February 22, 2007

Groton man appeals dismissal of his lawsuit against Cornell U.


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
John Beck, of Groton, stands in front of his former place of employment, the Cornell University Animal Science Teaching and Research Center on Cornell Lane in Harford. Beck was fired by Cornell over his feeding of the feral cats. His case is scheduled to be heard  in May before the State Supreme Court Appellate Division.

Staff Reporter

A Groton man who claims he was fired from Cornell University for refusing to “break the law” will have his case heard before the State Supreme Court Appellate Division in early May.
He is asking for $20 million in damages.
John Beck, 68, of 622 Champlain Road, says he was fired in the summer of 2003 from the Animal Science Teaching and Research Center in Hartford, a Cornell owned farm, for feeding feral cats at the barn where he worked.
Beck claims that under the state Agriculture and Market Law, Sect. 353 — Overdriving, Torturing and Injuring Animals; Failure to Provide Proper Food and Sustenance — he and the university were obligated to feed the cats.
“They ordered me to commit a crime,” he said, citing the law.
The law reads in part, “Any person who … deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink … is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Beck’s case was heard in state Supreme Court in Tompkins County in July, where Justice Robert Mulvey dismissed it.
“Although the plaintiff has specifically alleged that the defendant terminated his employment, ‘for spite and without justification,’ the factual allegation elsewhere in the Complaint and in his affidavit confirm that he knowingly defied a lawful directive from his supervisor,” Mulvey wrote. “The facts negate his allegation that the termination was without justification.”
Beck, who worked for the university on and off for 10 years, is appealing Mulvey’s decision, maintaining that Cornell owned the cats.
He has lobbied his case in numerous paid articles in the Freeville Shopper and several public access TV shows. He says he has also contacted numerous news media outlets, several Ivy League presidents and written letters to the Pope.
“This is the worst case of animal abuse in the history of the United States of America because of what they did to starve the animals,” he said.
Although lawyers representing Cornell University declined to comment on the case, a sworn affidavit from Thomas Eddy, Beck’s former supervisor, says that Cornell did not own the cats and had no obligations to them.
“In July 2003, based on their assessment that the university could not legitimately assume ownership responsibility for the feral cats living at the T&R Center, and an assessment that the cats posed a health risk to the research animals and to employees, the Cornell faculty members who oversee the operations at the T&R Center asked the employees at the T&R Center, including plaintiff, not to feed the feral cats,” he said. “These feral cats defined as those that while on university property, were not owned by the university. In my experience, many of the cats found their way to the Cornell facility after being abandoned by their owners.”
Beck says copies of rabies vaccinations dated in May 2003, which lists Cornell as the owner, proves the university owned the cats.
“Tom Eddy is saying they aren’t Cornell’s cats,” he said. “Everybody fed the cats. Cornell bought food for them.”
Eddy declined to comment on Wednesday.
In addition to the rabies paperwork that he plans to present to the appellate court, Beck says he also has sworn affidavits from four people he worked with at the barns. All four signed documents stating they fed the cats and that they were then ordered to quit feeding the cats. They all also said they witnessed cats die of starvation at the facility.
Although Beck is asking for a large sum of money for damages, and he says he suffered as a result of the firing, he said the suit is not about financial gain.
“Why would you order anyone to starve any animal?” he said. “Cats died …cats died. That’s all I can say is cats died.”



State panel: Cuyler town justice should be removed

Staff Reporter

CUYLER — The state Commission on Judicial Conduct is recommending the Court of Appeals remove a local town justice from office for improperly dismissing cases and then lying to the commission during its investigation.
According to a decision released Wednesday, the commission recommends that Jean Marshall, 56, of 4710 State Route 13, be removed as the Cuyler town justice for prematurely dismissing four 2003 cases, lying under oath and altering her court records.
The commission, which is made up of six appointed members, found that Marshall improperly adjourned court dates and then dismissed cases based on out-of-court conversations she had with the defendants. The commission said Marshall, who is not a lawyer, then lied under oath about her actions and altered her court calendars with correction fluid to cover them up.
“The commission concluded that the judge’s ‘deception and dishonesty are exponentially worse than the original misconduct she attempted to conceal’ and ‘demonstrate convincingly that she is unfit to serve as a judge,’” the commission said in a news release announcing the recommendation.
In December 2003, Marshall had four cases before her, in which two town residents had been ticketed for having unregistered vehicles in their driveways and two others built structures on their property without a permit.
Marshall dismissed all four of the cases without motions from the defense and without notifying the prosecution after having out-of-court conversations with the defendants about the cases, the commission said.
“Motivated by her personal disagreement with the enforcement, she simply chose to dismiss the charges,” Raoul Lionel Felder, chair of the commission, said in the decision.
According to the decision, Marshall said she dismissed the cases because she believed “only poor people” were being ticketed. The decision states that she told the town’s attorney, Victoria Monty, that she would reconsider her decision when “everybody is treated the same in this town.”
“Her Joan of Arc indignation and her reckless actions may serve her well with some unknown constituency, but they have no place in the mind and actions of a judge who must be fair to individual litigants,” attorney Richard D. Emery wrote in the decision. “To make matters worse, she high-handedly dismissed cases based on the uncorroborated information that she received ex-parte and she never informed the prosecutors to give them a chance to protest.”
Robert Tembeckjian, spokesman for the commission, said Wednesday that Marshall will remain in her position until March 15, which is her deadline to file an appeal. If Marshall does not file an appeal, the Court of Appeals could issue an order of removal.
“It is not effective immediately,” he said of the removal. “If she does seek to appeal, the court has the power to suspend her powers while the appeal is processed.”
Tembeckjian said that although the commission did not release its recommendation until Wednesday, Marshall was notified on Feb. 15. He said that as of Wednesday night, Marshall had not filed for an appeal, adding that the appeals process could take anywhere from four to six months.
Town Supervisor Steven Breed said the state has not notified him of the recommendation and that if the state does remove Marshall, he will reappoint her.
“She is going to appeal,” he said. “When they remove her, we’re going to reappoint her. That will give the state something to think about.”
Marshall, a Democrat who has been in office since 1999, could not be reached by phone. Breed said Marshall would not speak with the Cortland Standard.
Her attorney, Lawrence Knickerbocker, did not return phone calls seeking comment about a possible appeal.
Tembeckjian said Breed does not have the power to reappoint Marshall if she is removed by the Court of Appeals.
“When you’re removed from office in New York state, you cannot be a judge again,” he said.
This is the 135th time the commission has made a recommendation for removal in its 30 years of existence.
Last year, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye proposed numerous reforms to improve local justice courts, including more training and supervision of judges. Marshall’s conduct, Felder said, “underscores the need for greater training and other reforms.”
While part of the state court system, the justice courts are funded and administered by their respective towns and villages. They collected more than $210 million last year in fines, fees and surcharges. They handle criminal and civil cases, including felony arraignments. Some 72 percent of 2,000 justices are not lawyers. The state constitution does not require it.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.


C’ville will hold new hearing on zoning changes

Staff Reporter

CORTLANDVILLE — Proposed amendments to the town’s zoning ordinance will undergo yet another public hearing since the county Planning Board forwarded some revisions that it would like to see included in the document.
At the Town Board’s regular meeting Wednesday evening, town attorney John Folmer asked for the public hearing to be scheduled for March 21, and the board complied. The revised document will be posted on the town’s Web site some time after Feb. 28.
Folmer said the county’s recommendations for the zoning text amendments are “reasonable and appropriate,” and involve changing some definitions in the document, green space requirements for existing buildings and lot coverage requirements.
The minimum lot size would also be changed from 2 acres to 2.4 acres, out of consideration for the Cortland County Health Department’s newly revised sanitary code for minimum residential building lot size requirements.
The Town Board had held a public hearing for the zoning text amendments on Feb. 8, following a public hearing on Feb. 7 regarding Wal-Mart’s application for a zoning change for its proposed Supercenter on Route 13.
Although the town has 30 days from the day of the public hearing to make a determination about Wal-Mart’s proposal, that decision was put off until a rescheduled Town Board meeting on March 6.
Board member Ron Rocco had asked the town’s engineering firm, Clough Harbour & Associates, to review the impact on the town and city of Cortland’s well recharge areas if the Wal-Mart Supercenter is built on the 33.7-acre lot, formerly used as a polo field.
The document was accepted by the Town Board at the meeting, and was signed by Clough Harbour’s principal, Christopher Burns.
It describes the flow of groundwater in the town, and states that the groundwater underneath the proposed Supercenter site does not flow toward any of the town’s recharge areas for its municipal water supply wells, but is instead captured in a well that is meant to capture contaminants from the former Smith Corona industrial site.
The engineering firm determined that, “While it is not possible to eliminate all the risks to the aquifer, the Findings Statement (in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act) has indicated that the Applicant has minimized these risks to the greatest extent practical.”
Clough Harbour noted the project’s stormwater treatment and management plans, the use of pesticides or herbicides and the minimization of the use of salt.
“These monitoring and mitigation measures demonstrate the Applicant’s intent to minimize potential risks to the aquifer beneath the proposed Wal-Mart site,” Clough Harbour concluded.
The review had involved the town’s wellhead protection plan, a fact sheet about the aquifer and groundwater flow generated by the U.S. Geological Survey and Department of the Interior, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project, prepared by Wal-Mart’s engineers in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act.


New local court complete

Staff Reporter

CORTLANDVILLE — The expansion phase of the $1.6 million Town Hall expansion and renovation project has been completed, and the Town Board held its first meeting in the new court facility at 3577 Terrace Road Wednesday evening.
The 5,000-square-foot addition of a new town court facility to the original 5,000-square-foot Raymond G. Thorpe Municipal Building began in September, and Town Supervisor Dick Tupper said he expects the project to be completed by the end of May.
The town court moved out of its former location in the Town Hall to its new courtroom, complete with benches for the attendees and a sound system, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Tupper said. The offices of the town supervisor and the bookkeeper have been temporarily relocated to conference rooms in the new town court facility, and the code officer has moved to the former Cortland Glass building nearby on Route 13.
Town Attorney John Folmer said the town is paying $500 a month to rent the space for Code Officer Bruce Weber.
The town engineer is in temporary quarters in the water garage nearby, Tupper said.
Much of the former court and the town offices in the rear of the original Town Hall building have been stripped down to the bare walls, and Tupper said asbestos abatement would begin next week.
The second phase of the project, which involves turning the former town court facilities into the town clerk’s office, should begin next week and take about two months.
The third phase of the project will transform the front half of the original building, and will be the office space for most of the town’s departments.
“We started in September, so if we’re finished in May, I’d say we did a pretty good job,” Tupper said.