New York Building Boom Spurs Corruption Probe After Death

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New York’s building boom has spurred the formation of a task force to probe corruption in the construction industry.

The group of prosecutors and inspectors plan to go after companies that ignore or hide safety violations or commit other crimes including bid rigging and extortion.

The formation of the task force was announced the same day two men and their companies were indicted for causing a worker’s death in April by failing to address repeated warnings about safety at a construction site in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Residential construction permits rose 156 percent in the year ended June 30, marking the sixth consecutive year that permits increased, according to the New York Building Congress. The jump followed a 26 percent rise last year in construction spending to $36 billion.

“There are human consequences to New York City’s building boom,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a statement. “A rush to develop can often result in hazardous lapses in safety practices.”

Wilmer Cueva, 50, of Elmwood Park, New Jersey, a foreman at Sky Materials Corp. of Queens, New York, and Alfonso Prestia, 54, of Westchester, New York, a senior superintendent for Harco Construction LLC of New York, were indicted along with their companies, in connection with the death of 22-year-old Carlos Moncayo in April.

Released on Bail

Cueva, Prestia and the companies pleaded not guilty Wednesday. The two men were released on $100,000 bail.

“It’s tragic, but we’re not responsible for it,” Ronald Fischetti, an attorney representing Harco Construction, said outside court, adding that there would be no plea or settlement in the case.

Jeffrey T. Schwartz, an attorney representing Prestia, said his client will be “fully exonerated.”

“He did everything that he could do to try to stop any accidents,” Schwartz said.

Richard Anderson, building congress president, said the timing of the investigation was curious as building construction is dangerous by definition.

“Just because we have more volume of construction activity, it doesn’t seem to me that should be the basis for a high-level investigation such as this,” Anderson said in a phone interview. “From where I sit, it looks like we’re doing more work more safely, not less work less safely. We haven’t had a 156 percent increase in safety or corruption problems that I know of.”

Unsecured Trench

Moncayo was working at a retail construction site on Ninth Avenue on April 6 when a 13-foot-deep, unsecured trench collapsed and crushed him, according to Vance’s office.

Prosecutors said Cueva and Prestia were responsible for worker safety at the site and ignored repeated warnings from inspectors to halt work in the trench before the collapse.

According to prosecutors, an inspector in February noticed that trenches at the site weren’t secured as required by city regulations, which dictate that excavations five feet or deeper must be fortified to protect workers from cave-ins.

The safety conditions didn’t improve despite e-mailed warnings and meetings with the companies, prosecutors said.

Vance formed the task force with the Department of Investigation, the inspector generals of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the Business Integrity Commission.

The Real Estate Board of New York, trade organization for the city’s real estate industry, said it welcomed the move.

The board supports “proactive actions that lead to safer construction sites,” REBNY President John Banks said in an e-mailed statement.

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