By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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.
Happily for the Fekete family, after a year of motions and three days of trial, Judge Miller disagreed. She ruled that while the photos had unquestionably been fixed, Hershey Fekete was not to blame. For one thing, she found that Fekete—who was ably represented by a former buildings department counsel named Stuart Klein—had credibly testified that he had nothing to do with the fakery: He had simply obtained the photos from his clients. For another, wrote Miller, expediters are not professionals and it would be "unreasonable to hold them to the same standard of care." (As reported by Brian Kates in the Daily News, the judge ruled that engineers do not have the same excuse, and the agency has since moved to ban Fekete's associate. He has appealed.)
As for Fekete, who was described during the trial as the scheme's mastermind, buildings department spokeswoman Kate Lindquist said the agency is "exploring ways to enhance the qualifications to be an expediter."
Brooklyn assemblyman James Brennan, who authored a new law that lets the agency bar misbehaving professionals, said he would be glad to help. "The misconduct in this case was staggering," said Brennan. "There's clearly a gap in the law that needs to be filled."
It is not the first time that the Fekete brothers have shown this kind of talent and resilience.
Back in 1998, Jacob Fekete was publicly credited with what has long been hailed as the crowning achievement in the world of building expediters. This was after he warned the buildings commissioner for Brooklyn that if he didn't stop objecting to Fekete's permits, the commissioner would be out of a job. Borough commissioner Joseph Trivisonno scoffed at this bully talk. Trivisonno continued to maintain that a condo project Jacob Fekete was representing on Heyward Street in Williamsburg was too large for the site and lacked a code-compliant entrance ramp. Fekete did some dialing on his cell phone to his City Hall contacts. Trivisonno soon found himself forcibly retired.
"You had to ruin my day?" Trivisonno said last week when Fekete's name was mentioned.
After Trivisonno was forced out, former colleagues told him that Jacob and Hershey Fekete now had the run of the Brooklyn office. "I heard they got tremendous after I left," said Trivisonno.
But Jacob Fekete's string of good luck was interrupted when a massive late-night fire broke out in a warehouse on Evergreen Avenue in September 2002. The three-alarm blaze drew 245 firefighters, injuring two. When the smoke cleared, a health-care and beauty-aids firm facing money problems had sadly lost much of its stock. The company, owned by associates of Fekete, tried to collect $100 million from its insurers. The insurers declined, citing an official finding that the fire had been intentionally set.
According to a federal indictment issued in June 2004, it was Jacob Fekete's task to find someone willing to revise the arson report. Court rec-ords show that Fekete went straight to an old friend in the buildings department and asked him to recommend a fire marshal who would understand that the fire was just one of those things. The introduction was quickly made. To buttress his argument, Fekete agreed to pay the marshal $100,000 in cash provided by his friends. Fekete had already paid $54,500 of this bribe when the bad news hit that the fire marshal was only pretending to be corrupt.
Federal prosecutors and Fekete's lawyer declined to discuss the matter, but court rec-ords show that Jacob Fekete pled guilty in 2006 to bribery. According to sources, the plea came after Fekete agreed to cooperate, telling all he knew about the scheme. He is to be sentenced next month.
Alan Lewis, Fekete's attorney, insisted that whatever happened in the arson case, it had nothing to do with either Jacob's or Hershey's activities as buildings expediters.
"Jacob Fekete is probably the most thoroughly scrutinized expediter in the history of New York City," said Lewis. "If the authorities who conducted the investigation had found anything that impugned Mr. Fekete's integrity as an expediter, they would have acted on it. The fact that they haven't speaks volumes."
Undoubtedly so. Not to mention that a knack for getting in and out of trouble without apparent damage can be very helpful in the expediting business.