Craig Benedict '76
Craig Benedict was a wrestler at Sarah Lawrence, the first SLC student who sought intercollegiate competition. He was persuasive then: The College joined the National Collegiate Athletic Association so he could compete.
And he’s still pretty persuasive, although his wrestling now takes a different form. An assistant United States attorney, Benedict grapples with environmental criminals—most recently, asbestos law violators—and over 22 years has yet to lose a match.
His latest coup: a conviction against Raoul and Alexander Salvagno, contractors who ignored federal laws for controlling asbestos removal and are now behind bars for racketeering and running a criminal enterprise. Thanks to Benedict, the father and son received the longest environmental sentence in U.S. history: 25 years for Alexander, 19.8 years for Raoul. Also, the five-month trial was the longest for an environmental prosecution in U.S. history.
“There are a hundred workers at risk of dying in that case,” an indignant Benedict said during a recent interview. Abestosis, the disease resulting from exposure to the pollutant, takes the form of a slow suffocation, turning the lungs into dry, brittle organs.
One of the Salvagnos’ employees testified that the air inside a building he was working on was so thick with asbestos fibers that it looked like a snowstorm – and that was but one instance. The father-son team conducted their illegal asbestos abatement activities on 1,555 projects over a 10-year period at elementary schools, churches, hospitals, military housing, theatres, cafeterias, the New York State Legislature Office Building, public and commercial buildings and private residences.
At press time, a new case was about to break, although Benedict was not at liberty to reveal details. “It’s a hazardous waste case. A big one. We’re about to arrest the individuals and indict them,” he told Sarah Lawrence. “But they don’t know it yet.”
What drives Benedict? “Without interested people, there wouldn’t be a voice for environmental protection,” he says. “Unlike a victim who can come forward and complain, a river or a lake can’t do that.”
But he’s no tree-hugger. “There are already enough cause-of-the-month types out there,” he explains. “I’m going after serious environmental criminals who will get away with what they’re doing if we don’t do our jobs well.”
Toward that end, Benedict’s targets are often super-wealthy corporations and businesses, individuals who come into the courtroom armed with a phalanx of attorneys, ready to fight back. Sometimes, Benedict says, he finds himself simultaneously facing as many as 15 “extraordinarily talented” defense lawyers.
He is intense and passionate about his work. “I’m lucky,” Benedict explains, “because after all these years, it’s still exciting to come to work every day.” During a trial, Benedict often works around the clock. “It’s all-consuming then,” he says.
Once Benedict decided to become a lawyer—during his senior year at Sarah Lawrence—the next step, he recalls, was the decision “to handle serious criminal matters, the worst of the worst environmental cases.” The College—where he transferred after his freshman year at Bucknell—nurtured his independent streak by allowing him to “pursue my intellectual interests very specifically.
“I wanted something more interesting than just the traditional academic environment. I didn’t want to spend my college years studying required, but uninteresting, courses.”
After Sarah Lawrence, he headed off to law school at the University of Miami, because in the mid-1970’s it had one of the few environmental law programs. From there, he signed on with the Environmental Protection Agency, becoming its first criminal enforcement attorney. In 1983, he began his current assignment as an assistant United States attorney for the Northern District of New York.
And today Benedict and his wife, Judy, an anesthesiologist, live 25 minutes outside of Syracuse on 26 countryside acres. They have three children—two boys, 11 and 9, and a 5-year-old girl. “She’s a fiery redhead who wrestles too!” he says proudly.