DEC Announces Conviction of Manhattan Antique Merchant in Ivory Case


Landmark Gallery Skirted Law by Advertising Illegal Elephant Ivory as Legal Mammoth Ivory
The corporation that owns a Manhattan art and antique store pled guilty to selling illegal elephant ivory in New York State’s first Class D felony conviction since new ivory legislation was instituted in 2014, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced today.

The case started in April 2015, when DEC Environmental Conservation Officers (ECOs) received a tip that Landmark Gallery in Midtown Manhattan was selling hand-carved ivory pieces. An investigation revealed that Landmark was advertising the pieces as carved mammoth tusks.

Changes to New York State’s ivory law in 2014 made mammoth ivory illegal to sell without a permit. However dealers were given a two year sell-by period for liquidating existing stock before enforcement would take effect. This created a loophole that Landmark Gallery attempted to exploit.

"Restricting the market for ivory trade will help bring an end to the slaughtering of elephants and sends a clear message that we will not allow this immoral and criminal activity to continue in New York," said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. "The illegal ivory trade is an international issue and our state remains vigilant in its pursuit of this industry that is killing elephants at a rate of 96 animals per day. I applaud the work of our Environmental Conservation Officers, our state and federal partners and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office who advanced this case, and urge other states and nations to join us in working to protect this endangered species for generations to come."

ECOs from the Bureau of Environmental Crimes Investigation (BECI) unit purchased several pieces in the store and brought the items to the American Museum of Natural History for morphological analysis. Experts at the museum determined that the pieces were carved from elephant ivory.

On June 10, 2015, ECOs were joined by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents and New York State Taxation and Finance investigators in executing a search warrant at Landmark Gallery retail offices, which resulted in the seizure of 47 different elephant ivory articles valued at more than $250,000.

"This case exemplifies our strong partnership with New York and the DEC and our commitment to working together to hold accountable those who profit from the illegal sale of wildlife," said Honora Gordon, Northeast Region Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

On Wednesday, the corporation that owns Landmark Gallery – 128 West 58th St. LLC. – co-owned by brothers Behrooz Torkian and Hersel Torkian, was charged with two felony charges related to the illegal sale of elephant ivory, one count of Illegal Commercialization of Fish, Shellfish, Crustaceans and Wildlife, a class D felony, and one count of Illegal Commercialization of Fish, Shellfish, Crustaceans and Wildlife, a class E felony.

"New York is one of the largest markets for illegal ivory trade in the United States," said New York County District Attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. "Over the past few years, we’ve taken a hard-line approach to ending a devastating commercial practice that has resulted in the near extinction of an endangered species. In Manhattan, this has meant advocating for tougher laws and aggressively prosecuting those who sell illegal ivory. In order to protect the world’s last living elephants, ending the domestic ivory trade here at home as well as abroad must be our collective goal, and I encourage others to follow China’s recent decision to cease all ivory trading by the end of this year. I also thank Governor Andrew Cuomo and our partners at DEC for their continued commitment to this important issue."

Landmark pled guilty to the more serious D felony, admitting to violating New York State’s more restrictive ivory ban by illegally selling elephant ivory in excess of $25,000. Upon entering the plea, the corporation was ordered to forfeit 47 seized ivory items with an estimated value of more than $250,000, pay to New York State Department of Taxation and Finance $150,000 for New York State/New York City sales tax liability owed for the period of March 1, 2010 to May 31, 2015, and donate $50,000 to the conservation organization, Wildlife Tomorrow Fund, for use in the organization’s projects involving elephant population protection, anti-poaching efforts, and land conservation.

"This investigation uncovered multiple crimes, including the failure to pay tens of thousands of dollars in sales tax to both the city and the state – funds needed to pay for a variety of critical public services that benefit all New Yorkers," said New York State Acting Commissioner of Taxation and Finance Nonie Manion. "It’s a serious crime, and as this case shows, it won’t be tolerated."

Landmark was also ordered to pay $2,000 to DEC in restitution for state funds used in the case.

This case was investigated by DEC’s BECI officers Lt. Jesse Paluch, Lt. Liza Bobseine, and Inv. Eric Dowling and prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Adam Maltz of the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

The comprehensive ivory legislation, signed by Governor Cuomo in 2014, strengthened criminal and civil penalties for buyers and sellers whose actions endanger elephant populations worldwide.

Due to the demand for illegal wildlife products like ivory, poachers are slaughtering elephants and selling ivory for large profit. As a result of this illegal activity, some species of elephants and rhinos are threatened with extinction. New York is believed to be the largest market for ivory in the United States.

"Wild Tomorrow Fund highly commends the efforts of the investigative team at DEC and the New York County District Attorney’s office in curbing the illegal elephant ivory trade in New York," said John Steward, Founder and Executive Director of Wild Tomorrow Fund. "We also applaud the tougher ivory laws recently enacted by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and New York State. Because of their combined hard work and persistence, New York continues to lead the national effort to save the remaining wild elephant populations from extinction. Wildlife rangers, anti-poaching units and conservation managers in Africa continue to wage a battle to save the elephants where they live. This donated money will be used to fund wildlife law enforcement training, equipment and patrols in several African nations."

DEC reminds New Yorkers to report any environmental crime by calling DEC’s toll-free, 24-hour police dispatch at 1-844-DEC-ECOS (1-844-332-3267).


Whole Foods Got $12.9M Tax Credit For Building in Polluted Gowanus


DNAinfo.com, February 8th, 2017

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GOWANUS — Gourmet grocer Whole Foods earned $12.9 million in publicly funded tax credits for building a store on contaminated land it cleaned up next to the Gowanus Canal, according to recently released data.

The high-end store’s first foray into Brooklyn helped gentrify Gowanus and also helped the company’s bottom line through its participation in the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program, which gives developers taxpayer-funded financial incentives for cleaning up and then building on toxic sites.

Data released Jan. 31 by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which runs the Brownfield Cleanup Program, show that in 2016 Whole Foods received two tax credits totaling $12,743,942 for building the Gowanus store. The credits are based on the value of the developed property. Whole Foods spent $63,719,710 to construct the store, according to DEC records.

Whole Foods also received a $206,748 taxpayer-funded credit based on how much it cost to clean up the contaminated land where the store was built, according to state data. The cost of the cleanup wasn’t listed in state records.

The 2.1-acre site at Third Avenue and Third Street where the store now sits — complete with a rooftop farm and energy-efficient features — once housed a coal yard, junk yard, oil company and auto repair business, according to state data. The soil was laced with toxins such as xylene, cadmium, benzo(a)pyrene, mercury, benzene, lead and phenol, according to the DEC.

Whole Foods cleaned up the land under the Brownfield program and state inspectors declared the site safe for humans in 2012. The store opened in 2013.

A Whole Foods spokesman did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The Brownfield Cleanup Program was created in 2005 to spur the cleanup of severely contaminated properties that were off state tax rolls. Though well-intentioned, the program was "grossly broken" and often did more to line developers’ pockets than to improve the environment, said Travis Proulx, a spokesman for Environmental Advocates for New York, one of the groups that pushed for reforms to the program.

Prior to the reforms — Whole Food entered the program in 2010 — the program was structured so that developers could easily build in hot real estate markets where they would get a sizeable tax credit, because the credits were tied to the value of the developed property. Under the old rules, neighborhoods with severe contamination — often low-income areas — didn’t get as much attention from developers, Proulx said.

In 2015, the state legislature passed reforms to rein in the tax breaks developers can receive.

Proulx called the reforms a "great start," but added, "it’s going to be really important that the state and public watchdogs keep an eye on it so it doesn’t revert to old bad habits."

He noted that there are many developments still in the pipeline that entered the Brownfield program before the reforms and won’t be subject to the changes. A 2013 analysis by state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that taxpayers could be on the hook for an additional $3.1 billion in tax credits to developers in coming years.

Several properties in Gowanus have been cleaned up under the Brownfield program, or are in the process of being cleaned. They include the 365 Bond luxury rental apartments, the land surrounding the Green Building, and the property where Lavender Lake bar is.

Those cleanups are separate from the massive Superfund cleanup of the canal itself, which is being led by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. That cleanup started late last year with the removal of debris from the canal and is expected to take several years to complete.

Gowanus is well-known for its pollution, but the list of developments that have received tax credits under the Brownfield Cleanup Program includes several projects in areas generally not thought of as contaminated.

In 2016, the list included:

► The developer of the 42-story luxury rentals in Downtown Brooklyn at 66 Rockwell Place, previously known as 29 Flatbush Ave., got a $2 million credit. The project cost $20.3 million to build, according to DEC records.

► The developer of the rentals on the Williamsburg waterfront at 149 Kent Ave. received a $4.7 million credit. The development cost $16.8 million to build, according to DEC records.

► The developer of the condo tower at 23-01 42nd Rd. in Long Island City, Queens, got a $2.6 million credit. The project cost $9.5 million to build, according to DEC records.

► The developer of the The Sky, a 71-story building on the far West Side of Manhattan got at $6.5 million credit. The project cost $54.9 to build, according to the DEC.


Deer poachers are doing what government can’t


Staten Island Advance, February 8th, 2017

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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – Staten Island has a deer problem. There’s no arguing it. And it hasn’t gone away.

So now people are taking the law into their own hands and culling the herd themselves.

It’s the wrong approach. Deadly wrong. But it shows the depth of the problem. And it shows how government has failed to do the job when it comes to our deer population.

Authorities have said that there have been eight deer killed on the Island in the last three years, even though hunting is illegal in the five boroughs. But the Advance recently reported that dozens of illegal deer hunting incidents have been investigated here. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has gotten 27 tips on poaching since January 2014.

People are using guns or bows and arrows to take the deer down, often in public parkland. Tree stands and bait have been found. Serious stuff. Carcasses have been found with trophy antlers and heads removed. There have been reports of gunshots ringing out late at night and in the early morning hours. People have been seen going into the woods wearing camouflage and bearing weapons.

But the DEC has just two agents assigned to Staten Island. There used to be three. Staffing changes is the reason the agency gives for the disparity. So we have a deer population problem and a deer poaching problem, but we have less help for it from the state than we used to.

Carcasses have been discovered in Conference House Park and in Silver Lake Cemetery. They’ve been found in New Springville and Travis. In the Greenbelt and on Lighthouse Hill. Dumped by the side of the road. Dumped near someone’s home in Tottenville.

In all that time, just one poacher has been brought to justice on Staten Island.

We’re in a bit of a holding pattern when it comes to deer. We have this deer vasectomy program going on right now. We don’t know yet how effective that will be, so we have to give it time. And now we’ve got the problem of deer poaching.

The poaching problem is deadly serious. Armed people should not be wandering around the woods in populated areas looking for deer. It’s just ripe for tragedy. As was letting the deer population here explode without any decent restraint in the first place. It was like we were waiting for a someone to be injured in a car-deer collision before doing something. Thankfully it didn’t come to that.

But the city and state haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory when it comes to addressing the problem.

We had to practically get on our hands and knees before the city Department of Transportation would even put deer warning signs up on our roadways. And while the vasectomy program is at least an effort at control, there are still plenty of experts who contend that the city should have looked to sterilize the female population and not the male. The proof will be in the pudding.

And who can forget the city depositing an errant deer found in Brooklyn here on Staten Island? Or the DEC’s dumping of deer carcasses in the Mount Loretto Unique Area? And now we have one fewer DEC agent assigned here. Are we waiting for someone to be harmed by an errant bullet before stepping up enforcement?

Other areas of the state permit hunting during certain times of the year as a way to control the deer population. We’re not allowed to do that here. But in other areas, federal government sharpshooters have conducted controlled hunts, including at Civil War battlefields in Maryland.

There would probably be too much of an outcry for it to happen here, but it’s an option. It’s better than letting folks take matters into their own hands and put the rest of us at risk.


New York Finally Stops Killing LaGuardia Coyotes, Will Send One to Sanctuary


Care2.com, January 25th, 2017

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A small family of coyotes once lived peacefully on the outskirts of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. These were animals living in their natural habitat, bothering no one. Why, then, did the powers that be insist that they die?

If you’re surprised to hear that coyotes live in this area of New York State, don’t be. Coyotes have been living and reproducing in the Bronx since the 1990s. They now periodically roam about in other New York boroughs as well. Despite the fact that they’ve been longterm residents, when the public notices them, they telephone authorities in a panic, asking that the coyotes be removed.

It’s no surprise, then, that when a family of coyotes took up residence near LaGuardia Airport and Rikers Island, some people became nervous. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey determined it had to do something about that.

“The coyotes pose a threat to our employees and members of the community, including children who use nearby baseball fields,” the Port Authority told NBC 4 New York in November 2016. “Repeated efforts to force the coyotes to leave the area have not succeeded.”

The airport and Port Authority told the New York Post that the coyotes had “threatened” employees near an airport parking lot. One parking lot attendant said a coyote pup began following him as he walked to his booth. I guess “following” equates to a threat, though I don’t understand why.

This activity prompted the Port Authority to ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to step in and deal with the situation.

Not everyone thought those coyotes posed a threat, though. LaGuardia Airport bus driver Rose Ortega saw the coyotes frequently and knew better. She knew they were simply out looking for food — often because people would throw food trash on the ground at the parking lot. Coyotes are smart enough to connect the presence of people with the likelihood of abandoned food.

“When I whistle to them, they come to the fence,” Ortega told the New York Post. “All they want to do is play and eat.” Had the airport done a better job of policing the trash strewn about the lot, perhaps this problem could have been avoided.

This coyote family appeared to be the first mating couple known to have established a den outside the Bronx area. I use the past tense because, well, those coyotes are all dead now. All dead, except for one lucky pup.

The USDA set up cameras and traps to find and eradicate the coyotes. They did that job only too well. They captured and euthanized the parents and five young coyotes in the late fall of 2016. That left three orphaned pups — nicknamed Dumbo, Tony and Floppy — to fend for themselves. The USDA managed to kill two of those pups in mid-January 2016. Only Dumbo survives.

While all this was going on, activists from The Wild Dog Foundation tried hard to shoo the coyotes away from the traps in order to spare their lives. They lobbied the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to relocate the pups to a safer area so they wouldn’t have to be killed. NYSDEC, sadly, rejected the idea of relocation to Outpost No. 4 Wildlife Rehabilitation Services in Delanson, N.Y.

Then something better happened. NYSDEC changed its mind. The surviving pup, Dumbo, will be captured and sent to an unnamed sanctuary in western New York.

“When the remaining coyote ‘Dumbo’ is captured, he will be transported to the sanctuary without burdening the taxpayers of New York,” announced New York State Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright. “Animals do not have a voice, and it is up to us to identify humane ways to deal with coexisting in nature.”

Indeed. The coyote family was just trying to survive as humankind pressed ever more deeply into their shrinking domain. What was the problem, then? Why did they have to die? The short answer is — they didn’t.

“These coyotes never were aggressive to anybody. They never approached anybody,” the Wild Dog Foundation’s Frank Vincenti told the New York Daily News. “This was a debacle. This was horrific.”

We can be grateful Dumbo got some measure of kindness out of New York State. It’s a shame that Dumbo’s entire family had to be exterminated from land they occupied before the airport parking lot ever existed. That’s what humankind does. We need to do a lot less of it.

We share the earth with these animals. We should share. We should not dominate.


Trio of coyotes that hang around LaGuardia Airport may avoid ugly deaths with move to upstate sanctuary


New York Daily News, January 13th, 2017

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Three wily coyotes who have been on the run near LaGuardia Airport might have received a stay of execution.

An upstate sanctuary that specializes in large carnivores has agreed to take them in, which could spare the pups the unfortunate end their parents and siblings came to in November. Those five coyotes were caught and killed after the Port Authority — which controls the airport — claimed the animals posed a risk to workers and locals.

Their deaths galvanized some animal rights advocates, who vowed to find them a home.

Philanthropist Jean Shafiroff had initially offered to pay for them to be trapped and released to a less urban area, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation said it was against the rules to move them to another spot.

However, the DEC said it would consider relocating the remaining coyotes — which went into hiding after their family members were caught and killed — if an appropriate sanctuary was found.

Shafiroff earlier this month secured a spot for them at Outpost No. 4 Wildlife Rehabilitation Services in Delanson, about 200 miles north of the city.

Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright has asked the DEC to quickly assess and approve the sanctuary so that if the coyotes are caught, they can be sent upstate. “Once the coyotes are captured, our office can immediately arrange for the same day transportation … to the facility,” she wrote.

The trip upstate would be funded privately, and not by taxpayers, she said.

A DEC spokesman said the agency is reviewing the proposal.

The Port Authority also said it will consider the sanctuary.

Frank Vincente of the Wild Dog Foundation, which has been working to save the coyotes, said the state should act quickly so the beasts have a place to go if they’re caught.

But he thinks that’s a big if.

“These three are pretty wily,” he said.

A one-antlered deer that was supposed to be moved to an upstate sanctuary died of stress after waiting for transport in December, but wildlife experts believe coyotes have better chances of survival in those circumstances because they are more durable.


Thousands of PCB-contaminated lighting fixtures finally out of NYC schools


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 6th, 2017

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Here’s some good news for the city’s children: A multi-year effort to replace crumbling lighting fixtures containing toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in hundreds of public schools — many in Brooklyn — has been almost 100 percent accomplished.

Lighting ballasts and caulking installed between 1950 and 1978 contained the now-banned PCBs. The substance has been linked to cancer, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive and immune disorders.

Yet thousands of the old fixtures remained, crumbling and dripping, in the city’s classrooms.

The removal of the PCB-containing fixtures is “extremely important,” Rachel Spector, director of the Environmental Justice Program for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday.

“It’s an important accomplishment which removes the most acute source of PCBs. Children were having light fixtures leaking PCBs onto their desks,” she said.

Spector added that the replacement of the old units with new, high-efficiency fixtures also helps the city “achieve their goal of sustainability.”

Bloomberg administration downplayed threat

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the city learned that PCBs were leaking from the fixtures when the EPA investigated PCB-containing caulk used to seal windows in schools.

As the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 2011, the EPA found PCBs actively leaking in 93 percent of examined New York City schools, with about half of the contaminated schools in Brooklyn. Among these were P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights; P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights; P.S. 15 in Red Hook; Arts & Letters in Fort Greene; P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill; P.S. 146 in Carroll Gardens; I.S. 98 Bay Academy in Bay Ridge; M.S. 51 in Park Slope; and the Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies.

The Bloomberg administration, however, downplayed the health threat to children from the PCBs, and set a 10-year timeline to remove the fixtures. Parents and elected officials became increasingly concerned after the city, in some cases, refused to admit that fixtures were dripping the toxic brew.

In a series of articles on this topic from 2011 through 2013, this newspaper publicized the worries of parents, including those at Brooklyn’s P.S. 146 Brooklyn New School and M.S. 448 Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies. At these schools, families were told by the city that their lighting fixtures contained no visible leaks — even after parents submitted photos of clearly-dripping fixtures.

After an outcry by NY Communities for Change, NYLPI, state Sen. Daniel Squadron, Councilmember Brad Lander, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, then-District Leader Jo Anne Simon — and publication of the photos in this paper — the Department of Education (DOE) conducted another walkthrough and pushed these schools to the top of the priority list.

City forced to shorten timeline after lawsuit

NYLPI and the law firm White & Case brought a lawsuit against the city in 2011, representing the New York Communities for Change, a coalition of low and middle-income families. The city filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In March 2013, however, a federal judge ruled against the city’s motion, criticizing the city’s "foot-dragging.”

In a settlement, the city agreed to cut in half its 10-year timeline. The settlement required the city to remove all PCB lighting fixtures by the end of 2016, a goal that has been essentially met.

“We’re still in the process of working with the city to make sure they’ve taken care of all the work,” Spector said. Some residue from the leaking fixtures still remains, she said, and that needs to be cleaned up.

“A number of schools have been newly identified as having some residue. I’m confidant they’re going to do it,” Spector said.

PCBs also remain in the window caulking of more than 700 schools, Spector cautioned.

“We still don’t fully know how widespread the existence of PCBs are and whether children and teachers are being exposed to dangerous levels,” she said. “The EPA and the city are working on a long-term plan — but they’re not going to remove all the caulking. We are calling on the city to take the most protective approach.”

Since PCBs travel through the air from caulk in a process known as off-gassing, NYLPI is pushing for air testing and the provision of proper ventilation in schools.

While NYLPI and the EPA have praised the city for following through with its aggressive cleanup, Spector points out that it took a lawsuit to make the city do the right thing.

“Without the lawsuit we filed, I don’t believe we would be anywhere near this point,” she said.


State admits to unsanctioned graveyard for deer killed by cars


New York Post, January 10th, 2017

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The state set up an unsanctioned graveyard where it secretly dumped the bodies of dead deer stuck by cars in Staten Island, according to a report Friday.

At least three of the furry corpses — some of them headless — were found alongside piles of bones and sculls next to a highway in Mount Loretto Unique Area park, the Staten Island Advance reported.

“There were bones everywhere. I started to get a little freaked out,” said the aptly-named wildlife photographer, Tom Puma, who made the disturbing discovery.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation later admitted to The Post that it dumped the animal carcasses in the creepy unauthorized grave.

By contrast, Lefty — the beloved Harlem buck who died during a feud between Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo — met a more honorable fate when the city hired a vendor to burn his body last month, city officials said.

On Dec. 30, Puma of Tompkinsville stumbled onto the chilling state-run boneyard, he told the Staten Island Advance.

“There was a deer carcass, maybe 8 feet away from me… I turned around and saw another one, and then maybe another 10 feet away there was another one,” he said.

He added, ”I thought somebody was either coming in there and killing them or maybe they all were together and ate something that poisoned them.”

But he soon learned the state was responsible for the eerie and unsanitary sight.

The deer were improperly disposed of by staffers from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, an official said.

“In this instance, DEC staff deposited deer remains in a remote area of Mount Loretto Unique Area and did not follow proper agency procedures for burial,” DEC spokesman Sean Mahar told The Post.

“The deer had died from natural causes on state property or from being hit by vehicles, and have been buried. DEC staff have been reminded about the proper disposal procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”

The animals are scheduled to be buried properly later this week, he said.

Dead deer are supposed to be buried two feet under the ground, incinerated or disposed in landfills to prevent water contamination, according to the DEC.

Some neighbors were stunned to learn about the dead animals in the park. “I run over there in the summer — that’s gross,” Melissa Esposito, 47, of Tottenville.

Lefty the one-antlered buck died from stress while in captivity at a Harlem Animal Care and Control center — as de Blasio and Cuomo fought over whether to euthanize him or free him upstate — on Dec. 16.

The young buck had swam to Manhattan in search of a mate.