Underground Empire

DUMBO’s Chic Real Estate Titan Lowballs His Workers

The contract, said Pugliese of the carpenters, amounted to little more than window dressing. "These non-union companies are like an invisible empire, and the city doesn't want to acknowledge it. They make their profit from the underground economy, using unskilled immigrants and public services, and then they take city subsidies besides."

Walentas failed to respond to several messages left at his offices in Fulton Landing, the now upscale waterfront community of refurbished former warehouses and manufacturing buildings in DUMBO, near the East River. Since purchasing 10 buildings below the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges at low prices in the early 1980s, Walentas has waged a steady battle of attrition to remove scores of small industrial employers from the area. In 1984, in an effort to stop Walentas from evicting employers of more than 1,800 manufacturing workers, then governor Mario Cuomo agreed to locate state offices in Walentas's properties, including the state's Department of Labor, which relocated to 1 Main Street.

Walentas fell out of political favor during the Koch administration, and his renovation efforts stalled. But in the late 1990s, he won several crucial approvals from Rudy Giuliani's City Hall after he hired the law firm of Fischbein Badillo Wagner and Harding, which included Liberal Party leader and Giuliani political mentor Ray Harding. In 1998, Walentas began transforming his buildings, including 1 Main Street with its distinctive mansard-roofed clock tower, into luxury apartments.

Accusations of mob-orchestrated shakedowns continue to plague the city's building-trade unions, and developers might reasonably complain they were trying to avoid such problems by going non-union. But Walentas has shown no such concern in the past.

One of his key contractors, union officials report, was a non-union builder named Larry Wecker who has long been accused of mob ties and who was a close associate of Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, the late cigar-chomping leader of the Genovese crime family. Unions say Wecker's Lisa Construction handled the drywall installation at 1 Main Street and other sites for Walentas. Earlier this year, Wecker pleaded guilty in a state mob racketeering case and agreed to serve two years, concurrent with a separate sentence stemming from another conviction on federal tax fraud charges. Wecker's attorney, Robert Franklin, refused to discuss the builder's work for Walentas.

Last Thursday night, Pugliese and Tommy Atamanoff, an organizer from the Laborers union, took their inflated rat to DUMBO, where Walentas was having his corporate Christmas party. At one point Walentas taunted the protesters. "He said, 'Should I bring my cat down to play with your rat?' " said Atamanoff. "I said, 'Instead of making a joke, why don't you sit down and have a serious conversation about how your workers can have a decent Christmas?' "

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