Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Attorney General James and DOI Commissioner Garnett Announce Indictment of Four Asbestos Investigators for Filing Fraudulent Inspection Reports

NY State Attorney General Letitia James

September 2, 2021
Attorney General’s Press Office/212-416-8060

Attorney General James and DOI Commissioner Garnett Announce Indictment of Four Asbestos Investigators for Filing Fraudulent Inspection Reports 

Defendants Filed Reports Claiming to Be Inspecting Residential and Commercial Sites While They Were Out of the State and Country, Jeopardizing New Yorkers’ Health and Safety

NEW YORK- New York Attorney General Letitia James and New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) Commissioner Margaret Garnett today announced the indictment of four Certified Asbestos Investigators (CAI) for repeatedly filing false asbestos inspection reports, putting the health and safety of workers and New York City residents at risk. A joint investigation conducted by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and the DOI found that over several years, the defendants — who were independent contractors certified by the New York State Department of Labor (DOL) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) — submitted fraudulent reports for inspections that took place on days when they were out of the state and country. 

The defendants — Valentino Buono (50), Jeff Ezulike (48), Russell Goss (42), and Kostas Kamberis (54) — were arraigned before Supreme Court Judge Toni Cimino in Queens County on a total of 19 counts, including Offering a False Instrument for Filing in the First Degree, a Class E Felony, which carries a maximum jail sentence of up to four years. 

“By filing these blatantly false health and safety reports, the defendants violated the public trust, as well as the law,” said Attorney General James. “These individuals failed to do their jobs to properly inspect sites for asbestos, putting the health of New Yorkers at risk, while exploiting the state and the system. No matter how big or small, we will continue to root out corruption at every level. I thank the DOI for its commitment to this cause.” 

“Filing fraudulent asbestos reports with New York City is a crime and, as these charges show, can also threaten New Yorkers' health and safety,” said DOI Commissioner Garnett. “The reason the city requires certified asbestos inspectors to file reports with the city is to confirm that dangerous asbestos is identified and abated correctly. The DEP reported allegations of potential fraudulent filings to DOI and we worked hand-in-hand with the state attorney general to uncover this charged illegal conduct. This kind of collaboration within the city and with our law enforcement partners is crucial in holding accountable those who seek to defraud New York City.” 

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is hazardous to human health and is known to cause a type of cancer known as mesothelioma. The DOL authorizes CAIs to conduct field inspections of residential and commercial sites to determine if dangerous asbestos is present, where it is located, and how much there is. Upon conducting their inspections, CAIs are required to file an Asbestos Assessment Report with the DEP. The report requires the inspector to certify that the inspection took place at the location, date, and time listed on the report and whether asbestos was present. Asbestos survey records must accurately reflect the site conditions at the time of the investigation. 

In February 2020, the OAG and the DOI began the investigation following the DEP identifying and reporting potentially fraudulent filings to the DOI. The investigation uncovered the fraudulent reports by comparing inspection dates to domestic and international travel dates recorded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The OAG and the DOI then reviewed airline records, such as ticket purchases and boarding documentation, as well as bank records, to confirm the discrepancies. On days that the defendants claimed to have inspected sites throughout the city for asbestos, Buono was actually in Mexico, Ezulike was in Nigeria and Texas, Kamberis was in Italy and Greece, and Goss was in Bermuda, Denmark, Puerto Rico, and Italy. 

The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. 

Attorney General James and DOI Commissioner Garnett would like to thank the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the New York State Department of Labor for their assistance during this investigation. 

“Our mission is to protect the health and safety of all New Yorkers, and we have zero tolerance for those who jeopardize others and put them at risk,” said New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon. “We are fortunate to have law enforcement partners like the Office of the New York Attorney General and the New York City Department of Investigation to help us reinforce those protections. I commend them for their efforts to upholding the safety of all New Yorkers.” 

“Rigorous enforcement of New York’s asbestos rules is absolutely necessary to protect both the public health and the safety of workers,” said New York City Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Vincent Sapienza. “Our enforcement team first identified these four individuals and brought them to the attention of our law enforcement partners, and we thank them for this successful indictment.” 

The investigation was conducted by DOI Investigators Alaina Infantino, John Bourke, and Katherine O'Toole, under the supervision of Deputy Inspector General Michael Antolini and Inspector General Andrew Brunsden. 

The criminal case is being prosecuted by Assistant Attorneys General Russell Satin and Aida Vernon, of the OAG’s Public Integrity Bureau, under the supervision of Bureau Chief Gerard Murphy. Additional investigative support was provided by Legal Support Analyst Crystal Bisbano. The Public Integrity Bureau is a part of the Division for Criminal Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General José Maldonado and is overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Tanner Cross, Teacher in Loudoun County, Wins Court Ruling Allowing Him To Refuse To Use Transgender Students' Pronouns

Byron "Tanner" Cross

Court Backs A Teacher Who Refused To Use Transgender Students' Pronouns

August 31, 2021, AP

RICHMOND, Va. — The Supreme Court of Virginia has upheld a lower court ruling that ordered the reinstatement of a northern Virginia gym teacher who said he won't refer to transgender students by their pronouns.

Loudoun County Public Schools appealed to the state Supreme Court after a judge ruled that the school system violated the free speech rights of teacher Tanner Cross by suspending him after he spoke up at a school board meeting.

Cross, a teacher at Leesburg Elementary, cited his religious convictions at a May board meeting in which the school board debated proposed changes to its policies in treatment of transgender students. Cross said he would not use transgender students' pronouns.

School boards across the state have been revising their policies to be more inclusive of transgender students in accordance with a new state law. But Loudoun County, outside the nation's capital, has been a particular flashpoint in the debate over not just transgender students but also how students learn about racism and race relations.

The school system said it suspended Cross in part because his comments caused a disruption at the school. But the lower court judge, James Plowman, and the state Supreme Court agreed that the handful of calls fielded by school administrators did not cause the type of disruption that warranted a suspension.

Tuesday's ruling leaves in place a temporary injunction that bars the school system from suspending Cross. A trial is scheduled for next week in Loudoun County to settle the issue permanently.

Since Cross filed his lawsuit in May, two additional teachers in Loudoun County have joined him as plaintiffs.

In this April 30, 2021, file photo, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at 

the end of a legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

On The First Day Of Pride Month, Florida Signed A Transgender Athlete Bill Into Law
June 2, 2021, AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's Republican governor signed a bill Tuesday barring transgender females from playing on public school teams intended for student athletes born as girls, plunging the state into the national culture war over transgender rights.

"In Florida, girls are going to play girls sports and boys are going to play boys sports," Gov. Ron DeSantis said as he signed the bill into law at a private Christian academy in Jacksonville that would not be subject to the law. "We're going to make sure that that's the reality."

The new law, sure to be challenged as unconstitutional, inflames an already contentious discussion unfolding nationally as Republican-controlled states move to limit the rights of LGBTQ people, whose advocates were particularly annoyed that the legislation was signed on the first day of Gay Pride Month.

The NCAA, which oversees college athletics, has said it has "a long-standing policy that provides a more inclusive path for transgender participation in college sports." The NCAA currently requires transgender women to get treatment to lower their testosterone levels before they can compete in women's sports.

When the Florida Legislature was considering the measure in April, the NCAA said it would commit championship games to "locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination."

High-profile athletic events, such as football bowl games and basketball tournaments, generate millions of dollars for local communities.

The measure approved by the GOP-led Legislature takes effect July 1. It says a transgender student athlete can't participate without first showing a birth certificate saying she was a girl when she was born. It's not clear whether all females must show their birth certificates, or only those whose gender is questioned. The proposal allows another student to sue if a school allows a transgender girl or woman to play on a team intended for biological females.

The final wording of the "Fairness in Women's Sports Act" stripped away some of its most contentious elements, including a requirement that transgender athletes in high schools and colleges undergo testosterone or genetic testing and submit to having their genitalia examined.

But the legislation signed by the governor advances an underlying principle asserted by supporters: Biological differences between males and females make it unfair for athletes identified as boys at birth to compete on teams for girls and women. The law would not bar female athletes from playing on boys' or men's teams.

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said the new law would not only harm transgender girls. "All Floridians will have to face the consequences of this anti-transgender legislation — including economic harm, expensive taxpayer-funded legal battles, and a tarnished reputation."

Democrats and LGBTQ advocates said the law is discriminatory and will be challenged in court as unconstitutional.

"This is yet another hate-driven attack from the governor and Republican legislators, and it's insulting that they've staged this morning's photo-op on the first day of Pride Month," said state Sen. Shevrin Jones. "At the end of the day, transgender kids are just kids."

The ban was tucked at the last minute of the legislative session into a measure allowing public universities and colleges to sponsor charter schools — a point the governor did not mention during the bill signing. It was the transgender athletes provision that was front and center in Tuesday's rhetoric.

"This bill is very simply about making sure that women can safely compete, have opportunities and physically be able to excel in a sport that they trained for, prepared for and work for," said state Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Republican who championed the bill.

"This is nothing about anybody being discriminated against," she said. "It's solely so that women have an opportunity to compete in women's sports."

The Florida law mirrors an Idaho law, the first of its kind when enacted last year, that is now mired in legal challenges. GOP governors in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee recently signed similar measures.

Efforts by conservatives to restrict rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people have spawned numerous battles in key arenas — not only in legislatures and courtrooms but also across the economy, and critics warned of looming consequences.

According to a 2017 Associated Press study, North Carolina stood to lose $3.8 billion over a dozen years because of a so-called "bathroom bill." Those losses were averted when a 2019 settlement kept the state from barring transgender people from using bathrooms that conformed to their gender identity.

"Let me say very clearly: In Florida, we're going to do what's right to stand up to corporations, they are not going to dictate the policies in this state," DeSantis said while flanked by students at the religious school. "We will stand up to groups like the NCAA who think that they should be able to dictate the policies in different states. Not here, not ever."

A Connecticut track athlete, Selina Soule, joined the Florida governor at the news conference to talk about how she failed to advance in competitions because she competed against transgender athletes. She called it unfair.

That Soule was from out of state was not lost on critics who contend that the matter was not an urgent one for Florida, noting that just 11 athletes applied for screening by the Florida High School Athletic Association since adopting its transgender participation policy in 2013.

"This is not out of need or necessity," said Orlando Gonzales, the executive director of SAVE, a South Florida gay rights advocacy group, during a news conference. "This is really just to throw red meat out there to really rally the base of people who are anti-LGBT."