By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"Ninety percent of this job is just kissing these guys' asses," he confessed to a client in the summer of 1997. "I got scraped knees and chapped lips."
In 1996, he popped up on the D.A.'s investigative radar screen as detectives pursued ever-expanding leads into corruption among residential-building managers. They heard a fast-talking, wisecracking powerbroker whose expertise appeared to be rigging million-dollar construction bids and bribing city officials to ignore violations and speed up permits.
There were five separate phone lines into Lattanzio's busy A&E Consulting Service at 417 Canal Street and police bugged them all, listening in as the consultant and his crew discussed their secrets of success.
"Send for the blind inspector," was Lattanzio's favorite line, always good for a laugh with clients. "Get Ray Charles," agreed one contractor who didn't want asbestos found on his project.
Another secret advantage, investigators learned, was a professional-license seal belonging to a retired engineer that was kept in a desk drawer in Lattanzio's office and brought out whenever building plans required an engineer's approval. The elderly engineer never saw the plans but took thousands of dollars a month from Lattanzio for use of his good name.
Other angles spilled out in shop talk among Lattanzio's stable of building expediters, who moved applications along at the buildings agency.
"Unless you're willing to bribe somebody you're not gonna get no fucking C of O," explained one seasoned expediter to a newcomer trying to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. "So, throw a hundred dollars in the folder and you'll get your C of O in an hour."
Lattanzio personally handled negotiations with higher-level officials, doling out free tickets to the Knicks, the Rangers, the Mets, and the Yankees. For those further up the ladder, he offered expense-paid trips to Disney World and other luxury retreats.
"I can't tell you what I spend on trips a year," he moaned to a fellow consultant.
One trip to a plush Vermont resort hotel went to Edmund Cunningham, a 30-year veteran fireman who had worked his way up to chief of his department's Bureau of Fire Prevention. "I wanted to thank you, you know for, uh, setting that thing up. We had a great time," Cunningham was heard saying to Lattanzio in May 1997. That same day, investigators learned, Cunningham approved a fraudulent Lattanzio application to have fire violations removed from a midtown office building he was handling. Cunningham later pleaded guilty to accepting an unlawful gratuity.
The first thing about Councilman Tom Ognibene's relationship with Lattanzio that caught the investigators' attention, according to the affidavits, was a similar vacation scheme.
On May 13, 1997, they intercepted phone conversations and faxes between Lattanzio's secretary and a Brooklyn travel agency. "Re: Prize letter," a fax from Lattanzio's office to the agency was headed. "Let me know if these are ok," was the note on the cover sheet. What followed were two letters, one addressed to Gallagher and the other to Ognibene, informing them that they had won first and second prize, respectively, in the travel agency's annual business-card drawing.
"Dear Mr. Ognibene," read the letter to the councilman. "We wish to congratulate you as our 2ND PLACE PRIZE WINNER. You were chosen out of our yearly business card drawing to receive a trip to the [Manchester, Vermont] Equinox Hotel and Spa." Accommodations would include: a townhouse suite with fireplace, a bottle of wine on arrival, a book from the Times' bestseller list, an "Equinox tartan throw," breakfast, dinner, and use of the fitness spa.
Gallagher's letter awarded him a "vacation for four" to Disney World in Florida. Making their own inquiries, detectives learned the cash value of Gallagher's trip was about $3300; Ognibene's was worth $1050.
"The chances of Ognibene and Gallagher taking first and second prize in an honest 'business-card drawing' are remote to say the least," detectives stated in an affidavit to the court. "Rather it is much more likely that the letters were written to provide a cover for a bribe."
The same day that the bogus prize letters were being faxed, detectives heard Lattanzio phone Ognibene's office.
"Hey baby," Lattanzio was greeted by Ognibene's secretary. She put him right through to Gallagher, who put Lattanzio on speaker phone with himself and the councilman.
"What's good?" Ognibene greeted him.
Lattanzio began by saying he had come up with an idea that might help Ognibene in an ongoing fight the councilmember was having with the huge development firm Forest City Ratner, which was trying to build a multiplex cinema in Forest Hills. Neighbors were virulently opposed to the project and Ognibene had vowed to block it.
"Listen, one other thing I forgot to tell you last night. . . . Call Joel Miele," he urged Ognibene, referring to the city's environmental commissioner, who was also a Queens Republican. The developer would eventually need a sewer permit from the environmental agency, he explained, and it could be blocked. "Which means people can't shit," Lattanzio said.
"I'm gonna make the phone call right now," Ognibene responded, according to the affidavits.
Lattanzio and Ognibene then briefly discussed logistics for a meeting the next morning. The consultant then shifted to something else that was weighing on his mind. As investigators later pieced it together, Lattanzio and another building consultant were pushing for an architect named Albert DeNunzio to be appointed to a key post at the buildings department. Once installed, Lattanzio said in wiretapped conversations, DeNunzio could be relied upon to give them carte blanche at the agency.