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Suffolk Closeup - At 95 Simon Perchik Still Cares About The Environment


By Karl Grossman

 “This is a real turning point in how we handle environmental cases in Suffolk County,” Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini declared last month with “Operation Pay Dirt” resulting in a special grand jury handing up a130-count indictment against 30 people and nine corporations. 

     Pleading guilty already has been Anthony Grazio of Smithtown who Mr. Sini’s office charged was the “ringleader” of the scheme of sending fill contaminated with toxic substances—including arsenic, lead and mercury—to 24 sites in Nassau and Suffolk. He was sentenced to two to four years in prison and ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution to victims.

Moreover, the grand jury has also just issued a 53-page report which stated that New York State needs new laws to prosecute illegal dumping and increased regulation for the disposal of hazardous material. It also called for making sand mining without a permit a crime.

Mr. Sini noted that he has made prosecuting environmental crimes a top priority of the Suffolk DA’s office and has hired prosecutors and investigators seasoned in such cases.

“Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful!” declares Simon Perchik, Suffolk’s first environmental prosecutor—indeed believed to be the first full-time environmental prosecutor in any DA’s office in the U.S.

He’s now 95, in retirement in The Springs in East Hampton Town, and remains as sharp as that proverbial tack.

It was 1975 and newly elected Suffolk DA Henry F. O’Brien hired Mr. Perchick who became head of an Environmental Crime Unit in the DA’s office.

Asked last week what is needed today to battle environmental polluters, Mr. Perchik was clear: “A will.”

In his five years as Suffolk environmental prosecutor, Mr. Perchik took the position that: “If polluters only have to pay civil penalties, that, they figure, is the cost of doing business. Facing criminal charges—that’s an entirely different thing.”

He was super-active in going after those who caused pollution including big institutions such as the Long Island Lighting Company and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“The problem I had,” said Mr. Perchik, “was government. My biggest enemies were the county health department and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.” Suffolk’s Department of Health Services was “only interested in problems involving paint chips.” It and the state DEC “tried to cut me down every inch of the way.”

“I got no help from either of these agencies.” 

 In contrast today: the DEC joined with the Suffolk DA’s office in “Operation Pay Dirt.”

 But back in his time in the DA’s office, said Mr. Perchik, not only wouldn’t the DEC cooperate with the DA’s office’s environmental efforts but actively fought his initiative to prevent pollution. “There was no good law on the books that would prevent the pollution,” said Mr. Perchik. “After the pollution occurs, you could arrest the guy but there was no requirement, for example, that a gasoline tank had to be inspected every year.”

When he tried to get the Suffolk Legislature to pass such a law, the regional DEC director “leaned on every legislator and the measure didn’t pass.”

Now, says Mr. Perchik, environmental action is “more a political issue” and governments on the local and state levels are “in favor of doing something.” 

He’s always been a fighter. During World War II, at 21, he piloted a B-17 bomber over Germany and elsewhere in Europe. His first environmental fight came before he moved to The Springs. He was living on Staten Island, practicing law in Manhattan, and was outraged to find that “when you got off the ferry” from Staten Island “you had to walk into clouds of fumes from idling buses.” He brought a lawsuit and “they stopped idling the buses.”

When Mr. O’Brien was elected DA and considered having an environmental prosecutor, Maurice Nadjari of Huntington, a former chief assistant Suffolk DA, suggested Mr. Perchik. Mr. O’Brien as an assistant Suffolk DA worked with Mr. Nadjari and also went with him when Mr. Nadjari was appointed a “super-prosecutor” to go after governmental corruption in New York City. They were friends starting with attending NYU Law School together.

Mr. Perchik is deeply involved in his passion besides environmental action: poetry. He is a widely published poet with his poems appearing in many books, journals and magazines including The New Yorker.

He has been described by Library Journal as “the most widely published unknown poet in America.” He should be better known for both his poetry and as a pioneering environmental prosecutor.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.   


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