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.

Bartolotti and the school's custodian, Robert Steiger, also repeatedly called Marrone's supervisors, noting his persistent absence from the job, with Bartolotti insisting that nothing would improve unless Marrone was replaced. Bartolotti told the Voice that though the SCA protocol required Marrone to appear daily, he was at the school only "occasionally," and left her with "no direct means of getting to him." Marrone lives only 10 minutes from P.S.131.

The $57,000 project officer position ordinarily requires "a baccalaureate degree from an accredited college," but Marrone had only two and a half years at Miami Dade Community College, and left without an associate degree. Minimum qualifications for the SCA post do permit the hiring of someone who has "a satisfactory combination of education and experience," suggesting that Marrone's claimed seven years of construction experience as a "project manager" may have been used as the basis for hiring him.

The most recent job on Marrone's resume was with Hercules Construction, a company that was barred from doing business with the agency and was under federal investigation for bribing and defrauding Board of Ed and SCA officials at the time of Marrone's hiring. Hercules president Gregory Rigas--another associate of Mike Long's, who contributed the legal maximum years earlier to Atanasio's congressional campaign--pled guilty to two federal felonies four months after Marrone left the company to join the SCA. Rigas agreed to pay $189,000 in restitution to the agencies he'd defrauded, most of it to the SCA.

Marrone's resume describes him as project manager for Hercules's New York City Housing Authority work from 1992 through 1995, and Rigas was charged with filing false certified payrolls with NYCHA for precisely that period. The SCA IG's office played a pivotal role in developing the criminal case against Rigas.

Rigas was also accused of setting up Aim Construction--a phony WBE (Women's Business Enterprise)--to win affirmative action contracts. NYCHA records indicate that after Hercules was forced to drop the allegedly fake WBE in 1994, Rigas briefly replaced it with Builder Nine, a company that listed Fran Marrone as president and Gary Marrone as vice president. Sources indicate that the Marrones may have tried to certify the company as a WBE--an irony in view of the Conservative Party's fierce opposition to set-aside programs. Gary Marrone still drives a car with a BUILDER9 license plate.

In addition to Gary Marrone's questionable hiring, Fran Marrone's employment at the agency may violate the city charter, which bars employing "a member of the state committee, an assembly district leader, or an officer of a county executive commitee of any political party" in any position "with substantial policy discretion." Since the state legislation that created the SCA makes its employees subject to this charter provision, the agency's brass reportedly challenged Fran Marrone's hiring in 1995, arguing that she held all three party titles. But lawyers at the agency ruled that her position did not involve substantial discretion.

Fran Marrone has bounced from one political job to another since walking into Long's Brooklyn party headquarters two decades ago--working for State Senator Chris Mega and the state Crime Victims Board as well as the term limits committee. Her only other known employment was as an officer of construction firms run out of the family home, one of which still has an Internal Revenue lien against it.

It is unclear how she got the SCA to waive its rules and hire her husband. The agency's HR-15 procedural rule expressly states that it "will not hire relatives of SCA employees to prevent any favoritism or conflict of interest," and lists "spouse" as the first familial relationship whose hiring "would violate the Authority's Nepotism Policy." SCA officials declined to answer questions about why Gary Marrone was exempted from this prohibition. Citing the ongoing work of the agency IG and the city's Department of Investigation, an SCA spokesman denied access to either Gary or Fran Marrone's resume. The Voice did manage to obtain some resume information from other sources, however.

Not only did Gary Marrone's connections at the highest levels of the SCA get him the job, they apparently insulated him for months despite the mounting criticism of his P.S.131 performance. Bartolotti's "many, many calls" to the missing Marrone's supervisor had no effect on Marrone's assignment, or the supervisor's willingness to sign Marrone's time sheets. The district superintendent, Francis DeStefano, said the construction supervision was "terrible" and that the SCA "wasn't being responsive to a school community that told them the job wasn't being done right."

Ellie Engler, an industrial hygienist for the United Federation of Teachers who was frequently at the school, said that 70 per cent of the top-floor classrooms were damaged by water leaking from the roof, teachers and students were exposed to asbestos, gates and doors to the pitched roof were left open, and that the SCA did little about any of it. "We tried to register complaints with the SCA, and the SCA didn't listen," Engler said. Finally, in October 1997, Randi Weingarten, the UFT president, went to the school and got Deputy Chancellor Spence to meet with teachers, parents, and the principal.

"There was an uproar in the school," Spence says. "I promised I'd do everything I could to clean it up. I went back to the SCA and told them it needed immediate attention and supervision. As a result of that intervention, the project officer was removed." Though Marrone was reassigned from the school on October 17--well before the Zhao incident--the subsequent investigation blasted him for a 17-month failure to insist on a sidewalk shed, and his willingness to allow the fence to be removed from the area where the child was killed.

Zhao was outside the school on January 9--waiting for a friend--when two bricks holding down a tarp over the entrance struck her on the head, and cut a 10-year-old girl standing nearby. "We believe there should have been a shed there the entire time," Buildings Department spokeswoman Ilyse Fink said when the incident occurred.

An SCA spokesman was also quoted in January as saying that the fence was taken down because, even though the roof work was ongoing, masonry work on that side of the building was finished. Sources in the D.A.'s office say that SCA officials specifically declared that a sidewalk shed would have to be built as part of the job at a bidders conference in January 1996--prior to Marrone's arrival at the agency. Yet Marrone never required one.

Patronage has become synonymous with Pataki over the last three and a half years. An extraordinary Daily News series has suggested that even paroles may be purchased.

Paul Atanasio, the Pataki appointee at the heart of the Marrone scandal, has made Bear Stearns, his current employer, the number one bond house in state government. Atanasio's first big killing in the Pataki era was at the Port Authority, where he secured a $100 million noncompetitive offering. The Authority executive director who approved the deal was George Marlin, the onetime mayoral candidate of the Conservative Party.

More recently, Atanasio won the senior management position on the $7 billion Long Island Power Authority bond issue, the biggest in history. Bear was also the agency's financial adviser structuring the offering. LIPA deputy director Patrick Foye is another active Conservative Party leader who, according to Andrea Bernstein in The New York Observer, encouraged Bear's selection as adviser.

As damning as this big bucks influence peddling is, the public price tag does not include a young life. But at the SCA, it may well have.

It apparently was clear a year ago that Gary Marrone was not doing his job at P.S.131, and everyone around him was afraid to act. If they had, Yan Zhen Zhao might still be alive.

Research: Tracie McMillan and Jarrett Murphy

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