Gratuities Included

Among New York’s Wheel Greasers and Palm Ticklers, Real Estate Types Lead the Pack

When prosecutors said that Sean "Puffy" Combs offered his driver a $40,000 pinky ring to take the fall on a weapons charge after his melee in a Manhattan nightclub, the tabs were shocked. But perhaps Combs was just trying out a time-honored New York business move: The Bribe. In a town where a palm is likely to get as much grease as any squeaky wheel, the only thing odd about Combs's alleged offer was the rapper's apparent foray into a world usually reserved for government employees and their charges. Who can forget the municipal scandals of the Koch administration, complete with bags of cash delivered in public urinals and a politician so ensnared in corruption he stabbed himself to death with an Ecko kitchen knife in his Queens home?

Last year alone, the city's Department of Investigation (DOI) nabbed more than two dozen people for allegedly taking or demanding bribes totaling more than $60,000. No doubt, the individual amounts pale in comparison to the loot Combs supposedly proffered—few gratuities can be measured in karat weight—and in this case, unlike the scandals of the '80s, no one is dead. But the DOI stings give a peek at the way business is sometimes done here and a culture that seems to invite random acts of kindness in hopes of buying an inspector's blindness.

The bribes range from a fire department employee who tried to shake down a job applicant for a $25 Costco gift certificate (the job seeker happened to be a cop) to $20,000 that a Gristede's vice president allegedly offered a city finance official to fix a $200,000 tax bill. In the Bronx, a welfare worker is charged with taking $600 to open a fraudulent case. Owners of various Manhattan restaurants tried to bribe health inspectors to ignore roaches, mouse droppings, and bare-handed food preparation.

Payments—usually cash—were made in many ways. Money was stuffed into shirt pockets, crammed into envelopes, left under car seats. In one case, DOI says a $100 bill was flung into the car of a transportation inspector checking out a Queens homeowner's defective sidewalk. It's "coffee money," the owner explained.

Varied as the origins and destinations of the bribes are, one trend stands out: No sector is better represented than housing. More than half of the 1999 cases somehow involve real estate, whether it's a landlord slipping a couple thousand bucks to a housing inspector, or an inspector giving a homeowner the choice of paying up or getting written up, or the incredible scheme of a pair of Queens entrepreneurs who, prosecutors say, tried to swindle the city out of eight buildings owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

The trend continues: Each of the four bribery cases filed so far this year involves property owners, including one Brooklyn landlord who actually went to a city office to pay a bribe. The Voice takes a look at five of real estate's more noteworthy bribery cases.

Stuffed Shirt

You've got to wonder what Manhattan landlord Paljo Gazivoda was thinking in late 1998 when he asked a housing inspector to come have a look at his decrepit building at 504 West 159th Street. According to DOI's investigation, Gazivoda had requested what HPD calls a "dismissal request inspection," whereby a landlord can legally pay the agency $300 to proclaim a building free of violations, provided, of course, that the claim is true. When the HPD inspector found that violations in fact remained, DOI says Gazivoda made a less formal move: He tried to stuff a cash-filled envelope into the inspector's shirt pocket.

The inspector refused the money and alerted DOI to the landlord's overture. Weeks later, DOI sent an undercover agent ready to accept Gazivoda's generosity—and to record their conversations. According to a DOI memo, "Gazivoda placed a $200 bribe in the [undercover agent's] pocket," and proposed a bigger deal: Gazivoda told him he owned three other buildings with more than 700 HPD violations. He was willing to pay to have them cleared.

Over the course of two meetings, Gazivoda forked over $2000 in bribes. In his last payment, on December 1, the landlord apparently felt festive: He proffered an additional $500 for Christmas, and, according to the DOI investigation, "referred to friends who also own buildings, and mentioned the possibility of doing further business" with the inspector. Gazivoda was arrested in March. Two months later, he pleaded guilty to giving unlawful gratuities. Neither he nor his lawyers returned calls.

Now, a year later, Gazivoda's buildings (some of which he owns with his wife, Leze) have taken a turn: Before his arrest, HPD counted 866 violations among his four properties; a stunning 715 were immediately hazardous, including exposed electrical wiring, defective pilot lights on stoves, uncapped gas pipes, and inadequate heat and hot water. The buildings boast a pared-down 722 violations, with 114 considered immediate threats.

A tour of the Gazivoda portfolio reveals halls that are freshly painted, and on one particular February day, heat appeared sufficient. But problems are obvious: Feces cover the interior landing at the roof level of the 159th Street building where Gazivoda first met the DOI undercover agent. At 529 West 158th Street, a man lurking in the stairwell directed a visitor to the top landing, where needles and bloodstained tissues were strewn next to a sliced-down beer can blackened from cooking crack. In the courtyard, a refrigerator was impaled on an iron fence, as if it had been chucked off the roof.

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