Crossridge Landfill issues get their day in court, hit snag
STEUBENVILLE — The state of Ohio’s efforts to hold Crossridge Landfill owner Joe Scugoza accountable for alleged environmental violations hit a roadblock Tuesday after the attorney for one defendant had to step aside and another fell ill.
But in the hour before the morning’s contentious proceedings ground to a halt, visiting Judge Richard McMonagle declined to unfreeze assets so attorneys for the four defendants could be paid, nixed the idea of imposing sanctions and ordering the state to pay $2,000 in attorney fees for Scugoza’s three half-brothers after they “were dragged into the case” following the death of their mother and refused to close the Jefferson County Common Pleas courtroom to the media.
“While I’m sympathetic to the issue of getting ahold of attorney fees, I practiced myself, but on the other hand, I don’t think it’s my obligation to be the collections agency for attorneys who could sue their clients if they need to for attorney fees,” McMonagle said at the start of the morning’s proceedings.
Attorneys battled over whether the state’s motions to freeze assets of parties who weren’t necessarily party to the original complaint, after it rested its case last year in a contempt suit, could be or should be enforced.
“These are two separate issues,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Meyer told McMonagle. “Last year, the state rested on charges of contempt. The motion to freeze assets is a separate issue. The state seeks to discover information and submit testimony based on the asset freeze.”
Attorney Jennie Ferguson, representing Delores Russell-Scugoza, Phoenix Scrap Metals and Phoenix Leasing, argued the state was “attempting to argue that a motion to free assets of non-parties is a separate issue of contempt” and said it’s impermissible under Ohio law.
“There has been no service of complaint, no process of service. They’re not a party to the underlying complaint and there’s not a private action for contempt in which you can then enjoin their assets,” Ferguson noted.
“You should not be able to present evidence on an issue that has no legal premise under Ohio law … you cannot issue an injunction and enjoin property of non-parties. This court doesn’t have jurisdiction.”
Attorney Piero Cozza, who represented the late Barbara Scugoza, pointed out her will has been admitted to probate, though it’s being challenged by “some of Barbara’s heirs.”
“That throws a monkey wrench into what we’ve got here,” McMonagle said.
“I’m not sure it does,” Cozza replied. “As Ferguson stated, the state is putting the cart before the horse.”
“In my mind, this (was) an easy collection case. Now you have an estate instead of the person herself,” McMonagle said.
“We do not have a judgment against Barbara Scugoza,” Cozza rejoined. “It’s not a collection case until we get a judgment.”
“What we don’t want is any live testimony, any document, any attempt to insert additional information when they have closed their case,” Ferguson interjected. “They can clearly argue rebuttal after we have presented our case. But they should not be allowed by this court to argue for something in which the court does not have jurisdiction (so) they can try to circumvent (the rules) and try to get additional evidence in.”
McMonagle pointed out Joseph Scugoza already had been found in contempt.
“I am not arguing (he) is not a judgment debtor, that they don’t have a right to pursue Joseph Scugoza in collection actions,” Ferguson replied. “But what they’re attempting to do is enjoin non-party’s assets, which is not permitted.”
“What they are trying to do is dig around and try to see what his interests are,” McMonagle noted.
Meyer, meanwhile, contends Joseph Scugoza continues to hide his assets in accounts controlled by trusted family members “to evade his court-ordered obligations.”
“The state’s motion to freeze assets is attempting to prevent (him from moving) assets that should have been used to clean up a landfill that’s doing ongoing environmental harm in this community,” Meyer said. “I understand why they don’t want you to hear evidence. I think it’s pertinent for the court to hear why those assets should be frozen, what the money should have been used for and why it’s necessary to continue that into the future.”
Since 2013, the state maintains Joseph Scugoza has “made a concerted effort to move assets” into his wife and his late mother’s name. Assistant Attorney General Amber Hertlein told the judge they’ve compiled “significant evidence” assets are being pumped into his wife’s company, as well as revenue from oil and gas easements across Crossridge itself being directed into accounts controlled by Scugoza’s wife and late mother.
“The state is trying to gloss over and confuse the issue,” Ferguson charged. “What they’re trying to assert is they have somehow magically become a party. They don’t get to just keep reopening their case.”
“Joe Scugoza siphoning assets to companies in control of his wife and mother, it’s absolutely proper for the court to consider both the old evidence and the new evidence since we were last here a year ago,” Meyers countered. “If we want to get to the truth, all we need to do is hear the evidence. That’s what we’re asking.”
Cozza complained that Barbara Scugoza’s assets are in limbo, “waiting to be probated. There’s no new evidence they can possibly offer to prove Joseph Scugoza is siphoning assets to his mother,” prompting Meyers to point out that as her personal lawyer, Cozza should not now be representing her estate since he, too, has a claim against the estate.
Cozza did step aside.
Attorney Steven Stickles, who has been representing Joseph Scugoza, said the court needs to “stop this abandonment of all legal procedure and precedence. We need to follow exactly how the law works.”
He also protested the presence of reporters in the courtroom, saying local rules require a request be submitted in writing in advance and approved by all parties, “then the court may allow” media to cover the proceedings.
“None of those things were done,” he said.
“I’m not going to close the courtroom to the media, ever, for any reason,” McMonagle replied. “I don’t care what it is. If you want to recess this thing, file a motion, say you’re going to object.”
Stickles said he was “merely bringing” it to the court’s attention.
“The defense does object,” he said. “If the court wishes to overrule the objection, that’s the court’s discretion, that’s fine. I just needed it on the record.”
Stickles left the courtroom after becoming ill.
The proceedings were continued until October.