Thursday, January 18, 2007

A line drawn in the sand

On Jan. 9, the New York City law firm of Sullivan and Gardner issued a press release announcing that Calverton Industries and Michael Cholowsky "have sued" The News-Review and yours truly for libel.

We were made aware of this action not by service of the complaint, nor even by receipt of the press release. I got a phone call from Bruce Tria, the station manager at WRIV, asking for comment on the lawsuit.

On Monday this week, I got a similar call from Lisa Finn, a reporter at the Independent-Traveler Watchman. I told her what I told Tria: I haven't seen the lawsuit so I can't comment on what it says. The Independent published a story this week anyway, under the headline "News-Review, Civiletti sued for libel."

We still haven't been served with any lawsuit. But ever curious — as all good reporters are — I checked the records at the county center yesterday and found that Mr. Cholowsky's attorneys had indeed filed a summons and complaint against Times/Review Newspapers and yours truly on Jan. 9. I guess they just haven't gotten around to serving us.

The complaint alleges that just about everything we reported in our Dec. 14 issue about Mr. Cholowsky's criminal conviction and his role and testimony in the John Powell trial was "completely false." And it alleges that we knew what we published to be false when we "recklessly" published it.

First, we stand by the accuracy of the facts we reported in our coverage. In libel law, truth is an absolute defense to an action. We have truth on our side. If this lawsuit is served, I'm confident that we'll prevail.

Second, we will not be cowed into silence with lawsuits or threats of lawsuits. We've reported on this because it's important and in the public interest. And for no other reason.

The state DEC allowed Cholowsky to dig a 41-acre, 40-foot-deep hole in a special groundwater protection area and fill it up with waste material s. It allowed this without even doing an environmental impact study. It conditioned the mining permit on Cholowsky's staying out of the solid waste industry because of Cholowsky's admitted — on the record, under oath, in open court — payment of bribes to a Brookhaven official and the county Republican leader to gain access to the Brookhaven landfill. Then the DEC turned around and gave the same guy a permit to build and operate a solid waste facility elsewhere.

That's what we reported. And those are facts, in the public record. Just like the plea Mr. Cholowsky entered in federal court — which his lawsuit says never happened. Just like his testimony in federal court that sent John Powell to jail — something else the lawsuit says we fabricated.

But Mr. Cholowsky, in the press release, says we wrote the story "in retribution for my criticism of the most significant policy error facing the Riverhead taxpayer: the $40 million landfill catastrophe." And his attorney, Mr. Sullivan, is quoted in the Independent as saying: "And we are taking further steps to ensure that the avoidance of the $40 million reclamation disaster by issuing untrue statements about our client stops, and the community begins to ask the questions: What happened to the $40 million and where do we go from here?"


Obviously Mr. Sullivan hasn't been reading The News-Review. We broke the story of the landfill reclamation mess in this newspaper and have diligently reported on new developments week after week on page 1 over the past year. We even editorialized about the mess many times, asking the very questions Mr. Cholowsky's attorney claims the community should "begin" to ask.

It's nothing short of bizarre that Mr. Cholowsky would link our reporting on his permit issues to the landfill reclamation debacle. We have no stake whatsoever in the town's failed reclamation project, or in its "avoidance." Maybe he's accusing me of carrying water for Barbara Blass, who's been an opponent of the sand mine and a proponent of the landfill reclamation.

The only connection I can see between Calverton Industries and the town's landfill reclamation is sand. And lots of it.

A couple years back, the town was selling its landfill sand cheap to a guy who was making asphalt at the town dump as part of the reclamation project. The asphalt guys were not happy about that. Cheap sand, cheap asphalt. Not a good thing in the mind of the "asphalt cartel" — description courtesy of the U.S. attorney's office. In Nov. 2005, five members of the "asphalt cartel" were indicted in federal court in a bid-rigging scheme aimed at keeping the price of asphalt high, according to federal law enforcement authorities. Among them was a partner in Calverton Industries, John Montecalvo.

Four of the "cartel" boys have since pled guilty under an agreement with the federal prosecutor. No word yet on any plea deal for the remaining "cartel" member, Montecalvo.

There's plenty of speculation about why Montecalvo hasn't taken a plea, and what might be coming next. I'll leave that one to the rumor mill for now. But who was it that once said, "All roads lead to Riverhead?"