Friday, November 18, 2016

Stolen Trump Sign Saga - City Brings Charges Against Park Officer Who Refused To Write Summonses


Michael Ricatto put up flyers to find the thieves who stole his Trump signs.
After eight of a Kew Gardens homeowner's pro-Trump lawn signs were stolen he offered a 
$ 5000 dollar reward to help find the culprit after he was caught on camera. The owner printed up reward posters and had them affixed to posts and on trees in the area,  an action that garnered considerable media attention.  Two months later the homeowner was issued twenty-two summonses as a result of using staples.    

“The same thing that the city fined him for the city does itself,” said a park police officer.



Queens

By Geoffrey Croft

A veteran park police officer says the city tried to force him to write summonses to an avid Trump supporter and now he’s paying the price for refusing.

The Parks Department recently brought disciplinary charges against the Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officer for failing to comply with an order after he refused to write summonses for the alleged violations he says he not only did not witness but for violations that did not exist according to a top Parks Department lawyer, NYC Park Advocates has learned. 

The Parks Department estimated the staples caused a staggering $41,000 in damage and is waiting for the outcome of the summons hearing whether or not to charge him with that fine according to internal emails.

To make its point the Parks Department made a special delivery and ordered three park police officers to hand deliver the tickets to the home of the Trump supporter two months after the alleged violations.

The summonses do not have a date they were written nor a named witness to the claimed violations. 

At one point during the ordeal the Park Department legal division decided to hold off charging him due to intense media coverage, calling the issue, “sensitive.”

The Parks Department demanded that Sgt. Joe Oro, 29-year veteran of PEP,  write twenty-two summonses to an ardent Trump supporter who illegally posted reward flyers on street trees under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department. 

On September 21, more than three weeks after the incident Sgt. Oro received an email from a superior,  Inspector Edwin Rodriguez asking him to address the issue.  The request came weeks after the agency's own forestry division had taken them down.   The email came almost a month after an irate Trump supporter complained to the media that several signs were stolen from the front yard of his Abingdon Road home in Kew Gardens. The issue received wide spread media coverage.  

According to the officer he explained that he did not witness the alleged violations as he is legally required to do and therefor wasn’t going to get involved.


Deputy Inspector, Parks Enforcement Patrol Edwin Falcon (above) - Adrian Benepe’s former driver - brought disciplinary charges against the Sgt. for failing to comply with an order after the veteran officer of 29 years refused to write summonses for violations he says he did not witness and was not presented evidence for.

The city eventually got a newly hired officer to write the summonses even after the head lawyer in charge of the agency’s Affirmative Litigation unit responsible for bringing tree restitution cases expressed in no uncertain terms that the home owner’s actions did not harm trees.    “Our office was told many years ago that staples do not cause harm to city trees, to the extent that we can’t seek monetary restitution as they do not penetrate deep enough to cause damage,” she wrote.        (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge


After he declined, Deputy Inspector Parks Enforcement Patrol, Edwin Falcon, got involved and ordered him to write the tickets according to Sgt. Oro.

“He didn’t tell me how he came up with that (twenty-two) number.  He said just charge him with twenty-two, the picture has only four,”  Oro said.

The officer said he was presented with a single photograph depicting signs on four trees.   A Walk In The Park reviewed the photo provided used as evidence to the officer which showed only four.

"I told him I wasn’t going to write it,” he said.  “I said I wasn’t going to perjure myself.”

 Oro said that Falcon told him that the Forestry division took the fliers down several weeks earlier.

The officer said there were no flyers went he went to one of the locations.

Sgt. Oro said he read the determination of the lawyer in charge of the agency’s Affirmative Litigation unit responsible for restitution cases expressly stating that staples do not cause harm to trees.

“I’m not required to carry out unlawful orders, they really don’t seem to get that,” Sgt. Oro explains.  

"It’s political.”

“He wanted me to write twenty-two bogus tickets so maybe he can charge me later on. To jam me up later?" he asked.

They want to get me on something. They had a brand new officer to write the summonses later instead,” he said.  

According to several officers familiar with the situation the city wanted to role the dice and see how it plays out in Civil Court. 

“They’re using PEP. "

I think the exact words in one of the emails were, ‘let’s see how ECB handles it first before we proceed with any further charges.’”

“They needed a PEP officer to write an ECB summons to see if it goes to court and a judge says dismisses or not. It’s going to get dismissed,” he said, an opinion shared by numerous officers.

"The main point is we didn’t witness anything,” said another officer.

"They just want us to write summons and then see how the Civil Court handles it. But if you perjure    yourself you can be brought up on charges,” Sgt. Oro said.



Stapled Tow Away Zone notifications in front of Mr. Ricatto’s home in Kew Gardens last week using the same size staples that he used.


"I just don’t get their angle, just cause its Civil Court they don’t care. Nobody wants to write a summons they didn’t observe.  That doesn’t make sense," said another officer who spoke on the condition of  anonymity out of fear of retribution. 

“If you don't observe you need to have  a person who observed it down. In this case I don’t believe anyone saw who posted the fliers they just got whoever's name was on fliers and had officer write a summons for each posting," the officer said. 

Several park law enforcement sources called the city’s  $ 41,000 dollar tree damage price tag, a  “shakedown.” 

“The city is trying to shake down the home owner for $ 41,000 dollars for the violation.  How did they come up with that price,” an officer asked.

"Where do you come up with $ 41,000 dollars,"  said another PEP officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  "They charge people that price to screw them over.” 

Sgt. Oro agreed. 

“That’s a proper word, they call it restitution,”  Mr. Oro said.

"He posted paper signs and you’re going to charge him forty-plus thousand dollars for staples,” he said.

“Regardless of that nobody saw the violation,” said another officer,  “Nobody in Forestry saw anybody post them.”

The officers fully understand if the trees were damaged as a result of the staples but in case they weren’t.

"The city rolled the die to see if the violation would stick in ECB court," an officer said.

“The same thing that the city fined him for the city does itself,” said the PEP officer.

“It’s political, ” a phrase heard numerous times concerning this issue. 

Deputy Inspector, Parks Enforcement Patrol, Falcon filed disciplinary charges against Oro last month.

On October 20th,  Oro was hauled into a disciplinary hearing and is awaiting its decision. 

Proud Trump supporter Michael Ricatto, 59, poses on his front lawn where he says eight of his political lawn signs was stolen.   Ricatto says he was unfairly targeted by the city when he posted wanted posters on trees in Key Gardens Queens.  In late August he stapled flyers to trees offering a $ 5000 dollar reward to help find the culprit, an action that garnered considerable media attention.  

Two months later he was issued twenty-two tickets by the Parks Department for stapling flyers to trees,  the same method commonly used by the city and its contractors to affix signs to trees.  Mr. Ricatto quietly paid $ 1600 in fines.  According to internal emails the city claims that his staples however caused
$ 41,000 in damage to the trees and are waiting to see how the issue plays out in ECB court regarding whether or not they are going to charge him for restitution for alleged tree damage. The Internal emails reveal the arbitrary enforcement and illegal methods used by the parks department to secure a payment, even after the agency’s head lawyer in charge tree restitution said staples do not damage trees. 



In August ardent Trump supporter Michael Ricatto, 59, a Kew Garden’s homeowner was incensed after discovering that a third set of lawn signs supporting his candidate were stolen from in front of his house.

He mounted a camera on a tree on his property along with a motion-triggered flash to try and identify the suspect.

A few days later on August 18, at 3:38 am surveillance footage captured the culprit on Ricatto’s lawn stealing two more signs.

The following days he printed flyers offering a $ 5,000 reward with a grainy image of the thief and hired a few neighborhood kids to blanket the area. They posted the paper flyers on posts and trees.

When the kids ran out of tape he says they returned and grabbed a stapler and affixed the flyers to trees and finished the job.

Ricatto points out the hypocrisy in giving tickets to him for using staples and claiming tree damage when the city and its contractors regularly use the same method when they warn the public about upcoming tree pruning. 

"I got a couple of kids from the neighborhood I gave them some tape and said go start taping these fliers up on posts and trees,” he explained.  

“They ran out of tape and they got the bright idea, ‘well we can use staples.’  So then they started stapling them up on trees.  Just serendipitously the staples are the same that the Parks Department uses,"  he says.

Mr.  Ricatto holds up a piece of paper with three examples of staples taken out of trees - two from the Parks Department and one from him.  The Parks Department's press office laughably claimed that the staples the agency regularly uses are smaller and therefor don't cause damage to trees as the Trump supporter's allegedly did.


Ricatto said he stopped posting the fliers on trees after learning it was illegal.
  
The Parks Department uses staples on trees sometimes to post No Parking ‘cause we’re going to be trimming the trees.  I used the same staples and yet they told me I caused damage.” 

The lawyer in charge of the parks division that handles such cases agreed.

The Internal emails reveal the arbitrary enforcement and illegal methods used by the parks department to secure a payment, even after the agency’s head lawyer in charge tree restitution explicitly states that staples do not cause tree damage. 
Karen Dugan heads the affirmative litigation unit at the Parks Department which brings restitution cases and claims. 

The division sues people including property owners and businesses who destroy or damage trees and has been responsible for recovering millions of dollars in fees and fines.

Park police officers as well as forestry personnel are required to send documentation of tree abuses to her.

According to her it is the legal department’s long held understanding that staples do not hurt trees.

“Am I reading this email chain correctly?,” a clearly perturbed Dugan writes in a September 7th email to her colleagues. 



"Are we charging this Kew Gardens gentleman with $41,000.00 worth of tree damage due to some staples being inserted in 11 trees? 



Our office was told many years ago that staples do not cause harm to city trees, to the extent that we can’t seek monetary restitution as they do not penetrate deep enough to cause damage,” she continues. 



"We were told that it was impossible to affix an amount on such damages.  This amount seems extremely inconsistent with all the various types of damages we have received in the past years. 



I understand that the article might already have been written but as far as restitution is concerned, how did a figure of $41,000.00 worth of damage get calculated from staples?” she asks.


That didn’t stop the stop the city from moving forward. 


On October 27th - two months after the alleged violations -  the city sent a message to Mr. Michael Ricatto and took the unusual step of ordering three Parks Department police officers to hand deliver the tickets to his home instead of the usual and safe notification method by certified mail.

He was issued twenty-two summonses - eleven $ 50 dollar tickets for Illegal Posting and eleven $ 100 tickets for Minor Tree Damage. 

So far the city’s gamble has paid off. 

Not long after receiving the tickets Michael Ricatto pleaded No Contest and paid $1600 in total summonses without knowing the details. 

I really had no choice,” Michael Ricatto who said he was told by several lawyers it would cost too much to fight it.

"I paid sixteen hundred dollars and I shouldn’t have paid it. But I didn’t want it over my head because I live in Floria and I didn’t want to have to go up to New York just to fight a summons and hire a lawyer.

“Frankly at three or four hundred dollars an hour it going to take a lawyer more than three or four hours to fight sixteen hundred dollars worth of summonses  and then I’m liable to have pay him and the summonses so it didn’t pay for me to fight the summones.  It just didn't pay for me to fight them.  

Certainly if I get a bill from the city for forty-thousand dollars I’m going to fight a forty-thousand dollar bill. I’m going to bring up the summonses," he continued. 

I don’t expect a fair shake in New York that’s honestly one of the reasons why I left.



Selective Enforcement?  An employee from DOM’S Tree Service Inc. from Port Washington NY staples a No Parking sign to a tree across the street from a Trump supporter who was issued twenty-two tickets for stapling flyers to trees.  Dozens of stapled Tow Away Zone signs could be seen on trees last week throughout the area which residents say is normal.   

“I used the same staples yet they told me I caused damage.”   


I think there was a great deal of impetus from the neighborhood who were angry about the fact  that I had the audacity to post signs on trees even though every other lamppost has a donate your car to us poster on it, I don’t know if there are getting all kinds of summonses.

I’m kind of numb, you don’t get a fair shake being a conservative in New York.  

 “I was on all sorts of news programs and I guess they had to like slap me down a little bit. I’m not happy about it.” 

The reason I’m pretty sure it happened is because people in New York do not like Trump and the de Blasio administration would certainly like to get on the good side of Hilary Clinton," he said the morning of the election.  “Its just awful.”  

"I’m annoyed, its terrible but its par for the course in the de Blasio administration and it’s New York City you gotta expect it. They take advantage of people and they took advantage of me.  From being a victim I turned out to be the criminal. I put up some wanted posters to find the guy - I had my posters stolen three times. 

In the blink of an eye I wound from being a victim to a criminal and its wrong.

What’s good for the gander isn’t what’s good for the goose and its wrong.  Its just plain wrong. The Parks Department puts the same staples in their trees.  If they would have taken the time to remove one of our the staples and compared it to a Parks Department staple  but that wasn’t the impetus the impetus to slap me down because I’m a conservative and I’m backing Trump. That was the impetus, that was the reason.  

And that’s probably the reason why the parks Department people didn’t want to go after me they saw through it. The original officer who was directed to serve me with the summonses said this isn’t right, I’m not doing it. 

I think they targeted me for a reason, it’s the wrong thing to do.

If someone had stolen my Clinton signs this never would have happened.  I’m a conservative in a sea of Democrats, that was the main impetus.  

"Its political," he said. "Everybody one around me in the Key Gardens around me seems to be very left wing.”

On the morning of November 8th Mr. Ricatto was asked if he was going to remove all the signs around his house after the election. 

"After the election there's no point in having a Trump sign up is there," he asked rhetorically. 

"Wins or loses after the election you don't need to have a Trump sign up," he said.

Tuesday's surprising election results apparently changed his mind.

Late last week he replaced the large banner hanging between two trees in front of his house with one twice as big. 

The new one reads, I TOLD YOU SO  TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP,  with twenty exclamation points emblazoned over an image of an enormous American flag.

A move sure to further endear him to his neighbors.

 A mailbox a few yards away from Mr. Ricatto's home the day after the election.


Questioning the Alleged $ 41,000 In Tree Damage 

According to internal emails Parks Department Queens Forester Brooke Costanza estimated the staples caused $ 41,000 dollars worth of damage to the trees.    


"...how did a figure of $41,000.00 worth of damage get calculated from staples?”  a clearly perturbed Karen Dugan asked in a September 7th email.   

Twelve minutes later the head of Queens forestry, Joe Bonkowski wrote to explain how they arrived at that number.

"….using parks tree damage report format which calculates the dollar amount (tree size really influences this number)  the huge $$ amount is what you get. I believe Brooke only used 1% as the damage and it still calculates to this number,” 

“One percent is super inflated for a trivial health affect to trees,” said a licensed arborist who spoke on the condition anonymity out of fear of retribution. 

“Its completely unreasonable. It’s obscene that she would pull out one precent It's insulting to the tree care profession.”

“How Brooke (Costanza) quantifiably assesses the loss in tree value and assumed decline in tree health from staples is beyond me.  It suggests that she has been give permission to call the shots and take independent action as she wishes with little guidance  before issuing the actual summons oversight and review. 

“ (Parks’ lawyer Karen) Duggan is absolutely correct in her assessment of the minutia of the level of harm to trees by staples into tree bark.” the tree expert continues who notes that damage from staples does happen from time to time but its rare. 

For years the forestry division has been criticized for turning a blind eye by not properly enforcing rudimentary tree safety procedures from contractors and government agencies  that not only impact public safety but prevent tree abuses.

“The agencies focus (Queens Forestry) on such trivial tree impacts matters by staples is astonishing,” the arborist continues.

"This is in contrast to the whole tree abuses, harm and destruction of irreplaceable street trees by unsupervised, unvetted and unmonitored pruning contractors, builders and developers and their tree-unfriendly construction practices permitted by NYC DOB, DOT and DPR.

Where over the past 20 years these pruners,  builders and developers have been for the most park exempted from the harsh penalties and criminal charges that are attached to their destructive tree-killing practices.  

Enforcement is incredibly lax with an emphases on home owners. The agency is focused on increasing their public image.”


Joe Bonkowski apparently had a change of heart in the summons writing department after a barrage of media coverage.  according to Sgt. Oro.

'“Leave it alone, it's politically motivated,’  he told me."


 Nine staples used for this Parks Department notice.   "What’s good for the gander isn’t what’s good for the goose and its wrong.  Its just plain wrong. The Parks Department puts the same staples in their trees," Mr.  Ricatto says.

(Photos: Geoffey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge

Emails

The Internal emails reveal the arbitrary enforcement and illegal methods used by the parks department to secure a payment, even after the agency’s head lawyer in charge tree restitution said staples do not damage trees.  They provide an insight into the utter dysfunction within the agency.  

The ordeal began on August 31st when a reporter asks the Parks Department press office to see if anything came of the agency’s investigation of the Michael Ricatto issue.

The press officer reaches out to various to several senior employees.  

Queens Parks Borough Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski asks long time Queens Director of Forestry Joe Bonkowski to give his determination flyers stapled to trees in Kew Gardens.

On August 31st Bonkowski responds.

"Our forester Brooke (Costanzo) went out there and checked the trees for damage. Note only tape was used on some.

. Tree damage reports are being filed with special councils (sic) office for mnor (sic) damage from some staples.

A request has been made for pep to issue summons.

After parks press office employee Maeri Ferguson thanks him with an exclamation point Bonkowski  writes back: 

”Our forestry part is done it’s up to pep now,” he states.

“And would PEP know how much the fine is and how many trees were damaged?” Ferguson asks.

“That’s a question for pep. it seems depending on when you go out the number of fliers varies as neighbors have been removing them,”   Bonkowski responds. 

The next day Bonkowski assess an astonishing $ 41,000 dollars in damage caused by the stapes.

“Okay – but so far can you please tell me how many trees were inspected by forestry?”  Ferguson asks the next day. 

“40 trees looked at with 11 trees with deep staples the tree damage dollar amount of 41,000 dollars for those 11 trees,” he writes.

t h e remaining trees had either tape posters already removed or no other issue as staples shallow or not effecting cambium  which is the living layer under the bark.”

The press representative then reaches out to PEP Deputy Inspector Parks Enforcement Patrol Edwin Falcon. 

"Wondering if you can tell me what the fine would be if this guy were to be issued a summons. Background is a Kew Gardens resident who taped and in some instances stapled dozens of flyers to the trees in the neighborhood after someone stole his Trump signs from his lawn.

40 trees inspected with 11 damaged by staples. The flyers he has been posting have his contact info on them though PEP has yet to “catch him in the act”. Can a summons be issued anyway?” she asks.

“I’m consulting with legal and awaiting response to see if we can issue him with what we have,”   Falcon responds.

"In the past we have issued for every tree. Violation can be damage to vegetation 50 dollars each. It can also depend on what forestry tells about the damage. Let me find out if we can issue him at all.

After another request for information from the press office to Falcon loops in the agency’s legal department including Sherri Rosenberg, and the head of the tree restitution division Karen Dugan.  

“Sounds like summonses we can issue will not cover damage.  Karen - can your office follow up for restitution?,” Falcon asks in a September 2nd email.

Four days later (September 6)   Maeri Ferguson writes to Falcon and to the legal department.

“What can I tell this reporter about our plans to issue summonses?” she asks.

"Were hashing it out now. Let me get right back to you.” Falcon responds an hour later.

Gerguson writes that she had spoken to Parks Department lawyer Associate Counsel Sharmila Rampersaud and includes a draft she was planning on send to the reporter.

At that point a clearly irritated Karen Dugan weighs in.

“Am I reading this email chain correctly?   Are we charging this Kew Gardens gentleman with $41,000.00 worth of tree damage due to some staples being inserted in 11 trees?,” Dugan asks.

“Our office was told many years ago that staples do not cause harm to city trees, to the extent that we can’t seek monetary restitution as they do not penetrate deep enough to cause damage.” she continues. 

"We were told that it was impossible to affix an amount on such damages.  This amount seems extremely inconsistent with all the various types of damages we have received in the past years. 

I understand that the article might already have been written but as far as restitution is concerned, how did a figure of $41,000.00 worth of damage get calculated from staples?”   she asks.

"We have given summonses for staples in the past and it is also written into our contracts that staples cant be used. I agree with you that it is minimum… but using parks tree damage report format which calculates the dollar amount (tree size really influences this number)  the huge $$ amount is what you get. I believe Brooke (Parks Department Queens Forester Brooke Costanza) only used 1% as the damage and it still calculates to this number,”   Bonkowski writes twelve minutes later. 

Five minutes later Parks lawyer Sharmila Rampersaud throws in the towel on going after him for $ 41,000 in restitution fees due to the media spot light.

“Given all the Press at this time we are not proceeding with any restitution claims,”   Rampersaud writes. 

“I’m still in discussions with PEP (Eddy) Falcon about the investigation and proper documentation of this incident.

Please check-in with me before taking any action on this matter. It’s senisitive!”

A few weeks later however she has an apparent charge of heart in an September 20th email to Eddie Falcon restitution is stil on the table. 

“PEP in consultation with Queens Forestry can go ahead and issue these violations,” she says of the Environmental Control Board summonses.

"My understanding is that Forestry determined that of the 40 trees inspected, 11 were damaged by staples causing over $40k worth of damage.   Since there were 11 trees, if you issue 11 summons one for each tree, the charge should include language that 11 trees were damaged and at the end of the narration (1 of 11 tree), (2 of 11 tree), etc.  Both PEP and Forestry would need to attend hearing with all supporting pictures, evidence, etc.       

“In the event that a notice or sign is, in violation of this subdivision (c), posted or displayed on any property, including the perimeters of any park, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that any person whose name, telephone number, or other identifying information appears on such notice or sign has violated this subdivision, she writes siting  §1-05 Regulated Uses.  

“We should wait for the outcome of the Oath-ECB hearing before proceeding with a restitution claim,” Rampersaud writes.

Two days later Sgt. Oro’s immediate supervisor, Captain Andre Greenfield informs Deputy Inspector Falcon that the fliers were removed by the time Sgt. Oro got there.

“How would you like to proceed.?”  Greenfield asks.

"Yes.  Forestry removed them already a d (sic) damage was done on 11 trees,” Falcon responds. 

“Have him speak to Joe Bonkowski at forestry and find out each location of tree damage.”

Hours later Sgt. Oro responds and says that if Joe Bonkowski has written them in the past "THEY should continue" and "leave pep out of it."

He reminds that Forestry too can write tickets.

He agrees with Karen Dugan assessment and reiterates that PEP were told that in the past staples do not hurt trees. He also states that in the past officers were instructed they have to witness the violation being done at the time.

 "What changed," he asks.   

"one day we say have to witness at the time of violation being done. Next  its ok to do it twenty two days later and the violation is not even on the tree any more."
     
 “Joe trust us on this, DI Falcon has been working with the legal Dept,”  Edwin Rodriguez writes.

The next day, on September 22nd,  Edwin Falcon asks for an update.

"What's the update on this? Were summonses issued today?“   Falcon asks. 

A month later Sgt. Oro is told that Deputy Inspector Edwin Falcon filed disciplinary charges against him. 

On October 20th Oro was hauled into a disciplinary hearing and is still awaiting its decision. 

On October 22 Sgt. Oro finally writes,

 "Games must stop.” 

Read More:  

New York Times - November. 24, 2016 - By Corey Kilgannon

DNAinfo -  November 21, 2016 - By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

WABC - November 18, 2016 - By Jim Dolan

City tried hitting Queens man with $41G fine for stapling Trump signs on trees,
but officer wouldn’t issue ticket
New York Daily News - By Ginger Adams Otis











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