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Watchdog: Accountability

New York construction firms accused of safety scam

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Photo - George Tattos attends his arraignment at Manhattan Supreme Court, Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in New York. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. and city Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters announced earlier that morning the indictment of several individuals and businesses on charges including grand larceny, fraud, forgery, and evidence tampering through a building site safety inspection scam. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
George Tattos attends his arraignment at Manhattan Supreme Court, Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in New York. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. and city Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters announced earlier that morning the indictment of several individuals and businesses on charges including grand larceny, fraud, forgery, and evidence tampering through a building site safety inspection scam. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Two construction safety companies dispatched cooks, hairdressers, bellhops and musicians to sign off as licensed safety experts — one of them dead — on inspections at dozens of high-rise sites, authorities said Wednesday.

Flouting a city law that requires a private-sector site safety manager to spend at least two hours a day checking everything from ladders to firefighting pipes, the companies hired unqualified relatives and others, gave them the names of 10 safety managers and had them sign more than 400 daily safety logs at about 40 building sites, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. and city Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters said.

No one was physically hurt because of the scheme, but proper inspections later found blocked exits, torn safety netting and other potentially perilous lapses at some sites, the authorities said.

Having "unqualified individuals fabricating that they inspected sites" was a disaster waiting to happen, Vance said. The case is prompting tighter oversight of safety managers' documentation.

Avanti Building Consultants Inc., NYCB Engineering Group, Avanti leaders Richard Marini and Richard Sfraga and NYCB Vice President Kishowar Pervez pleaded not guilty Wednesday to grand larceny and other charges, as did four men accused of signing the logs.

Pervez denies the charges and will fight them in court, said his lawyer, Marc Agnifilo. Lawyers for Avanti and the other executives declined to comment.

Site safety managers are supposed to keep tabs on safety in between visits from city Department of Buildings inspectors, who spot-check their logs. Construction firms and building owners have to hire a safety manager at any exterior work on a building taller than 14 stories. The managers generally must have several years of experience, take courses and pass a city-administered exam, authorities said.

"Site safety managers are an important, crucial part of making sure that large construction sites in the city of New York remain safe," Peters said.

While site safety managers can make as much as $100 an hour, NYCB and Avanti, also known as Risk Management Agency Inc., sometimes paid their interns and runners $25 an hour to pose on paper as safety managers who were elsewhere, retired or dead, authorities said.

"Please be extra careful looking for DoB," Marini wrote in a text message to one runner last August, using the acronym for the buildings department, according to a report by Peters' agency.

The companies' clients didn't know they were paying for bogus inspections. One shelled out more than $412,000, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence said.

Authorities said the real safety managers were largely unaware of the scam; none has been charged.

In response to the probe, the Department of Buildings is increasing audits of site safety managers' work and qualifications, developing an electronic system that will notify site safety managers whenever their names are being used at construction sites and making some documents more fraud-resistant.

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Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz

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