By Albert Samaha
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Throughout Williamsburg's building boom, as scaffoldings and construction fences have blossomed on every block, the guys to see to get fast city approvals for such things have been an industrious pair of brothers named Jacob and Hershey Fekete.
They are modest men and neither of them is willing to discuss their accomplishments. But if not for the magic these brothers weave, scores of new Brooklyn buildings would have taken far longer to complete at far greater expense.
The skill of the Brothers Fekete (pronounced "FEH-keh-tuh") is all the more remarkable because the tools of their trade are the simple badges they've received from the city's Department of Buildings designating them as officially registered building-plan expediters.
These are private individuals retained by developers to make sure their plans do not fall under a desk or behind a radiator. City officials insist that building plans move no faster whether an expediter is retained or not. But just try telling that to a serious builder. He'll say that he would sooner visit the deepest Amazon without a guide or climb mighty Everest all on his own.
Proving their usefulness, the ranks of expediters have surged in recent years: There are some 2,800 of them now actively pushing paper at the agency, up from 2,200 just two years ago. Moreover, the entry requirements into this profitable field are minimal: The ability to read and write English, plus a $50 fee, will suffice. No other formal training is required.
The Feketes are among the all-stars in their craft. Jacob, 44, was once the more active of the pair, with the contact numbers for top bureaucrats and City Hall officials stored in his cell phone. Unfortunately, matters related to a nasty arson fire in 2002 in Bushwick, followed by a big federal indictment (more on this later), have consumed his attention in recent years. Brother Hershey, 38, has stepped up nicely, however, filing some 1,798 permit applications with the department since then, records show.
A good example of the Fekete approach to expediting can be found in a recent decision by an administrative law judge. Buildings department officials asked Judge Kara Miller to consider the possibility that Hershey Fekete had carried things a bit too far by submitting doctored photographs in an effort to win approvals for several buildings.
The photos in question had been submitted over several weeks in late 2004 and early 2005, when they landed on the desk of city plans examiner John Gallagher. The photos, which had been stamped as accurate by a licensed engineer, were submitted by Hershey Fekete as evidence that, in compliance with regulations, a new sidewalk with a new catch basin had been properly installed outside a row of new buildings on South Third Street in Williamsburg.
These photos sought to document that Fekete's client had faithfully completed an agency requirement called a Builder's Pavement Plan. Once the plan is accepted, the next step is the Certificate of Occupancy. This is the sacred document that lets condo sales or rentals go forward. Soon, the money rolls in the door in barrels.
But the more the plans examiner looked, the more confused he grew. There was the first photo, which showed the catch basin improperly covered by part of the curb. This was stamped as rejected. Fekete had then submitted a second photo intended to show that the problem was fixed. This too fell short. Within a matter of days, a third photo was received showing that a new catch basin had been installed, this one free of the curb and gloriously ready to accept any water runoff the street might offer.
Even allowing for the mighty Fekete skill set, this achievement seemed impossibly fast, since a new catch basin requires a separate city approval taking weeks, not days.
There was also the matter of the before-and-after shots of the new catch basin. Both photos showed the same vintage Dodge sedan, missing the same rear hubcap, parked in the same spot. The same crushed plastic soda bottle lay undisturbed nearby. And there was the same pedestrian, caught in mid-stride, wearing the same outfit, in the same position as he marched down the street.
Everyone who looked at these photos quickly reached the same conclusion: fakes.
Nor was it the only such instance. Gallagher also came to question photos submitted by Hershey Fekete during the same period for a building at 11 Lynch Street in Williamsburg.
In some of the photos, garbage cans in front of the building appeared to float, gravity-free, above the pavement. Also strangely suspended in mid-air was a portion of the building's façade where the pattern of the brickwork was oddly different from the rest of the building. When the plans examiner next had occasion to drive through Williamsburg, he stopped by Lynch Street to take a look. There he noticed that where the photos depicted floating garbage cans and mismatched bricks, there was a flight of seven steps. Such stairs are not in compliance with the city's building code, which mandates that new multiple dwellings be accessible to the handicapped.
The same internal verdict within the buildings agency was quickly reached: fraud.
Arguing that Fekete had deliberately tried to pull a fast one, the department filed charges. It sought to take away Hershey Fekete's expediter badge, as well as the right of the engineer who had approved these photos to make such self-certifications.