By Araceli Cruz
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
Steve Zakheim and his private ambulance corps won acclaim for handling delicate emergencies, like giving an ailing 800-pound man a free trip to the hospitalvia forklift. Zakheim also won notice when his firm, MetroCare, received permission from a friendly Giuliani administration to install 911 radios in his fleet, a move that outraged city paramedic unions.
The energetic Zakheim founded Metropolitan Ambulance in the 1980s, and later made millions by merging it with a national company called Transcare. Still, he stayed aboard as chief operating officer at his bustling headquarters on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn.
Busy as Zakheim was, however, according to a lawsuit quietly settled this month, the ambulance tycoon also spent a good deal of time hitting on and harassing his female employees. The suit, filed in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, was brought by 10 current and former staff members who worked for MetroCare. The workers claimed that Zakheim often set upon employees from the day they were hired, demanding sex in exchange for raises, boat rides, and tickets to Yankee games.
One woman, an emergency medical technician, said in legal papers that Zakheim and another company official called her to say that she "owed" them a sexual favor because they had allowed her to transport Derek Jeter to the hospital after he injured his knee in a July 4, 2002, game at Yankee Stadium, where MetroCare provides ambulance service.
Zakheim, 49, refused to discuss the lawsuit, which was withdrawn pursuant to an undisclosed settlement this month. "He denies all allegations set forth in the complaint," said his attorney, Mercedes Colwin. "The parties have now resolved it to their satisfaction."
Arnold Kriss, who represented the plaintiffs, also refused to talk about it. "My clients have instructed me not to make any comment," he said.
The lawsuit itself, however, was filed in the public record in July 2003, and came to light after Zakheim encountered other legal trouble last year. In November, the ambulance tycoon was arrested by the FBI and charged with using employees to make illegal campaign contributions to several political committees, including those of former mayor Giuliani and U.S. senator Chuck Schumer. Two weeks after that, federal attorneys in Brooklyn filed a civil fraud complaint against Zakheim and his companies, claiming they ripped off federal Medicare funds for more than $32 million through improper billingsand then forged records to cover it up.
Zakheim pled not guilty to the campaign contributions charge, and he has yet to be formally indicted in the case. Court records show he is involved in ongoing plea negotiations. In the fraud case, he has insisted he acted properly and has moved to dismiss the complaint.
The harassment lawsuit, however, depicts another side of operations at MetroCare, which calls itself the region's largest private provider of medical transport. Covering events during an eight-year period from 1994 to 2002, the suit offers a long, sad litany of abuse, one made all the more disturbing because of the number of women relating it. Zakheim allegedly taunted and teased older employees, they claimed, while preying on the youngest. His office antics allegedly included grabbing employees' hands and placing them in his opened zipper, and giving unrequested shoulder massages as women sat at their desks and peeking down their blouses.
"Look at the view," Zakheim allegedly said out loud as he stood behind Patricia Attanasio, a 36-year-old clerical employee. "You've got nice tits," he told Patricia Flournoy, a 50-year-old woman who worked for the company for five years, according to the lawsuit.
Behind closed doors in his office, Zakheim supposedly turned up the heat.
A woman who was 18 when she was hired by MetroCare, in 1998, said that in her first week on the job, Zakheim summoned her to his office and grilled her about her personal life. A few weeks later, the woman said, Zakheim offered her a ride home, only to lock the doors and grab her breasts as soon as she sat down in the passenger seat.
The employee said she later agreed to have sex with Zakheim, who is married, an affair carried out for months in his office and aboard his 37-foot pleasure boat. It ended, she said in the complaint, when she learned that her boss was having affairs with others in the office as well. Even after the woman became pregnant from a separate relationship, Zakheim allegedly continued to press her for sex, saying, "We don't have to worry about you getting pregnant."
According to Geraldine Aronofsky, 52, who worked as manager of the call-receiving department, Zakheim's standing orders were to hire only young, attractive women for the office, regardless of their experience.
"Once the individual woman applicant was hired, Defendant Zakheim attempted to date them," the complaint stated.
Former employees of Zakheim said that such women became known as "Steve Specials."
"You could tell who they were, because they were young, good-looking, and didn't know how to do anything," said another former MetroCare employee not involved in the lawsuit, who asked to remain anonymous.
According to Aronofsky, Zakheim, an orthodox Jew, taunted her and others, saying: "Have you ever had Jewish meat before? Kosher meat is the best."
Aronofsky said in legal papers that she repeatedly protested Zakheim's behavior, telling him it was "inappropriate and unprofessional." She said Zakheim insisted he would act how he pleased. "I can, and I will," she quoted him as saying. Another supervisor brushed her complaints aside, saying it was just "Steve being Steve."
Tara Bongiardina, 25, described in the complaint how she too received the full Zakheim after being hired in 1999. On her first day of work, she said, Zakheim asked her about herself, while standing embarrassingly close and leering at her body. A few weeks later, Zakheim allegedly called her into his office and offered her tickets to a Yankees game. "What am I going to get in return?" the boss allegedly asked, adding that he had "dreamed about" her the night before.
Aronofsky and another of the plaintiffs, Adrinne Forrest, said in the lawsuit that they were fired following a 2002 incident in which they complained to the company's human resources department. They said Zakheim had berated workers in the ambulance firm's call-receiving office when he couldn't get through to them. Zakheim had allegedly asked Joann Febre, another plaintiff in the lawsuit who was a dispatcher in the office, whether his workers were "reading comic books, playing with themselves, or masturbating."
Several workers later wrote a letter of protest to company personnel officials about the incident. "It's my fucking company," Zakheim allegedly later yelled at Aronofsky and others, adding, "You can stop going to Human Resources [or] get the fuck out."
A letter was later issued by company CEO Matthew Harrison, saying that Zakheim's comments were inappropriate. Zakheim's alleged response was to tell Aronofsky, who had worked at the firm for more than a decade, that he "didn't trust her anymore." A few weeks later, he terminated her employment.
The harassment suit was settled before it even made it to the discovery stage, during which Zakheim and his lawyers would have been free to test the women's stories in sworn depositions. Unmentioned in the legal papers, however, is that this isn't the first time Zakheim has been accused of sexual transgressions. In 1983, he was found guilty of misdemeanor sex abuse, a conviction he failed to report on his state license applications. The city's EMS unions, furious after Giuliani gave MetroCare the 911 contracts, unearthed the conviction and reported it in 2000. Zakheim later paid a $6,000 fine.