Evergreen Court fire: Both sides contest inspection report as Wayne Ballard trial begins
NEW CITY − What did Wayne Ballard know when he filed Spring Valley inspection reports with New York state before a fire at an adult home that left two people dead?
Attorneys put that question to Judge Kevin Russo on Tuesday during opening statements in the trial of the former chief of the Spring Valley building and public works departments.
Ballard is accused of filing a false inspection report in 2020 with New York state. One part of the report claimed the Evergreen Court Home for Adults had been inspected. In March 2021, a Spring Valley firefighter and an adult home resident died in a fire at the Lafayette Street adult home.
A grand jury charged Ballard with offering a false instrument for filing in the first and second degrees. While Ballard had no role in the fire, this is the first trial resulting from the investigation into the deadly blaze, which killed Spring Valley Fire Department Second Lt. Jared Lloyd, 35, and resident Oliver Hueston, 79.
Prosecutor Ryan Sweeney argued Tuesday that the former chief building inspector knowingly filed false information in a 1203 report for 2019 with the state Department of State. The reports provide information on the workings of the building department, such as the number of inspections, building permits, and certificates of occupancies.
"The evidence will show he filed false statements and information in the 1203 report to the state of New York," she said during her opening statement.
But defense lawyer Noam Greenspan said in his opening statement that prosecutors have provided no evidence to support fraud. He noted the Spring Valley filing system and inspection process was a mess, with documents filed in different places, and its electronic filing system was in bad shape.
Ballard, he said, had no reason to knowingly report false information. The Spring Valley job was meant to cap Ballard's career with a two-year contract before retiring. Ballard worked hard to clean up the filing system and backlog in inspections, Greenspan said.
"The evidence will be pretty overwhelming that everything Mr. Ballard did was in good faith," Greenspan said.
While the 1203 report covered all inspections per year, one discussion in court Tuesday centered on if and when Spring Valley inspected the Evergreen Court Home for Adults. One report noted the adult home had not been inspected yearly, while a second list showed the adult home had been inspected on April 22, 2019.
Ballard's 2020 report claimed the Evergreen Court facility had been inspected in April 2019 based on village records. He had not worked for the village at the time.
The judge heard testimony from John Addario, the director of the Department of State Office of Building and Codes, the office responsible for overseeing building departments. He and his office have come under criticism from local firefighters and safe housing advocates for not strongly overseeing that Spring Valley and Ramapo building departments enforce state fire and safety codes. He testified for the prosecution.
Spring Valley's enforcement of state codes had become so bad that the state deputized the Rockland County government to take charge in 2022. A state monitor had been assigned to Spring Valley Building Department, as well. While the monitor was at the department, the village went several years not filing the 2013 reports with the state Department of State.
When asked if Ballard had provided copies of the inspection reports involving Evergreen Court, Addario said he didn't see any reports.
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The case against Ballard and his defense
Attorneys for Ballard, a former elected Clarkstown Highways superintendent, provided documents showing Spring Valley Building Department records contained a reference to an inspection of the Evergreen Court.
New York State Public Service Commission investigators cited prosecution documents that Spring Valley officials were unable to provide inspections and other records more recent than 2016, according to a just-released report looking into water pressure issues.
Jeffrey Millman, a former village attorney, testified that Ballard was hired to reorganize the building department, get properties inspected, and ensure reports and permits were filled properly.
Manuel Carmona, a former inspector, testified the office was in disarray. He said files were kept in desk draws, under desks, and in other offices.
Ballard's lead attorney, Sanford Talkin of Manhattan argued prosecutors failed to produce sufficient evidence that the material contained in reports to the state was inaccurate and that Ballard knew about the inaccuracy. He had sought to have the indictment dismissed,
The Building Department came under sharp scrutiny after the March 22, 2021, fatal fire when flames engulfed Evergreen Court on Lafayette Street. Lloyd, the father of two young boys, died when a portion of the former hotel built in 1903 building collapsed on him as he search again for more trapped residents. Lloyd and other firefighters evacuated 112 people.
Evergreen Court fire: PSC releases report on water flow, suggests better communications
Evergreen Court had a history of building and fire code violations dating to the 1960s at the former Bader Hotel. The violations included faulty fire suppression systems, inadequate evacuation infrastructure such as emergency lights and fire escapes, and unlicensed contractors performing plumbing and construction work.
Other facilities owned by the Schoenberger family also had violations.
Ballard is not accused of any role in causing the fire. Neither is Ray Canario, a former building inspector and fire chief, also facing charges of filing false reports. His case is pending after being indicted.
The Evergreen Court inferno erupted hours after Rabbi Nathaniel Sommer and his son Aaron Sommer used a 20-pound blowtorch to cleanse the Evergreen Court ovens and kitchen for Passover.
Prosecutors charge the actions by the Sommers set off the fire. They used a blow torch to cleanse the facility’s kitchen and ovens for Passover. Both Sommers pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, negligent homicide, arson, assault, and other charges and have denied acting maliciously. The assault charges cover people injured in the fire, including a firefighter. Their case is pending in court.
Two other people who worked at Evergreen Court were charged. But the District Attorney's Office resolved cases against Denise Kerr, the facility's director, and former employee Manual Lema. Both received adjournments contemplating dismissal.
Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lohudlegal.
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This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Wayne Ballard trial: Inspection report for Evergreen Court questioned