Gratuities Included

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

Lawrence is one of three NYCHA supervisors charged in separate federal complaints for allegedly extracting nearly $20,000 in paybacks. He, John Honohan, and Christopher Bamberger were charged in early December. None of the defendants or their lawyers returned calls for this story.

All three men worked for the NYCHA department that each year oversees nearly $900 million in contracts for rehabilitation throughout NYCHA's massive public housing developments. During a three-year investigation, contractors wore wires and recorded conversations in which the bribes were arranged.

Both Honohan and Bamberger were supervisors in charge of ensuring that contractors met environmental standards. Both earned $55,945 a year. Honohan was in charge of Brooklyn, Queens, and his home borough of

Staten Island; he allegedly took $5500 in bribes for letting a contractor proceed with a door-replacement project without first performing a required pilot project. Honohan allegedly told the contractor he "would not have problems" with environmental compliance inspections.

Bamberger, who was in charge of Manhattan and the Bronx, allegedly accepted $500 from a contractor for the assurance that he'd throw any violation memo about the contractor "in the garbage." For $4500, prosecutors say, Bamberger offered to "fix" any problems the contractor might have and assured the contractor that there would be no problems related to asbestos testing. Prosecutors say that Bamberger instructed the contractor to leave $2500 in cash under the front seat of a van.

The complaint against Lawrence says that at one point, he grew frustrated when he told a contractor's employee that he had "money problems" and needed to pay off his American Express bill but "the employee had not understood." The employee's boss, a NYCHA contractor working on bathroom renovations in Manhattan developments, allegedly paid Lawrence $500.

In a later taped conversation with the contractor where another $500 changed hands, Lawrence suggested an old-fashioned Tammany trick: The contractor should overstate the amount of plaster used in renovations to win extra payments from NYCHA. (The legendary graft that emanated from the Tweed Courthouse relied in part on a plaster scheme.) At the same meeting, the complaint charges, Lawrence told the contractor that he needed $2200 for credit card bills. When the contractor paid that amount less than a month later, Lawrence suggested another ruse: The contractor could milk NYCHA further by inflating the value of change orders submitted on the job.

In April 1999, Lawrence allegedly told the contractor that he needed money to send his kids to summer camp, at a cost of $2100 per child. When the contractor balked, arguing that he had already forked over $8000, Lawrence backed off from his own personal Fresh Air Fund campaign, saying he "was not looking to get" the entire camp cost from the contractor.

Lawrence, Honohan, and Bamberger worked at NYCHA for 14, 10, and seven years respectively. Lawrence has been fired; Honohan and Bamberger have been suspended without pay.

An Inspector Hauls

When HPD inspector Anthony DeMichele approached the two-family home at 94-11 134th Street in Queens in early November 1998, owner Bhanmatie Singh must have been nervous. Just days earlier, someone had filed a complaint with the city's Department of Buildings (DOB) about a back deck Singh was allegedly building without a permit. So when DeMichele gave the owner a choice—pay him cash or he'd report the violations, which he said would require Singh to go to court, pay fines, and hire an architect—she agreed to pay him $2000, according to a DOI press release.

DeMichele then insisted on a down payment on the spot or he'd write up the violations that day. Singh forked over $1000 in cash. Then she called DOI. When DeMichele returned the next week, Singh was wired for sound. She and DeMichele "had a conversation about HPD inspector DeMichele not reporting illegal rentals and not issuing housing violations," according to a complaint filed by the Queens D.A. Singh then paid DeMichele $500 in "pre-recorded buy money"—bills that DOI marks to use as evidence of a bribe.

DeMichele was arrested in June. On January 20, he pleaded guilty to felony charges of receiving a reward for official misconduct in the second degree; a charge of third-degree bribe-receiving was dropped in exchange for DeMichele's plea. "He chose to accept a plea of guilty and get on with his life rather than be indicted in Supreme Court," says DeMichele's attorney, Steve Singer, adding that under the arrangement, neither he nor DeMichele were able to listen to the conversation Singh had recorded. Rather than face a possible seven-year jail term, Singer says, DeMichele will get probation and do community service. A DOB spokesperson says that a violation was written against Singh in November 1998 for doing work without a permit but was dismissed in June 1999.

DiMichele, 41, worked at HPD for 16 years and was terminated upon his arrest. He was one of three HPD inspectors in Queens who pleaded guilty within the last year to charges of accepting cash from property owners after DOI stings. The other two accepted payments of $200. Neither works for HPD anymore.

Trouble in Hooterville

Rats in the laundry room. Heatless days in winter. And a steady stream of customers coming to patronize the sex workers who had set up shop in a second-floor apartment. Such were the amenities that tenants of Robert and Katherine Chou were treated to in the couple's Hell's Kitchen tenement at 515 West 47th Street. Maybe that's why not one Chou renter interviewed was shocked to learn that Robert Chou has been charged with bribing an undercover agent who posed as a housing inspector, hoping to get a record of housing violations wiped clean.

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