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Plugging Into the Problem

A recent death should spark concern about fire safety and outdated circuitry in older housing

For city dwellers living in low-income and student housing in the Capital Region, problems like tripped circuit breakers and flickering lights are annoying but commonplace. The hassle of having to unplug the toaster oven just to use the microwave is often seen as a mere nuisance of everyday life. But these issues point to a larger problem.

Electrical fire is a silent enemy. It starts within the walls of the oldest buildings in the area and often goes unnoticed until it leaves people homeless or even dead. At 3 AM on Nov. 13, for instance, a resident of Lincoln Avenue in Albany, Linda Giordana, died of smoke inhalation caused by an electrical fire that began in her kitchen.

As technology advances and appliances require more energy to run them, those living in older homes have become at greater risk for electrical fire. The larger amperage that modern appliances draw through circuits designed for lower currents can cause a wire’s insulation to wear thin. This creates a substantial amount of resistance heating and could create an arc-fault, or spark.

In addition, old houses have a tendency to collect dust and wood chips within the walls as they age, and these kinds of combustibles can provide an electrical short or arc with the fuel needed to ignite into flames. In the past five years, there have been more than 216 fires in Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties due to electrical malfunction.

“The foundation for a house’s electric is the electrical panel,” said Frank, a certified electrician at Capital District Electric. “The fact is, most houses’ service panels in this area are from another time. . . . Microwaves, toaster ovens, freezers, they didn’t have those in the old days. . . . A lot of people are living in substandard conditions, where they have to unplug a number of appliances just to run a coffee pot, and that is just not right.”

But as many tenants realize, relying on a landlord to notice and fix a problem can be fruitless. Instead, renters often use numerous power strips and extension cords. This could intensify the risk of electrical fire, since cords often support only 10 to 15 amps, while many appliances, like vacuum cleaners and space heaters, can draw as high as 20.

“One of the critical things is to not overload circuits,” said Richard Barlette, chief of the Arson Bureau at the NYS Office of Fire Prevention and Control. “If the circuit breaker is constantly tripping or there are recurrent blown fuses, it’s a good indication that there’s too much electrical draw. . . . We run into situations where we see a lot of extension or “zip” cords, and that’s indicative of too few outlets located in the room.”

Fred Warner, vice president of The Electrical Inspectors, a private inspection agency in Albany, said that renters should “be more aggressive in getting their landlords to provide adequate lighting and receptacle outlets.”

“Both a tenant and a landlord share a particular liability,” said Warner. “Certainly there are [landlords] who would tax a system for as long as possible. . . . And then there are those who don’t understand the importance of an electrical system. . . . If they can’t see it, if it’s behind the walls, there’s not a problem.”

“My suggestion would be to contact the landlord, and if he or she is not responsive and does not address the needs, then [the occupant] should contact the local fire prevention [office] or inspector,” Barlette added.

Sean Andrews, a renter on Hudson Avenue in Albany and a University at Albany student, said his house is “a huge fire hazard.” “I have one outlet in my room, for my computer, my printer, my speakers, my lamps, everything,” he said. On the floor behind his computer desk is a power strip with eight plugs. According to An drews, no inspector has ever come to inspect any job done on the electrical system in his house.

The cost of updating an electrical system in an old house can sometimes be as high as $8,000, according to a quote from Capital District Electric. On the other hand, fines for electrical-code violations in Albany County are only $25 per violation, per day.

Warner, the electrical inspector, believes something more is needed to nudge landlords into covering upgrade costs. “I would think an eye-opener would be a much heavier fine and some jail time if one is able to find intentional negligence on behalf of the landlord,” he suggested.

As the winter months approach, and Christmas tree lights and space heaters appear, it is up to residents to take action. Information on preventing electrical fires is available at www.firesafety.gov.

—Ryan Judson


What a Week

The Wrath of Robertson

Sinners, liberals and democratically elected officials beware: Pat Robertson is at it again. “If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God!” announced Robertson on a recent episode of The 700 Club. This time, the fiery evangelist wasn’t addressing some faraway despot or purportedly anti-American leader; he was speaking to the citizens of Dover, Penn., who voted out a group of school-board members who had mandated that local schools teach intelligent design. “If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin,” warned Robertson.

Don’t Drink the Brown Tea, Man!

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether a New Mexico church may use a brewed tea as part of its sacraments. The American government has long contested the legality of ayahuasca, a plant that can have a hallucinogenic effect when brewed in tea, despite several lower-court rulings that the plant poses little danger to congregants and is unlikely to encourage abuse. “Ayahuasca is not an addictive, or even a pleasant substance to consume,” said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Oil-Slick Businesses Boast Record Profits

The Senate Energy and Commerce Committee recently called on the leaders of five major oil companies to explain the record-breaking profits they earned over the last few months, while (for some) gasoline hit more that $3 per gallon. “It’s not terribly fun defending you,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) during the hearing. While all five executives denied any price gouging, ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond claimed that prices were indeed driven up—to avoid shortages. To the apparent surprise of many Republicans in the room, the execs also reported that they have little use for the $2.6 billion in tax credits President Bush plans to send their way. During the proceedings, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) received no response when she asked if any oil-company representatives plan to use this year’s pay raises and bonuses to assist with the record-setting heating bills many Americans are expected to face this year.




Causing a stir: Craig Allen.

photo:Alicia Solsman

What If I Throw in a Few Drinks?

Liquor store owner cries foul over wholesalers’ illegal perks and incentives

Craig Allen is, to put it mildly, an intense guy. Named one of Entrepreneur’s top young millionaires last year, the 35-year-old owner of All Star Wine and Spirits in Latham has jumped from one legal battle to the next since opening All Star in 1999, attacking various state and county laws that, he claims, have stood in the way of letting his business reach its free-market potential. Applauded by some in the industry and loathed by others, Allen has placed himself once again on the front lines of a legal brawl over liquor laws—but this time, it’s their enforcement, not their content, that he’s targeting.

“If what I’m saying is bullshit, then why are all these edicts coming out now?” asked Allen, jabbing a finger at a warning that recently began appearing on the cover of one wholesaler’s monthly price list, telling retailers that the list doesn’t represent all of the prices offered.

According to Allen, this serves as proof that his lawsuit against Service-Universal Distributors, one of North America’s largest wine and liquor wholesalers, has begun shedding light on some of the industry’s shadier practices.

“When I started out, I didn’t even know this sort of thing was illegal,” he said, indicating a set of highlighted prices on the Service-Universal pricing guide—a case of Absolut vodka is $218, with single bottles $38.33. However, on a copy of the list provided to the liquor authority, the prices are $47.12 per case and $8.45 per bottle. According to Allen, these less-expensive cases and bottles are offered to shops that agree to promote a certain product or buy a certain quantity of wine or liquor—a flagrant violation of industry regulations.

While such a promotion might sound perfectly legitimate for some industries, New York’s laws prohibit such practices in order to prevent a single business from monopolizing one of the nation’s most popular controlled substances. Section 101-b of New York’s Alcoholic Beverage Control law defines illegal discrimination by wholesalers and manufacturers as the practice of “granting discounts, rebates, free goods, and other inducements to selected licensees.” The aim of these laws, the same section states, is to create a “level playing field” among retailers, regardless of their size or volume of purchases.

So, after Allen tried to place an order for the same discounted products he had heard about from other retailers, only to be told that the discounts were used to “support” or “promote” the sale of other products, he filed a complaint with the liquor authority. Months went by without any results or feedback, and eventually he decided to file his own lawsuit.

Allen said that years of lax enforcement have made such violations commonplace, leaving many wholesalers with little reason to hide their transgressions and many shop owners without the knowledge that the discounts they are getting are illegal. By taking a stand against the illegal gifts and incentives that have become status quo in the industry, he said he’s become a frequent target of harsh criticism and industry blacklisting and, in one instance, had his car vandalized.

“It’s just a matter of greed,” said Harry Doakmajian, the owner of Wine-Skill East Deep Discount Wine and Spirits in Wynantskill. “[Allen] is just picking on [Service-Universal] because he wants everything for himself.”

Doakmajian, who has been involved with liquor industry for more than 50 years, described the practices targeted by Allen as “petty stuff,” adding that the promotional items and discounts offered in the liquor industry are no different than those offered in any other industry.

“[Wholesalers] may give me some kind of combo pack or promotional item but not offer it to someone else, and the next time they might offer it somebody else and not to me,” said Doakmajian. “I’m going to take those deals, and they will show up on the invoice just like that—that’s just the way it works.”

Doakmajian said that abuses of such promotions are simply the effect of increasing pressure as you move down the liquor industry’s hierarchy. Distillers pressure distributors to move as much product as possible, a pressure that only increases as one moves down the chain to local wholesaler representatives, he argued.

“So the wholesaler has to come up with all sorts of creative ways to move those cases,” continued Doakmajian. “And when you get squeezed enough, you do something you shouldn’t do.”

While some might not consider such practices a problem, retired liquor authority investigator Chester Menkiena said it’s the inclusion of the liquor authority among those who are ambivalent about the law that’s most disturbing. A recent series in The Buffalo News highlighted some of the discoveries Menkiena made over his 22-year career with the industry, including wholesalers’ use of gold Krugerrands, trips to wine country and thousands of dollars of gift certificates and gas cards to induce sales or promotion among retailers. The tremendous lobbying power of liquor producers and wholesalers had essentially turned illegal activities into the status quo, the series argued.

“When I would find somebody breaking the law, I would be taken off the case, the wholesalers would plead guilty, there would be a small civil penalty and it would be back to business as usual,” said Menkiena of the frustrations that led him to retire in 2004. “[Violations] are really up to the interpretation of the liquor authority, and the liquor authority is in the back pocket of the wholesalers.” Calls to the Liquor Authority were not returned.

While Menkiena’s findings may not have received much attention during his tenure, they’ve been getting more notice recently, with the state Assembly calling a special hearing and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer calling on retailers around the state to contribute to an ongoing investigation into the industry. According to a source involved with the investigation, the prevalence of certain business arrangements between the industry’s wholesalers and retailers has caused “significant concern” in the AG’s office.

All of this has provided some amount of vindication for Allen, but the outcome of his own lawsuit has yet to be decided. Last December, the case was dismissed in the state’s Supreme Court after Service-Universal argued that an individual retailer had no standing to sue under ABC laws. Allen appealed, and his attorney, John McManus, said an answer is expected any day now.

Allen acknowledged that his decision to take the legal high ground hasn’t earned him many friends in the industry, but said it has made him more aware of his allies. “I know a lot of the old-timers don’t like what I’m doing, because these sort of deals are the way they’ve always done business,” he shrugged, pausing for a rare moment before slamming both fists down on the desk in front of him. “But the fact remains that this is illegal—and God damn it, I know I’m right about this.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


David Lussier

Where’s My Sign?

Underdog in the 11th Ward says the incumbent’s campaign didn’t play by the rules

 

On election night 2005, staf- fers for Green Party 11th Ward candidate David Lussier ran through the streets carrying homemade banners bearing their candidate’s name. It wasn’t that they had nothing better to do. They simply couldn’t find another way to get their candidate’s name in front of voters.

It’s not that they didn’t have lawn signs. They had lots of signs. They allege, however, that members of the campaign of the incumbent, Glen Casey, spent Election Day following them around in vans tearing down and confiscating any signs they posted.

By mid-afternoon, they say, things got dirtier than they ever expected. They alleged Casey campaign treasurer Joseph Brady physically restrained a volunteer who was trying to stop him from stealing their signs.

Lussier, along with his campaign manager and head of the local Green Party, Peter Lavenia, and the Lussier campaign volunteers said they spent the early-morning hours being tailed by a van, a red SUV and a luxury car. “We had permission from this nice man to put signs on his property,” said Stephen Heath, Lussier campaign worker. “I’d post signs, go back a half-hour later, and they would be replaced by Casey signs—and they didn’t have permission to post them there.”

Lavenia added, “I thought once the sun came up it would stop. I didn’t think they would be so brazen as to do it in front of polling places in broad daylight.” However, staffers claimed the same thing went on all day.

Trailed by vans and SUVs, staffers would return to spots where they had posted signs one minute before, only to see them gone or replaced with Casey signs. In fact, staffer Stephen Heath said he began to time the disappearance of signs from the time they were posted because he was impressed with the efficiency of the sign thieves.

It’s known that the Casey campaign was upset with the Green Party, because Lussier’s name was included on a press release put out Oct. 27 by all three of Casey’s opponents that claimed to have “evidence” that Casey, in his role working for the Assembly, was providing quid pro quos to out-of-city campaign donors. It turned out they only had a list of donors who don’t appear to have any direct interest in the 11th Ward, but no actual evidence of wrongdoing. Lussier has since distanced himself from the press release.

As polling places opened, stolen signs became only one of the Lussier campaign’s worries. According to election law, anyone who needs assistance in voting can be accompanied by someone they select as long as that person is not an employer or union representative. If voters needing help do not have someone in particular to assist them, then they may be assisted by election inspectors of two different “political faiths.”

However, Lussier volunteer Lydia Lednyack alleged that a Casey inspector was escorting voters into the booths by herself.

Lednyack, who speaks Russian, claimed the inspector would ask voters, “ ‘Are you a Democrat?’ and they would say, ‘Yes, yes,’ . . . and then she would point straight down the Democratic line and say ‘Here is where you vote.’ She stood there at the front of the line and would ask everyone that came up, ‘Do you need help?’ and they would say ‘Yeah.’ ”

Calls to Glen Casey and Democratic Ward 11 leader Joe Jennings were not returned in time for this story. The person who answered the phone at the county Democratic headquarters responded, “You’ll have to call Mexico to speak to Betty Barnette.”

Mid-afternoon, outside a polling place, Lussier volunteer Sally Kim decided she’d had enough. When she spotted a group of men pulling Lussier signs from a lawn and putting them in their trunk, she confronted them and demanded they stop. Kim alleged the men told her the signs were illegally placed. She told the men they were not illegally placed, and that they had permission from the landowner, then noticed that all the signs they had gathered were Lussier signs and that Democratic Party signs in the same place had not been touched. Kim said that as she reached into the vehicle’s trunk to retrieve a stack of Lussier signs, Casey treasurer Joseph Brady grabbed her arm to restrain her, and berated her as he finished putting Lussier signs in the trunk with his other hand. Kim took down the license plates of the vehicles and filed a report with police.

Lavenia also filed a complaint with District Attorney David Soares’ election-fraud unit and plans to file a thorough, detailed complaint with the Board of Elections. Glen Casey, Joseph Brady and the APD did not return repeated calls.

As daylight dimmed to an evening haze on Election Day 2005, David Lussier staffers felt despondent. “It felt like they were beating up on an 8-year-old,” said Lussier. Knowing that they had run out of signs and would likely have them torn down anyway, staffers created cloth banners with Lussier’s name and held them up for passing cars in the evening’s drizzle.

Said Lavenia, “We knew that if they wanted to take these down they would have to tear them from our hands.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



Loose Ends

The Newspaper Guild/CWA of Albany has ratified a contract with the Times Union, after 16 months of negotiations [“Scouring for Sympathy,” Newsfront, Feb. 10] and after voting down a previous offer last month. While the new contract includes deep cuts to an early retirement benefit, the union decided that the pay raises and other items included in the contract made the package worthwhile. . . . On Nov. 3 a majority of the Democratic members of the Albany County Legislature told County Executive Michael Breslin that they would reject his proposal to move the therapists at the county’s Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center to the Department of Mental Health [“Crisis Center Shuffle,” Newsfront, Sept. 29]. They said they were also concerned about moving the center’s crime-victim caseworkers to the District Attorney’s office, but were willing to consider it if given additional justification. Opponents of the changes have been attending county legislature hearings and speaking at comment periods, and plan to continue doing so.



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