By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Bribe-taking by the city's building-code regulators is about as shocking to New Yorkers as subway-fare beaters at rush hour, and while some of the names involved raised eyebrows, no one was too surprised by the corruption scandal in the buildings department announced last September by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.
The announcement of eight more indictees brought little reaction, other than lamentations from Mayor Giuliani and his investigations commissioner about a "culture" of corruption at the agency and vows to change things. In a scheme that fit the dismal pattern of past scandals, prosecutors said city employees took free trips, meals, and tickets to sporting events from a corrupt, private buildings consultant who went unnamed in the indictments. In this case, the suspects went as high as the agency's well-liked number two executive, veteran bureaucrat Barry Cox.
But past probes never came so uncomfortably close to City Hall. And despite the mayor's complaints about the building agency's endemic problems, the investigation produced substantial evidence that outside political pressure was a major factor.
Some of that pressure, wiretaps in the case revealed, came from City Council minority leader Thomas V. Ognibene, a staunch Giuliani ally who serves on the committee overseeing the buildings department.
As detectives listened in over an eight-month period in 1997, they were surprised to hear crooked buildings-consultant Ron Lattanzio, who was emerging as the fulcrum for corruption at the buildings department, engaged in frequent discussions with Ognibene and his chief of staff, Dennis Gallagher.
Lattanzio, detectives soon learned, was an old friend and former neighbor of Ognibene from Middle Village in Queens. He was chief fundraiser to the tall, bearded Republican-Conservative councilman with the statesman-like demeanor. So eager was Lattanzio to help his friend that when an opponent challenged Ognibene for the Republican and Conservative party nominations that summer, he hired a private detective to dig up dirt on him.
Conversations and faxes intercepted between Lattanzio and Ognibene's office revealed arrangements made by Lattanzio for the councilman and Gallagher to take expense-paid trips to Vermont and Disney World.
In turn, police heard Ognibene and Gallagher strategizing about how to get City Hall to force the buildings commissioner to hire a friend of Lattanzio'ssomeone the consultant thought he could easily manipulate. They heard Gallagher casually agreeing to call buildings-department employees on behalf of Lattanzio's projects. They also heard Gallagher agree to help out on a troublesome state investigation into an engineer who was a Lattanzio partnerand later heard Lattanzio credit Ognibene with stopping the probe.
Lattanzio's operation came crashing down in June 1998, when police raided his offices and arrested him for tampering with evidence. A couple of months later, court records show, Lattanzio decided to cooperate with investigators, agreeing to wear a wire in meetings with city officials. Detectives lost the element of surprise, however, when the Daily Newsdisclosed Lattanzio's arrest that August. Only those blinded by greed continued to deal with the consultant, whose business was relocated to the same address on Maiden Lane where the city's Department of Investigations has its offices.
As for Ognibene and Gallagher, investigators were unable to obtain solid evidence that the trips were taken and that any crimes were committed. Under state law, a co-conspirator's claims are not sufficient for conviction. And, as happens in many political probes, they were not able to establish any clear quid pro quo between the consultants' gifts and the politicans' acts. Ognibene and Gallagher were never charged in the case or confronted by investigators. And their dealings with Lattanzio were never revealeduntil now.
Due to term limits, Ognibene is leaving the council at the end of the year. He has told reporters he expects to be named by his friend Governor Pataki to a $136,700-a-year state judgeship. Gallagher is now running for Ognibene's seat in the council.
Neither returned repeated messages to their Queens district and City Hall offices.
Lattanzio's attorney, Norman Bloch, declined all comment, as did spokespersons for the district attorney's office. Several of those indicted last fall have pleaded guilty, but at least two, including former deputy commissioner Cox, are headed for trials this summer in which Lattanzio is expected to be the key witness against them.
If he takes the stand, he should have a good story to tell.
Ronald Lattanzio, 44, took his first lessons in the game as a young budget official and assistant city-buildings commissioner in the Koch administration in the early 1980s. He was something of a rising star until 1986, when he was caught holding late night cocaine and pot parties in his office with a bunch of other party-hearty city workers. He lost his job in the scandal, but he simply moved to the private sector as a buildings consultant and never looked back.
No one else looked either. Even the inspector general who handled the drug investigation later worked as a private attorney for Lattanzio's consulting outfit. The important thing for those who sought him out was that Ronnie Lattanzio knew the right people and how to win city approvals when things got tough. He wooed them all with flattery, gifts, and contributions.