Willful Neglect in Williamsburg
Following a yearlong investigation, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are expected to unveil criminal charges soon against a politically connected developer whose building collapsed last year while under construction. The collapse sent 12 day-laborersrecruited that morning on a street corner in Williamsburghurtling three stories below into a stew of wet concrete. One of them, Eduardo Daniel, 21, who had traveled to Brooklyn from his home in Mexico, drowned beneath a hail of wood and concrete blocks.
According to law enforcement officials, the charges against developer Eugene Ostreicher will include willful violation of federal safety rules leading to a fatality.
Such charges are rare, labor safety experts say. "It is very uncommon," said Jonathan Bennett of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a watchdog group. "You must show that the employer willfully violated the law without regard to workers' safety."
The November 23, 1999, collapse at 50 Middleton Street occurred as Ostreicher, an active housing developer in the heavily Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in Williamsburg, was pressing to finish a new row house development to be sold as high-priced condos to the community's swelling Orthodox population. Investigators found that the laborers, who were paid cash at the end of each day, were asked to pour concrete floors where inadequate floor joists were in use. The men, most of them undocumented workers, were provided no protection against falls as required under federal safety codes.
Those findings led to a civil penalty of $145,000 imposed by OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, charged with safeguarding the nation's workforce. Ostreicher is contesting the charges.
"This employer willfully failed to follow OSHA's construction industry safety standards," said Patricia Clark, the agency's regional administrator, when announcing the fine in February.
But the criminal investigation, which was conducted by representatives of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Department of Justice for the Eastern District of New York, reached even harsher conclusions. The project was carried out with minimal and inexperienced supervision, they found. Substandard materials were used. And in an earlier OSHA probe of a 1996 accident at a project on nearby Lorimer Street, investigators say Ostreicher gave materially false statements.
But what has kept the investigation going all these months is the graver suspicion that Ostreicher believed his political connections allowed him to ignore most regulations.
City fire inspectors, who questioned Ostreicher's son, Chaim, about safety defects at the Lorimer Street project, said he pulled them aside and flashed an honorary police badge in his wallet. Known as "Richie" at the local police precinct where he was a regular visitor, Chaim Ostreicher had a police parking placard and even parked his car in the restricted area below police headquarters in Manhattan, where he hobnobbed with top officials.
There was more. Five months before Daniel's death, Mayor Giuliani's chief of staff, Tony Carbonetti, personally traveled to Williamsburg to inspect the Ostreichers' Lorimer Street projects where fire inspectors had issued a vacate order, citing serious violations. Carbonetti later explained to investigators that he had gone at the behest of Joseph Spitzer, an Ostreicher friend and wealthy real estate owner from Borough Park in Brooklyn who had contributed more than $80,000 to Mayor Giuliani's campaigns. Spitzer was so close to City Hall that Carbonetti issued him an official park-anywhere pass. City Hall press spokesmen later asserted that Carbonetti upheld the vacate order, but it was never enforced until Daniel's death five months later drew intense scrutiny of the Ostreichers' projects.
Investigators questioned Carbonetti, as well as another top Giuliani aide, Bruce Teitelbaum, who had served as Giuliani's liaison to New York's Orthodox Jewish community and had acknowledged helping to remove a chief buildings department inspector after Orthodox developers in Brooklyn complained he was overly zealous in his performance. Giuliani, then a potential Senate candidate, angrily labeled the inquiry "political." The mayor said nothing about the fate of Eduardo Daniel. His administration never honored the firefighters and emergency service workers who had pulled the laborers, coated in concrete, from the bottom of the building.
Ostreicher, who secured one of the city's best criminal defense attorneys, Benjamin Brafman, has denied any wrongdoing. Brafman declined comment.
So much time has passed since the incident that OSHA is about to pass into the hands of a new administration and a Republican Party traditionally hostile to government intrusion in the workplace. Safety expert Bennett recalled that under the Reagan administration, there was a significant increase in on-the-job accidents for the first time since the OSHA legislation was passed. "The first people the Reagan administration appointed to head OSHA were some of the same ones who had called for its elimination," said Bennett.
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