nice and quiet atmosphere here,” Privitera told Newsday in 1995.
The end came abruptly. On Aug. 16, 2016, county parks officials noticed unusual debris piles near the riding center, which bordered West Hills’ dog run. Trees in the area appeared to have been knocked down and a fence damaged.
With the help of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the county began a criminal investigation. Privitera, whose licensing agreement was canceled weeks later, initially denied knowledge of the dumping; a riding center spokesman at the time said “this disturbing incident occurred without our knowledge or consent.”
But a longtime Sweet Hills employee, Jesse Silverman, later told investigators that Privitera in late 2015 was upset with what she described as the muddy and uneven condition of the grounds. He said she had arranged with a fellow equine enthusiast — Kristine Raffetto, whose family was in the construction debris disposal business — to “bring in large tractor-trailer loads” of fill consisting of dirt, recycled concrete aggregate and asphalt millings from building and demolition job sites, according to Silverman’s witness statement, which was obtained by Newsday.
This type of fill, especially if it originates in New York City, often contains elevated levels of contaminants such as asbestos and heavy metals and must be tested and properly disposed of at DEC-regulated facilities. These toxins require disposal off of Long Island or out of state in specially equipped dumps, making legal disposal costly and complicated.
Upon discovery of the West Hills dumping, Spota noted that legal dumping of such material could cost between $1,500 and $5,000 per truckload: “The criminals involved bear no expense and make huge profits,” he said.
A Brookhaven-based hauling company, Benimax Inc., was the first to dump materials inside the riding center, including between 25 and 30 truckloads into a pen area, Silverman told police.
The carters started ‘bringing in so much material that we could not spread it and move it fast enough.’
Jesse Silverman, a longtime Sweet Hills employee, in a statement to police
Later, a Nassau County carting company, D-Best, began dumping more processed construction debris onto the riding trails, according to the witness statement. Silverman told police that the dumping was arranged by Raffetto with the knowledge of Privitera and that the carters started “bringing in so much material that we could not spread it and move it fast enough.”
Sweet Hills Stables Inc. and Kris/D/Lyne Contracting Corp.— the companies run by Privitera and Raffetto — as well as one tied to D-Best were the three that entered guilty pleas to a range of misdemeanor and felony charges. Benimax is the firm that was first charged in the case by Sini’s office last week.
At Privitera’s direction, Silverman said in his statement, he spread the construction debris throughout the horse paddocks and pens, at one point even using a payloader provided by Raffetto. He said he created a berm of dumped debris and, per Privitera, covered it with manure “to hide it.”
By the end, the ground-up construction debris was so voluminous that it required the removal of trees to widen the impacted trails, according to Silverman’s statement to police. Prosecutors later alleged that 58 trees were destroyed.
In October 2016, after the district attorney’s office took 100 samples for testing from the riding center, Spota held a news conference to announce that contamination levels in some cases had come back greater than what had been found at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood in 2014. Five hazardous and six acutely hazardous substances were found present.
“Unfortunately, once again I have to announce that yet another and even-more-serious environmental nightmare has been discovered,” Spota said at the time.
The contaminated materials were estimated at roughly 3.2 acres of varying depths, up to 8 feet. Overall, 14.5 acres of the park were affected, including the nontoxic debris that was illegally dumped.
Soon after the discovery, the riding center was shut down and the equestrian community was forced to scramble. County officials say they still cannot accurately estimate how many tons of debris will ultimately be removed as part of the remediation, though it appears the volume will be far less than the 40,000 tons found at Clemente Park.
‘Just the audacity that someone can actually do this and there be no repercussions.’
Carol Keil, who lives next to the park
“It was a huge blow to the horse community, especially in that area,” said Lisa Quinn, president of the Nassau Suffolk Horsemen’s Association, noting that some horse owners could not find new accommodations on Long Island. “It’s just sad this ruined a facility that we could really use.”
Carol Keil, who has lived in a home just north of West Hills for decades, said she often wondered, as the riding center lay dormant month after month, whether the dumpers would face strong punishment.
“Just the nerve that dumping like that can take place on public land,” she said. “Just the audacity that someone can actually do this and there be no repercussions.”
A different kind of probe
Within seven months of the earlier discovery of illegal dumping at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood, a special grand jury empaneled by Spota’s office returned a 32-count indictment that named six individuals, including two former Town of Islip parks officials, and three companies.
Within 15 months, the Town of Islip had removed the debris from the park under a $3 million contract with a cleanup firm; it is seeking reimbursement from the participants through a federal civil lawsuit.
Thomas Datre Jr., who prosecutors described as the “mastermind” of the Clemente dumping scheme, which encompassed several other sites, including a new home development for veterans, ultimately pleaded guilty to four felonies and was sentenced to one year in jail. He was released after serving eight months. One of his companies, which also pleaded guilty, received a $600,000 fine, while another defendant also received jail time.
The investigation into the West Hills case has played out differently.
The negotiated plea agreements came after Spota’s office had investigated the dumping for about 14 months. It was a time when Spota himself had largely taken a lower profile as he came under federal investigation for his role in the case of James Burke, his former protégé who rose to become Suffolk police chief of department.
Burke pleaded guilty in early 2016 to federal felonies related to his assault of a man who had stolen a duffel bag filled with pornography and sex toys from his unmarked vehicle and a cover-up of the incident. Spota was indicted on Oct. 25, 2017, on charges of assisting the cover-up. He has pleaded not guilty, with his trial set for next May.
Spota resigned on Nov. 10, 2017, a week after Sini, who had strongly criticized Spota’s performance while campaigning, was elected on a promise of bringing sweeping change to the district attorney’s office.
Five days later, the acting district attorney, Emily Constant, who had served as Spota’s top deputy, oversaw execution of plea agreements with three of the four entities identified as responsible for the West Hills dumping: Sweet Hills Stables; Kris/D/Lyne Contracting, of Garden City Park; and LJM Gardens LLC of West Hempstead, which shares the same principal as D-Best, the company Silverman identified as having brought in some of the tainted material.
No news conference or press release accompanied the agreements. They wouldn’t be publicly disclosed in any way until March, when county legislators debated a Bellone administration request to borrow money to cover some upfront cleanup costs.
Sweet Hills, which admitted allowing the dumping and using the county facility as an unpermitted solid waste disposal site, pleaded guilty to felony criminal mischief. Kris/D/Lyne and LJM Gardens acknowledged assisting or engaging in the dumping; each pleaded guilty to a felony count of endangering public health, safety and the environment.
All three defendants also pleaded guilty to causing the illegal release of more than 70 cubic yards of solid waste, a misdemeanor under state environmental conservation law.
If individuals had been charged, they would have been vulnerable to jail or prison time. The corporations charged only faced fines, a maximum of $37,000 per day for the misdemeanor dumping charges (the dumping was alleged to have taken place over 11 months) and up to $150,000 for the felonies.
But the negotiated pleas don’t call for any of those fines, beyond $34,800 Sweet Hills has agreed to pay for the destroyed trees.
If the defendants meet all terms pertaining to the cleanup, they will receive conditional discharges, meaning no additional penalties.
“It’s a slap in the face to everybody,” County Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said at the legislative committee meeting in March when the pleas were first disclosed to lawmakers.
“Not defending any particular district attorney or the office in general, we do not know what information they had,” County Attorney Dennis Brown replied.
Spota, who served nearly 12 years as district attorney, did not respond to requests for comment left with his criminal defense attorney, Alan Vinegrad of Manhattan.
Constant, who had a seven-week stint leading the office, retired at the end of last year. She declined to comment.
Other prosecutors identified in documents as involved in the plea agreements, Spota’s division chief Edward Heilig and a former assistant district attorney for environmental crimes, Michelle Pitman, didn’t respond to or declined requests for comment.
Bennett Gershman, a Pace Law School professor and former public corruption prosecutor, said the timing of the pleas — only weeks before a new administration took over — coupled with the Bellone administration’s assertion that it wasn’t consulted make them “troubling.”
“The DA is a lame duck. Give the new DA a chance to look at these cases that are pending, don’t get rid of them,” Gershman said.
He noted that prosecutors rightly have tremendous discretion when weighing the appropriate penalties in cases, but in the absence of any public justification from Spota’s office, such as problems with evidence or other factors, “it seems to be a real sweetheart deal for these guys. Their misconduct is serious and this is a slap on the wrist.”
Defense defends deals
But Randy Zelin, the Manhattan-based defense attorney for one of the defendants, LJM Gardens LLC, and also of its principal, Marc Cali, defended the plea deals.
“The Spota administration decided, for a whole host of reasons, factual and legal, that this was a fair and reasonable and just disposition. It had nothing to do, as far as I’m concerned, with the end of his administration,” Zelin said, declining to elaborate. “In everybody’s mind this was a good deal all around.”
‘There was incentive for the district attorney’s office to get the matter resolved, because the quicker it got resolved the quicker we could get to the work of cleaning it up.’
Randy Zelin, who defended LJM Gardens LLC and its principal, Marc Cali
In recent months, the county and attorneys for the defendants have met regularly with the judge overseeing the plea agreements, as they continue to negotiate some of the cleanup details, including where the non-contaminated debris can be disposed.
Despite the subsequent delays, Zelin noted “there was incentive for the district attorney’s office to get the matter resolved, because the quicker it got resolved the quicker we could get to the work of cleaning it up.”
Zelin declined to comment on the specifics of his client’s involvement in the dumping: “Respectfully, that’s water under the bridge.”
Joseph DiBenedetto, Privitera’s Manhattan-based attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.
Eric Franz, Kristine Raffetto’s Manhattan-based attorney, noted in a brief interview that Raffetto, though she signed the plea deal on behalf of her company, personally has not been charged with or pleaded guilty to any crimes.
Kristine Raffetto has owned racehorses and is listed as a principal officer of Iron Will Rescue Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to funding the rehabilitation of abused animals. According to online records, it shares a Mineola address with one of her family’s waste disposal companies.
“Kristine Raffetto’s involvement with the horse farm stemmed from her love for horses and desire to nurture the same,” Franz said. “She has never been convicted and maintains her innocence.”
A company with ties to some of Raffetto’s family members has a long history in the waste disposal business and in 2014 was denied a license by the New York City Business Integrity Commission to operate as a city trade waste removal business.
NYC Materials Corp. was denied the license, in part, because the commission said it failed to disclose that one of its principals, Anthony Vulpis Jr., had been convicted of racketeering activity. Vulpis is Raffetto’s brother-in-law. The commission also cited Edward Raffetto, the president of a related company, NY Dirt Contracting Corp. — who is Kristine Raffetto’s father and Anthony Vulpis’ father-in-law — as having been “found by the commission to have knowingly associated with … a now deceased former captain in the Gambino crime family and a convicted racketeer.”
Franz declined to comment on the family business’ regulatory history.
Stanley Morabito, president of Benimax, the other contractor alleged to have been involved in the West Hills dumping, has criminal convictions including possession of stolen property and vehicle arson, the latter stemming from a late 1990s federal auto theft and bribery case that brought down former Suffolk Republican leader John Powell.
An attorney listed in records as representing Benimax in the newly filed criminal case did not respond to a request for comment. Morabito — who has not been charged individually, according to available public records — did not return a request for comment left at his business. In 2010, on the basis of Morabito’s prior convictions, another company in which he served as a principal was also denied a trade waste license in New York City.
Benimax faces charges similar to what Sweet Hills, Kris/D/Lyne and LJM Gardens pleaded guilty to in its negotiated agreements, according to complaints filed in Suffolk County District Court. Sini’s office estimates the firm, which is scheduled to appear in court in January, was responsible for dumping 46 truckloads of solid waste at the riding center, records show.
‘They never consult with the injured party?’
During the legislative meetings in March, county lawmakers and Bellone administration officials expressed both surprise and frustration over the deals that had been negotiated by Spota’s office.
At one point, Parks Commissioner Phil Berdolt said he did not know in advance that the pleas would not include penalties beyond participating in the cleanup. That prompted a question from Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket).
“They never consult with the injured party?” Hahn asked at committee meeting where lawmakers first discussed approving the county’s $1.5 million bonding request to cover the upfront cleanup costs.
‘With Clemente park, people went to jail. Why didn’t people go to jail here?’
County Legis. Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters)
“I was never told what it would be,” Berdolt said of the deals.
Later that month, during a discussion on the bonding before the full legislature, he further distanced the administration from the plea deals: “As to what happened prior, like I said, the people that were involved that I dealt with are no longer employed. The plea is done.”
The bonding ultimately was denied, with dissenting lawmakers arguing that the county should first determine if the money would be needed after the defendants’ cleanup.
County Legis. Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters), who was on the Islip Town Board when the Clemente dumping was discovered, said in an interview that Sini should investigate how Spota handled the West Hills case.
“You want all people treated the same,” Flotteron said. “With Clemente Park, people went to jail. Why didn’t people go to jail here?”
With Emily C. Dooley