By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The buildings consultant who pleaded guilty to bribing city councilman Thomas Ognibene with gifts and meals in exchange for help with city agencies also dealt with another influential councilman, court records show.
Consultant Ron Lattanzio detailed his involvement with Ognibene in his testimony last week as a prosecution witness at the bribery trial of Brooklyn's former chief buildings inspector. But the trial disclosed only a portion of Lattanzio's dealings.
Records show that as detectives listened in on court-authorized wiretaps on May 5, 1997, Lattanzio talked about getting Brooklyn city councilman Noach Dear's help for an engineer facing city and state disciplinary probes for misuse of his license.
"So, I told Noach Dear and supposedly he's handled that person," Lattanzio told the engineer, Richard Kamholtz.
Both Lattanzio and Kamholtz had plenty to fear from the investigations. For years, as Lattanzio admitted in his testimony in Manhattan Supreme Court, he had used Kamholtz's professional engineering license seal on building planseven though Kamholtz never so much as glanced at the plans himself. Using the retired engineer's seal helped save costs, Lattanzio said, because licensed engineers charged high fees.
The same day that detectives heard Lattanzio bring up Dear's name, they also heard the consultant tell someone in Dear's office that he was going to be contributing $5500 to Dear's campaign at a fundraising event that night. Later, they tailed Lattanzio as he traveled from his office to Dear's benefit.
Campaign finance records show that Dear, a Democrat who has represented Brooklyn's Borough Park and Midwood neighborhoods since 1982, did even better than promised, receiving $6200 from Lattanzio and his close associates for two separate campaigns he had underway that year. Filings show Dear's City Council reelection campaign received three checks for $900 each that month from three different organizations with ties to Lattanzio. Lattanzio also personally donated $1500 to Dear's losing 1998 campaign for Congress; his wife Stacey contributed $1000; and another $1000 was given by an official of a building-code consultants' group that operated out of Lattanzio's office.
Dear, who was a major fundraiser for former president Bill Clinton, did not return detailed messages left with his council office. Norman Bloch, an attorney representing Lattanzio, declined to comment.
Ognibene also refused to talk to the Voice, which broke the story two weeks ago about his relationship with Lattanzio. But the minority leader of the City Council did begin speaking to other newspapers as Lattanzio got closer to the witness stand last week to begin testifying against Darral Hilton, a former city buildings-inspections supervisor he claimed to have bribed. The councilman's statements evolved over the ensuing days.
On Tuesday, the day before Lattanzio took the stand, the Queens Republican insisted he hadn't received anything more than lunch from the consultant. On Wednesday, he told Newsday's Patricia Hurtado and Pete Bowles flat out that "I never got any gifts from him."
On Thursday, Lattanzio itemized eight separate gifts to the councilman, including "countless meals," an upgrade of his suite at a Hawaiian hotel where Ognibene and his wife vacationed, golf clubs, fishing rods, tickets to a Pavarotti concert, paying for campaign fundraisers, and catering meals at the councilman's office. Ognibene quickly changed his story. He acknowledged the hotel upgrade, the meals, and the fishing rods, which he said were useless. "I didn't benefit from anything," Ognibene told the Times' Katherine Finkelstein.
In the kind of gruff sound bite that has made him popular among City Hall reporters, Ognibene said, "No one fished, and to the best of my knowledge, when there was an office cleaning they were thrown out." It would seem strange that no one fished, since state motor vehicle records show that in 1998, at the time Lattanzio was making gifts, Ognibene became the owner of a 28-foot fiberglass Bayliner boat. Ognibene also got chuckles with his line to the Timesabout the meals Lattanzio had paid for at his office. "At the time it seemed pretty innocuous. I never ate that much," he said.
Although investigators shadowed every move made by Hilton, the former inspection chief, as he dined with Lattanzio at Alberto's in Forest Hills, they didn't record how much he ate of the Chilean sea bass he ordered that evening. Hilton, a father of three from south Queens, saw his 14-year career as a city employee evaporate after he was accused by prosecutors of taking two free meals and a ticket to a Knicks game from Lattanzio. He aided Lattanzio, as prosecutors put it to the jury, by showing a Lattanzio employee around the buildings agency offices and by agreeing to check out some property violations for Lattanzio.
And while prosecutors kept track of hundreds of recordings made for them by Lattanzio, they somehow lost the one he made of that meal. Not until Hilton's attorney, Stuart Tarshis, made a motion to dismiss the charges did the Alberto's tape finally surface. When the tape was played for the jury last week, Lattanzio was clearly heard telling the waiter out of Hilton's presence, "Give me the check; I know he'll fight me for it."
On the stand, Lattanzio told the jury in Justice Ronald Zweibel's courtroom that while he had shared an estimated eight to 10 meals with Hilton, their relationship was strictly business, never social. Lattanzio acknowledged that he and Hilton had talked about their sons, both of whom suffered from febrile seizures. But he insisted each was simply using the other for similar goals. "I had built a relationship with him," the consultant testified. "One hand washes the other."
Among Lattanzio's promises to Hilton as they dined was to bring him to the Friday lunches at Ognibene's office. There, he told him, he'd be able to meet powerful people, including Ognibene's law partner, Gerard McCabe, whose brother Kevin was then a chief aide to City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. "You'll meet Vallone's guy," said Lattanzio.
Gerard McCabe, who is no longer a partner with Ognibene, said he barely knew Lattanzio. Kevin McCabe, who left Vallone's staff three years ago, said he considered Ognibene "a straight shooter" and had never heard of Lattanzio.
Sometimes, even the illusion of power and access can be helpful, Lattanzio explained to the jury in testimony that frequently sounded like a seminar on municipal corruption. "One of the things about city people," he said at one point from the witness chair, "if you tend to have contacts, it benefits them."
Prosecutors estimated the cost of Hilton's meal at Alberto's, in addition to a lunch at the Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger's and the basketball game ticket, at less than $300. No estimates have been made of the value of the sustained benevolence to Ognibene, including the hotel upgrade, the fishing rods, the golf clubs, and the "countless" meals given by Lattanzio to Ognibene and his staff. But a check on the price of tickets for upcoming concerts by the world's most famous tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, found none selling for less than $200 apiece. None of the gifts are listed on Ognibene's personal financial disclosure forms filed with the city's Conflicts of Interest Board.
Other areas also remain unexplored. When investigators broke into Lattanzio's Canal Street office months before his 1998 arrest, they found a Mets baseball calendar indicating that Ognibene had attended two ball games with the consultant. Investigators said their probe of Ognibene is ongoing, and last week they were continuing to question the councilman and his staff about campaign expenses and other matters.