EAST CLEVELAND, OH – Ex-East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton convinced then council vice president Brandon King and president Thomas Wheeler in 2014 to switch the times of a council meeting from 6:30 p.m. until 1 p.m. when other members of the legislative authority and the public were at work.
The trio wanted to sell Christine Beynon and George Michael Riley landbank land at 1705 Noble Road to redevelop for $150,000. Norton, Wheeler and King claimed the changed times and urgency was required to meet payroll.
About two months later Norton – without council approval – signed the mercury-contaminated property’s title over to Beynon’s company. Riley then scrapped the steel from the remaining buildings left there from General Electric’s days of manufacturing lights on it and they, not the city, pocketed the profits.
East Cleveland’s landbank ordinance required properties to return to the city if terms weren’t met within two years, but Norton’s motivation as mayor was not to enforce it. After Riley’s scrapping enterprise stopped he converted to operating an alleged “recycling facility” behind residential homes instead of readying it for redevelopment as council’s ordinance required Norton to demand he and Beynon obey.
Beynon and Riley’s so-called recycling facility became a cash cow stock pile as the mounds of debris grew 5- stories over the next nearly three years. During that time the late Jerry Strothers and Noble Road resident Harry Drummonds watched Pete & Pete trucks help fill the place with waste from its container clients.
The legislation East Cleveland city council approved in April 2014 did not allow Riley to operate a landfill behind residential homes between Collinwood High School and stadium and East Cleveland’s Shaw High School. The mercury-contaminated property that sat less than 500 feet from the Helen S.Brown senior high rise and Apex charter school in Christ the King once belonged to General Electric where its employees manufactured lights for its lighting division.
A GE official admitted to this writer in 2017 that the global corporation has a “cradle to the grave” Resource Conservation Recovery Act duty to clean up its deadly mercury mess. It won’t, he said, unless they’re forced into it by a judge.
A kickback cash cow was created
Beynon and Riley were supposed to pay the city $150,000 for the property. Sources estimate the two earned over $1 million scrapping the steel structures at the old GE site before they opened it to Pete & Pete and the Cuyahoga County landbank’s homes for illegal dumping.
Riley set up RCI and A&W as demolition companies to bid on demolishing county landbank homes. It was a move that made his companies and Pete & Pete the only Noble Road dumpers. A third Riley company, Red Rock, never dumped at Noble Road after Beynon obtained a restraining order against him after a very emotional argument.
The “split” that made the dump work for Riley, and that made Pete & Pete’s profits grow, are the rates Beynon and her partner charged the construction debris rolloff company.
Average landfill rates per yard were around $12 and up for construction and demolition materials. Over $18 a yard for the asbestos-containing material Rokakis and Frangos knew Riley was dumping behind residential homes on Noble Road. Riley and Beynon charged between $7 and $7.95 a yard to Pete & Pete.
The landfill pricing Rokakis and Frangos accepted from Riley in his “barely filled out” demolition bids was included in his flate rate. Normal landbank bids separated costs for disposalf fees, backfill, etc. A former Riley worker said landbank officials accepted his bids as in their incomplete format.
The difference between Riley’s $7 to $7.95 per cubic yard rate, and the $12 to $18 per cubic yard commercial rates at sites like Boyas or Kurtz, created a minimum of a $5 per cubic yard pool of potential “kickback” cash. About seven 40-yard rolloffs are needed to take construction debris from a 2000 square foot home to a landfill. Riley was saving Pete & Pete “potentially” $200 per rolloff pt $1400 per demolished home. Riley’s own demolition landfill costs in his invoices to the county landbank could be any rate he charged.
For Riley his landbank demolition contracts created a relationship between him and Frangos. One former Riley worker told EJBNEWS they noticed his door would close and he’d receive that particular landbank official’s calls off speaker phone.
Calls the worker said from landbank officials Cheryl Stephens and Diedre Lightning-Whitted were usually on speaker phone. One former worker said he’d “clown” them by cussing them out while they talked and he was holding the mute button. The former Riley employee wondered why Pete & Pete faces no criminal charges for the illegal dumping they did at Noble Road and the misery they created.
Council records reveal Norton originally informed city legislators how Riley was going to operate a recycling facility. The city’s chief law enforcement officer ignored his duty to tell them the site’s location violated federal EPA laws.
Norton’s ex-girlfriend told a city newsletter called the East Cleveland Tattler how he gave her $700 a week off his $40,000 a year salary from the bags of cash he allegedly got from Riley’s profits off Pete & Pete and Rokakis’ growing and life-threatening dump piles. She sent the newsletter’s editor a picture Norton took of his penis from the bedroom he shared with his now ex-wife.
26 city of Cleveland and Ohio EPA inspections occurred at the site between 2014 and 2016 and no inspector tested the dust they identified 26 time to learn its deadly ingredients may have contributed to non-smoker Barbara Garner’s lung cancer death. Drummond told this writer city and EPA inspectors would visit Riley in his office for a few minutes and leave.
It wasn’t until this writer asked Industrial Hygenist Jim Riffle to test Drummond’s home for the dust it contained that the presence of asbestos and other dangerous particulate matter and gases from the construction debris Pete & Pete and Riley had dumped behind residential homes was verified. Ohio EPA officials shut Beynon down immediately.
Not facing any “known” civil or criminal responsibility for the illegal debris they left behind East Cleveland homes that Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish spent millions in public funds to clean up, Pete Ristagno, Sr. and his son, Pete, Jr. “appear” to have invested the money they saved with their deadly and illegal dumping on the Boyas landfill purchase in July 2019.
The sale wasn’t publicized until July 29. But before the deal closed a Boyas employee source said Mike Boyas authorized the Ristagno’s to manage the facility in May 2019 pending negotiations.
Allegations of Ristagno price-fixing
A review of Pete Ristagno’s Facebook and Twitter pages for all of 2019 makes no reference of a “pending” Boyas landfill and excavation acquisition. The actual purchase was announced in a news release on July 15th by the firm that handled the deal between the two companies … Brown Gibbons & Lang. Pete Ristagno announced it on his Twitter page on July 29th. There were no shared details about the acquisition other than a “Nothing we can’t handle” advertisement and praise from Pete, Jr’s. “proud of her son in law” mother in law.
The “Ristagno -Boyas Excavating acquisition” was not smooth or publicly-announced by either side. Mike Boyas’ business reputation with his customers had been impeccable, orderly and federal law compliant. Boyas simply sold a business that bore his family surname to the Ristagno’s.
Truckers learned of the pending sale when they showed up to dump in May and were told “rates” had increased under new management. For some it meant they were out of the trucking business because of the Ristagno’s higher pricing. A former Riley worker said he would cite ridiculous per tonnage costs to discourage other dumpers from interfering what he’d set up for himself and Pete & Pete.
Issues with weights and source-site to disposal-site documents required by the EPA and for customer accounts were not connected to Boyas’ relationship with his customers. Haulers were emailed or faxed copies of dump rates in advance. Valued customers were given time to pay. A debtor was taken to civil court.
Local trucking company owners initially grumbled that the Ristagno’s had doubled the rates “like gangsters” until a further inspection of dump tickets revealed something even more insidious at least for one. Upon examination of the $27,000 bill Pete Jr. was calling to collect on the trucking company owner learned the dump ticket weights exceeded each truck’s capacity and load limits.
What the company owner saw in the invoices, and how Pete, Jr. tried to collect, made the amounts owed even more racketeering-like. When a Boyas official called about the invoice the trucker learned from “Rocky” that Pete Jr. was not supposed to be collecting debts occurred while the company was still under Boyas’ control.
It’s the way Pete Jr. was seeking to collect debts from the trucking company owner, however, that brought the era of organized crime back to an industry that had eliminated it.
Pete Jr’s illegal debt collection scheme using a Valley View sergeant
For about 30 days Pete Jr. blew up the cell phone of the trucking company owner who’d been a Boyas client to collect on a $27,000 debt the company may have owed Boyas. The trucker’s 10-year reputation with Boyas was excellent. Invoices had exceeded $80,000 and been paid without controversy between them.
The trucking company owner described calls from Pete Jr. as intrusively-aggressive. But it was the text that came after a Pete Jr. call on August 27, 2019 that angered the company’s owner.
“Make sure you pick up when the police call,” Pete Jr’s text read.
The next morning on August 28, 2019 a message was left on the trucking company owner’s voice mail from a Valley View police sergeant who sought to conceal it by calling from a number associated with the city’s recreation department.
Valley View police chief David Rini investigated after being ordered to do so by Mayor Jerry Piasecki and left a message the next day apologizing to the company owner. Valley View police are not Pete & Pete’s civil debt collectors. The civil service-tested police supervising sergeant made a “mistake.”
During the company owner’s interactions with Ristagno over the debt collection dispute a statement was obtained from a driver Pete Jr. approached at a job site with disparaging information about the company’s owner. The data could have only come from a law enforcement officer’s search of the FBI’s NCIC criminal records history database.
The thought of a Valley View police sergeant searching the restricted database to share information from it with Ristagno concerned the company owner about the Ristagno’s seemingly corrupt business practices even more.
Under Ohio law unauthorized NCIC and LEADS searches violates R.C. 2913.04(C) and (D) as 5th degree felonies. The use of a law enforcement officer as well as the possible use of the FBI’s law enforcement tool created a huge criminal risk for the police sergeant as Pete Jr’s seemingly personal “cop debt collector.”
One question Piasecki and any future criminal investigators should ask is how Pete Jr. had enough influence to exert that type of control over a civil service trained municipal police sergeant whose act to conceal his threatening debt collection call implies he knew better?
Despite the fact that Pete Jr’s calls ended, the company owner considers the increased weights on the invoices and the way he tried to collect on them as criminal. Options are being explored with the owner’s attorney.
[DISCLOSURE: This writer is East Cleveland’s former mayor and a past source of information for agents of the U.S. Department of Treasury who are investigating Cuyahoga officials connected to the county landbank and illegal dumping. The trucking company owner and this writer are friends. During business interactions with state and municipal government agencies on a public contract we agreed that discoveries like this and others were matters of public concern and reported them to Mayor Jerry Piasecki and other public officials. The feature photo of Pete Ristagno Sr. and Jr. is from Pete & Pete’s social media page; and is “fairly used” pursuant to 17 U.S.C. 107 for comment, news reporting, education, scholarship and research].