Bloomberg's Biggest Scandal—The Deutsche Bank Fire—Should Be His Downfall. Why Isn't It?

Mike Bloomberg's worst scandal cost two firefighters their lives. If we lived in a media world in which facts and memories mattered, the nonchalance at the highest levels of the Bloomberg administration about the hazards and warnings at the Deutsche Bank building, where Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino died on August 18, 2007, might cost him his re-election.

Our billionaire mayor will never be tarnished by the traditional pay-to-play and influence-peddling schemes that compromise politicians with ordinary bank accounts. Instead, his defining debacle is a failure of leadership, accountability, and transparency, revealed in one law enforcement report or news story after another, ever since Beddia and Graffagnino succumbed to smoke on the 14th floor of the city's most toxic building, just 118 feet from where 343 of their brothers perished six years earlier. Even Bloomberg's Department of Investigations (DOI) found last month, in a report barely noticed by the press, that it was a case of death by official dereliction.

By the time of the fire, city and state officials were so driven by their deal with J.P. Morgan Chase—which had agreed to begin building its new headquarters on the Deutsche site as soon as it was cleared—that they were pushing this unprecedented simultaneous decontamination and demolition project forward as quickly as possible. They did so without proper permits or oversight, determined to complete it before the opt-out 2008 deadlines written into the Morgan contract. Due to the extended delays that followed the fire, however, the deconstruction of the bank building remains unfinished, and Morgan has, for reasons more connected to the economic meltdown than to the Deutsche delays, walked away.

While underlings were punished, Bloomberg deflected criticism of his man, Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta.
AP Photo/Edouard H.R. Gluck
While underlings were punished, Bloomberg deflected criticism of his man, Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta.


With special reporting by Tom Feeney Jr.

Research assistance: Johanna Barr, Georgia Bobley, Lucy Jordan, and Sudip P. Mukherjee

The original $45 million takedown price tag on the Deutsche building has grown by five times. Next year, finally, the blackened 40-story carcass is slated to be gone, nearly a full decade after a 15-floor gash was cut in its side by South Tower debris and it was filled with toxins and remains thrown into the bright morning air on the city's darkest day. Everything about this project and its fire has been bungled—by one city and three state administrations—yet yesterday's headlines have become today's haze, and the role of a mayor celebrated for his competence remains largely unexamined.

Deadly mismanagement cost one mayor his job. Yankel Rosenbaum's murder in a Crown Heights race riot mishandled by the NYPD finished David Dinkins in 1993, when the media refused to give a culpable administration a pass simply because its breakdowns were two-year-old news. But we are now in an era when media moguls get together to reverse two public referendums in an undisguised effort to keep one of their own in office, a time when the mayor may be the biggest new ad buyer in town. The question now is whether the press will hold accountable a mayor who has refused to hold any of his own appointees accountable for an avoidable disaster.

In the months before August 18, 2007, there were so many fires and accidents at the Deutsche Bank site that a high-powered consultant, URS, reported to state and city officials that the giant construction management firm on the project, Bovis Lend Lease, could "no longer be trusted to ensure building safety," and that the project was "an accident waiting to happen." Fifteen days after that alarm, a cigarette butt discarded on the 17th floor sparked a fire that later consumed nine stories. So many firefighters rushed up steps and elevators that 115 were injured, 46 seriously enough to require medical leave.

The docket of pre-fire municipal malfeasance starts with the collapse of inspectional regimes at the fire and buildings departments, which combined to miss a 42-foot breach in the bank building's water-supplying standpipe for months, leaving firefighters without working hoses for more than an hour in what the Graffagnino family now calls a "death trap."

Though FDNY regulations require inspections of construction or demolition sites every 15 days, the department never inspected the bank building in the six months of work that preceded the fire. The Department of Buildings (DOB) granted the project a commonplace alteration permit, the kind that is only supposed to be approved when a project "does not change" a building's use—precisely the opposite of what was planned at the Deutsche site. According to one subsequent law enforcement report, this unusual choice of permit "allowed the building to undergo concurrent abatement and demolition," a rare and risky venture. Had a demolition permit been required instead, the building would have become the province of the DOB's demolition experts, literally called the B.E.S.T. team. Instead, "inexperienced inspectors who volunteered for the assignment and never traced the standpipe" were the ones regularly on site, with B.E.S.T. inspectors in a secondary role, the same investigative report concluded.

But the record of miscalculation is not limited to inspectional dysfunction. It extends into the upper reaches at City Hall, where the mayor's most trusted deputy, Dan Doctoroff, disregarded warnings from DOI commissioner Rose Gill Hearn in favor of the reckless predilections of Bovis, a company that had built the Lexington Avenue headquarters of Bloomberg's media company and prospered in the Bloomberg administration. Bovis insisted on making a mob-and-accident-scarred firm its prime demolition subcontractor at the Deutsche site, and Doctoroff bowed to the selection over the howls of Gill Hearn. Doctoroff later told the Times that he did it because he was satisfied that sufficient "safeguards" had been put in place to make sure that the controversial subcontractor behaved itself.

Next Page »