Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jepsen Stomps A Greenie

At the urging of Attorney General George Jepsen, a judge has fined Bruno Suraci, past owner of three New Haven businesses, who must pay “$700,000 for violating of hazardous waste management statutes and regulations; $33,500 for violating air pollution control laws and regulations; and $10,000 for failure to obtain an emissions permit,” according to a story in the New Haven Independent, “Fined BusinessmanSays State Ruined Him.”

Mr. Suraci’s three year bout with the attorney general’s office has left him unable to pay the fine, and he is now considering a move to a state less predatory than Connecticut.

The legal action at first surprised him and, after repeated pummeling, left him numb, the usual reaction to being mugged in an ally by a black-jack wielding thug. After year two years of expensive and emotionally wearing litigation, he just gave up. Mr. Suraci told a reporter that “the state won the judgment against him because he stopped showing up to court hearings. He stopped showing up because he couldn’t afford to pay lawyers any more, he said. He claimed he missed the hearing at which he was issued the fine because he was not notified in advance.”

Litigation is “free” only for attorneys general who draw both their salaries and the costs of their prosecutions from Connecticut taxpayers, one of whom was Mr. Suraci before Mr. Jepsen came calling. Defendants pay cash, usually from assets encumbered by the attorney general’s office in the course of lengthy prosecutions. These encumbrances give an insuperable edge to Goliath’s fight with David, who loses assets as the battle progresses. Anyone involved in litigation with the attorney general’s office will swear on a stack of bibles that the duration of a case ultimately determines winners and losers: The longer the case, the more impoverished the defendant, the more likely it is he will at some point throw in the sponge and, if he is a business, begin looking for the exit signs.  

In a brief defense from the assault on his companies by Mr. Jepsen, far shorter and more lucid than the many court briefs issued by the attorney general’s office, Mr. Suraci explained what happened to him.

An ex-employee had filed a complaint against one of Mr. Suraci’s companies with Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).The agency referred the complaint to the attorney general’s office, and the litigation game was on.

Mr. Suraci did not fear an inspection – at the beginning.  He was, much to the amusement of his friends and employees, a stickler on the environment. No polluter, Mr. Suraci knew his property was cleaner than it had been before his commercial painting company had moved to the site under scrutiny. The $10 million company he built from the ground up was so committed to a clean environment that it recycled ALL its waste products. Indeed, it was the recycling – or rather a metaphysical difference of opinion as to the meaning of recycling between Mr. Suraci and the justice hounds in the Attorney General’s office --  that turned out to be the problem. Mr. Suraci was never charged by Mr. Jepsen with polluting the environment – because the recycling process he had instituted, at some cost to his companies, forestalled any possible pollution. 

Mr. Suraci was himself an environmental advocate who had walked the walk. The New Haven Independent is to be commended for having gone to the trouble of interviewing Mr. Suraci, who told the paper “he has always sought to be an environmentalist. He lives at Tuttle Ridge Farms, an organic farm in Durham that supplies New Haven restaurants and farmers markets. His wife owns the farm; he serves as the farm manager. He lit up as he described recently buying tomato seeds. In 2007, he bought one of the first hybrid cars to go on the market, the Mercury Mariner. He now drives a Chevy Volt, an electric car. He said his friends tease him as the environmentalist in the group. He would start every annual company meeting with the same question: ‘How can we reduce our footprint?’”

According to Mr. Jepsen, Mr. Suraci had “failed to properly store and label hazardous waste; lacked permits regarding that waste; and failed to train his employees in how to handle the waste.” According to Mr. Suraci, the “hazardous waste” was actually products stored and recycled on site: His waste products were treated on site and rendered non-toxic. They were not waste products awaiting shipment to an outside recycle agency until…

DEEP suggested that Mr. Suraci label and recycle as hazardous waste nearly 100 cans of serviceable paint more than a year old. Mr. Suraci complied, tossed out the paint and, at the insistence of inspectors, relabeled some recyclable materials “hazardous.” Because of these actions, he had now become a “large quantity generator” (LQG) of hazardous waste. The new status pushed his companies out of compliance.

Voila! DEEP, Mr. Jepsen and Inspector Javert got their man.

Mr. Jepsen then offered to the media a pithy summation of the case against the recycler:

“The defendants chose to conduct their business by avoiding the costs associated with environmental compliance, (actually, Mr. Suraci’s on site recycling added to the cost of his product) which put the environment and public at risk (DEEP did not charge Mr. Suraci with polluting the environment, very likely because no polluting had occurred) while placing their competitors– companies operating in good-faith and in compliance with the law – at a disadvantage. The defendants had every opportunity to present their side in court and chose not to do so (after three years of litigation, Mr. Suraci found he no longer had the resources to both defend himself in court and run a much diminished business). The court reviewed the sworn testimony and evidence presented in this case and awarded the appropriate penalty and injunctive relief. We disagree with Mr. Suraci’s characterizations, and we believe the record in this case is clear.”

Well now, courts make decisions based on the evidence presented to them, and who will doubt that Mr. Jepsen and his hundred odd lawyers are adept at presenting evidence not sufficiently contested by defendants whose assets they have either seized of reduced considerably?

There is, however, a difference between an efficient legal process and justice.  Mr. Jepsen and DEEP, working hand in hand, easily might have ameliorated conditions at Mr. Suraci’s three businesses without destroying the cutting edge environmentally responsible businesses – especially since Mr. Suraci’s devotion to the environment was obvious, his recycling efforts were evident, and scarce Connecticut jobs hung in the balance. But in the Suraci case, Mr. Jepsen committed himself to destruction rather than to rehabilitation, the hallmark of Mr. Jepsen’s predecessor, the suit king, former Attorney general Richard Blumenthal.

When New Haven’s new economic development chief, Mathew Nemerson, was appraised of the details involving the closure of Mr. Suraci’s businesses, he said “As much as I love my friends at the state,” this doesn’t smell right. In these situations, companies need to know that we’re going to go to the bat for them.”

Too late Nemerson -- The game is over; the good guys lost; Inspector Javier won.
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