Patronage Outrage

'Wired' Official Neglected Sidewalk Safety Outside School Where Child Died

The School Construction Authority project officer at the Brooklyn school where a child was killed by falling bricks in January was hired--despite a long arrest record and dubious qualifications--because of his political connections to the Pataki administration. An SCA probe has found that the officer's failure to require the contractor doing roof work at the school to erect a wood-covered sidewalk shed may have contributed to the death of 15-year-old Yan Zhen Zhao, the Voice has learned.

Gary Marrone, 43, who got his job through family ties to the state Conservative Party, quit the SCA on April 8 after the Voice began raising questions about his oversight at P.S.131 in Borough Park. Marrone had day-to-day responsibility for the safety of the job site and resigned just as SCA Inspector General Peter Pope completed an investigation of his performance.

Pope's still-secret findings have also led, according to SCA sources, to the recommended dismissal of Marrone's immediate supervisor and the demotion of another top agency executive. These personnel moves, however, have not yet been formally announced. Board of Education officials all the way up to Deputy Chancellor Harry Spence, who sits on the three-member SCA board, have been critical of Marrone, with Spence noting that "the principal told me she could never find him."

Investigators concluded that Marrone even allowed the contractors to take down a portion of the fencing around the school in what they said was precisely the area where Zhao was killed and another child was seriously injured. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes recently indicted the contractors on manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges, attributing the girl's death to their failure "to provide shedding or to close the sidewalk in the area of construction."

When Hynes announced the indictment at a March press conference, he said that "the ineptitude of SCA employees" at the school did not rise "to the level of criminal conduct," but that it "came pretty damn close" and "better not happen again."

Marrone's wife, Fran Vella Marrone, is the $68,346-a-year special assistant to Paul Atanasio, the only SCA trustee appointed by Governor George Pataki. In late 1995, shortly after assuming her position, Mrs. Marrone began pushing SCA president Barry Light to hire her husband, according to sources at the agency. Light declined, citing an explicit SCA bar against hiring relatives. But within five weeks of Light's February 1996 departure, the agency hired Gary Marrone.

Fran Marrone is the Bay Ridge Conservative Party district leader, a member of the state party's executive committee, and vice chair of the Brooklyn party. Atanasio, too, has been associated with the party for years--running once as its congressional candidate in Bay Ridge. Both are close to Conservative Party boss Mike Long, who told the Voice: "I don't remember if I recommended Fran or not for the SCA job. If I didn't, I wish I did." Marrone and Atanasio were prominent guests at the party's annual dinner at the Sheraton two weeks ago, at which Pataki was given its highest award.

Atanasio, an investment banker who has secured billions in state bond underwriting since Pataki took office, retained Long as a $5000-a-month consultant at his firm, Chemical Securities, in January 1995. Long, the owner of a Bay Ridge liquor store located around the corner from the state party headquarters, had no underwriting experience. But the 328,000 votes Pataki attracted on Long's ballot line just two months earlier more than accounted for the new governor's margin of victory. Atanasio was also executive chair of New Yorkers for Term Limits--an offshoot of the Conservative Party--and Fran Marrone was a committee staffer, drawing a total of almost $50,000 in salary between 1993 and 1997.

Gary Marrone was arrested in three different cases in Florida in the '80s and once in New Jersey in the '70s. His only conviction was on a 1985 misdemeanor fraud charge in Sunrise, Florida, though a 1983 obstruction charge was listed as having been "turned over to another agency." In 1986, he was charged with calling the Sunrise cop who'd arrested him a year earlier and telling him: "I'm going to get you for what you did to me. I am going to kill you. I'll be out tonight looking for you." In that case, the local district attorney "declined prosecution."

Marrone's 1985 arrest included a disorderly intoxication charge--which was dismissed when he was convicted on the fraud count. Documents reviewed by the Voice, however, reveal that P.S.131 principal Dr. Virginia Bartolotti believed he had a drinking problem during the work at her school. In a 1997 letter to her deputy superintendent, Bartolotti complained that "no one at the SCA" did anything about Marrone "even when I reported the fact that the site manager was drunk in my office while on duty and while at one of those meetings I'm referring to."

Bartolotti's 1996 logs indicate that she'd seen Marrone "drunk" once and "smelled liquor on his breath" on another occasion. The principal noted that she reported both events, but was told that Marrone maintained that "the smell was from a medication he was taking." She and other witnesses at the school were grilled by SCA investigators recently about these incidents.

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