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Judge To Decide If Contractor Should Pay Millions Over East Cleveland Dump

George Michael Riley, right, sits in court with one of his defense attorney, Brian Halligan. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
George Michael Riley, right, sits in court with one of his defense attorney, Brian Halligan.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office says a demolition contractor should be fined tens of millions of dollars over a construction debris dump in East Cleveland that infuriated neighbors for years.

Closing arguments in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court concluded Wednesday in a trial over Arco Recycling.

ideastream’s Nick Castele updates All Things Considered host Tony Ganzer on the story. 

What was Arco Recycling, and who is this demolition contractor who’s accused of running it?

Arco purported to be a recycling operation for construction and demolition debris in East Cleveland. It took in debris from the razing of vacant homes in the area from 2014 until it was shut down in January 2017. Now what neighbors in East Cleveland saw were piles of rubble virtually in their backyards.

Attorneys for the state say the man who ran the show was a demolition contractor named George Michael Riley.

As we’ve reported in the past, Riley was also involved with demolition businesses that received millions of dollars in public funding from the Cuyahoga Land Bank to tear down blighted homes.

Debris from a lot of those demolitions ended up at Arco. And it cost the state $9.1 million to clean up this mess. And during the cleanup, the pile caught on fire.

A pile of debris at Arco Recycling looms over a garage in January 2017. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

If this was such a problem, what took so long to resolve it? Why was this dump allowed to exist?

At the time, the state had looser rules for construction debris recyclers, so Arco existed in what one county official told me was a “regulatory gray area.”

The Ohio EPA tried to work with Arco, telling Riley and the company what they needed to do to make this a legitimate recycling operation.

But the state argued at trial that ultimately, Arco was just an illegal landfill masquerading as a recycler.

“Mr. Riley had a chance to operate the way that a facility is supposed to operate,” Principal Assistant Attorney General Matthew Meyer said at trial. “But what he did instead was just keep on doing what he did. And that’s to take more and more material and make the pile higher and higher. This was a con. This was not a business. The entire community got conned.”

How did Riley’s defense attorneys respond?

They were in an unusual positon. Because Riley had missed deadlines to share witness lists and evidence with the state, so he was actually barred from calling his own witnesses.

His attorneys, though, at trial argued that he had taken steps to recycle the material, such as bringing in equipment he needed to sort it.

They also tried to pin the blame on Riley’s business partner at Arco who was also his girlfriend at the time, a former bank employee named Christina Beynon. The two of them had a falling out in the summer of 2016 and Beynon obtained a protective order against Riley.

One of Riley’s attorneys, Brian Halligan, said Riley had left Arco before the state EPA finally shut it down in 2017.

“I submit that Christina Beynon was the one that was violating the laws,” Halligan said. “At the time of the notice of violation in January 2017, Mr. Riley had been gone for six months.”

The AG’s office did sue Beynon originally, along with Riley. She settled with the state and testified against Riley at trial.

The state argues that Riley persuaded her to put Arco in her name, and even got her allegedly to cash out a retirement account to start up the business.

One more twist to this story is that Riley is suing Beynon right now in Medina County, alleging she took assets from him. That suit was filed the week before she was set to testify against him.

What’s next in Riley’s trial, when do we hear a decision?

There was no jury, so this decision rests with Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shannon Gallagher. She will issue a written opinion on whether Riley should have to pay for the cleanup as well as additional penalties. She has not said yet when she will issue that decision.

Meanwhile, neighbors had sued Arco years ago. They won by default after the company failed to respond. When we took an in-depth look at Arco in 2019, they were still waiting for their money.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.