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Caridi insisted that he brought plenty of experience to the table, including the renovation of the 600-room Holiday Inn on West 57th Street and the construction of a 200-unit condo in New Jersey. He said he'd won the necessary zoning changes for Harlem Park and completed a design with an acclaimed architect in a relatively short period of time. His problems were the fault of bureaucratic snags and environmental woes, he said. "In a large-scale development there are a lot of different things that occur. This was a complicated job."
Caridi also insisted that there is no merit to another concern raised by one of the trusteeshis family's past brushes with organized crime. In 1998, Caridi's sister Michele, and her husband, Edward "Biff" Halloran, an alleged Genovese crime family associate, were charged in a securities swindle (Michele pleaded guilty; her husband fled). An uncle, Stephen Caridi, went to prison in 2001 after admitting to bribing labor officials who held lavish retreats at the family-owned Friar Tuck Inn in the Catskills.
"I think our conversation is over," Caridi said when first asked about the issue. But he later got back on the phone to say those problems had nothing to do with him. "I have 10 brothers and sisters. There are doctors and lawyers in my family. Problems happen in life and you figure it out and move on."
But the builder acknowledged that he had thrown his own curveball when he told reporters the story about his lucky drive-by discovery of the site. While he had often driven past the corner, it wasn't until he was sitting in Levine's college office that the subject of a possible development came up.
Caridi said he was there to try and sell a new medical device for wound dressings to the school when Levine raised the topic. "He said, 'What else do you do?' I said, 'I do some real estate development.' He said, 'Do you have any ideas for my parking lot?' I said I'd give it some thought."
Medical equipment is only one of Caridi's many sidelines. "I am an entrepreneur," he said. He also runs an import- export firm seeking to sell bottled water from an Alaskan lake, a firm that packages tours for casino high rollers, and a security guard company. In the 1990s he won a Pentagon contract to dismantle a World War II navy carrier, one of the ships later cited as an environmental danger in India, where it was salvaged for scrap. "That wasn't us. We got accolades from the navy," said Caridi.
He also got accolades from Levine, who awarded him an honorary degree of podiatric medicine at a ceremony where Pataki and Gargano were present. "I get a lot of awards," said Caridi.
Levine, who served in the administrations of governors Rockefeller and Carey, declined to talk about his school or its real estate deal. According to Caridi and others, the current plan calls for selling and moving the school's entire campus. "He doesn't feel he's in a position to discuss it," said a spokesman. "It's at a sensitive point."
Located on East 124th Street since 1927, the school runs a clinic that serves many Harlem residents suffering from diabetes ailments. But it's had a rough time of it in recent years. Its student body has shrunk to less than 300, and in 2004 it agreed to pay $4 million to settle charges brought by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office that it had improperly allocated costs in seeking Medicaid reimbursements for its clinic.
Those financial troubles had spurred the interest in leasing the parking lot, trustees said. But they added that Levine had communicated little about his plans until Caridi suddenly appeared at board meetings.
Board members said they grew more disturbed as details of the project filtered out. In a submission seeking city economic development aid, Caridi indicated he intended to raise a whopping 90 percent of his project costs from government loans and bondsan unusually large amount. Trustees were also alarmed about the lease Levine signed with Caridi. While the main document, dated January 2003, was a detailed 60 pages allotting the builder a 48-year term on the property, one month later the pair signed a hurriedly hand-scrawled, one-sentence agreement that gave Caridi 51 more years on the dealwith a break in rent.
"It was a last-minute negotiation," explained Caridi, who said he needed the extra term to make the project more attractive for bank financing.