A Political Execution?


Lost in the impeachment news was a singular event of the Giuliani era: a press conference, called by a city commissioner, that blamed the January death of a 16-year-old student, Yan Zhen Zhao, on “the lethal combination of incompetent contractors, underpaid workers, halfway safety measures, and laissez-faire supervision” orchestrated by a public agency charged with rebuilding schools.

The stinging, thoroughly documented 68-page report, released by Department of Investigation commissioner Ed Kuriansky after weeks of City Hall review, may have been allowed to see the light of day in part because its amorphous target, the School Construction Authority, is technically a state agency. The SCA, a creature of the legislature that the mayor is seeking to take over in a pending bill in Albany, is the multibillion-dollar colossus already chaired by Giuliani appointee and lifelong friend Howard Wilson, who was DOI commissioner before moving to the SCA.

It should come as no surprise that Wilson is mentioned only once, in a perfunctory footnote, even though he ran the SCA for 16 of the 21 months leading up to the widely publicized death of Zhao, who was killed by a brick falling off a school roof then under repair. Though news stories appeared about the dangerous conditions at the school three months before the fatal incident, there is no indication that Wilson took any action to examine or correct conditions at P.S. 131 in Brooklyn.

But Wilson’s apparent detachment is hardly the root of this scandal. The real culprit, ably depicted as a patronage-driven liar in the report, is Paul Atanasio, one of those just-beneath-the-surface giants of insider intrigue who is the governor’s sole trustee on the three-member board (the other member is Deputy Chancellor Harry Spence). Atanasio is the most prominent ally of Conservative Party boss Mike Long in a Pataki post. An investment banker at Bear Stearns who once hired Long as a consultant, Atanasio has won billions in state bond business since Pataki took office.

The Giuliani-inspired assault on Atanasio adds to the mounting tensions between New York’s two principal Republicans, even though Kuriansky, in response to questions at the press conference, stopped short of saying the governor should seek Atanasio’s resignation (“That’s the governor’s decision to make”). Pataki’s press office said last week that he had nothing to say about the demands for Atanasio’s head emanating from such quarters as Public Advocate Mark Green and Assembly education chair Steve Sanders. Green wrote the governor a letter concluding that Atanasio “must be held at least partially accountable” for Zhao’s death, and Sanders told the Voice that Pataki “should fire Atanasio.”

All Atanasio did was put in place the unqualified, virtual no-show project officer charged with monitoring the renovation, Gary Marrone, whose SCA job, like Atanasio’s, was a byproduct of their joint close ties to Long. Not only did Marrone allow the contractor to do the roof work without erecting a legally required sidewalk shed, he directed that a protective fence be taken down in precisely the area where the child was killed.

When questioned by DOI and SCA inspector general Peter Pope, whose office spearheaded the probe, Atanasio claimed he had “no involvement at all in Marrone’s hiring,” learning about it from his special assistant, Marrone’s wife, Fran Vella-Marrone, only after it had occurred. Atanasio also insisted he had no idea that Marrone’s hiring might violate written antinepotism policies at the SCA, contending he did not know any existed until June 1998, after the Voice first exposed the Marrone scandal (“Patronage Outrage,” May 5, 1998).

Elements of these Atanasio claims were contradicted by five witnesses, including Donald Zucker, the real estate developer who chaired the board in April 1996 when Marrone was put on the payroll; Leonard Supp, the interim president; counsel Joseph Giamboi; and Milo Riverso, the current president. Even Fran Marrone, who’s the Bay Ridge Conservative leader and vice chair of the Brooklyn party, said she “spoke directly to Atanasio” and told him her husband “was interested in working for the SCA,” adding that Atanasio said Marrone should “go ahead and apply for the position.”

Supp stated that he told Atanasio the hiring might create “an appearance of impropriety,” and suggested an alternative employer, but said he believed it could be done without violating the nepotism ban. Atanasio told him, “I would like it to happen.” Zucker added that Atanasio approached him after a trustee meeting and asked if he had any objection to the hiring of Gary Marrone. Atanasio denied that either conversation occurred, insisting as well that Riverso and Giamboi had told him no antinepotism policy existed, a claim they disputed.

Asked at the press conference if Atanasio was “truthful” in his interviews with the IG, Kuriansky said, “I don’t want to comment on that.” Atanasio’s “apparently false statements,” as Mark Green’s letter to Pataki put it, were not referred, as is DOI’s custom, to a district attorney for possible prosecution, ostensibly because the IG did not require Atanasio to appear under oath. Neither were Gary Marrone’s “material falsehoods” in his SCA job application— including the submission of a phony birth date to avoid discovery of a prior criminal conviction— referred to a prosecutor.

DOI also decided not to ask Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes, who’s prosecuting only the private contractors for criminally negligent manslaughter in the case, to reexamine Marrone’s role. Asked if Gary Marrone should be charged with criminal responsibility, Kuriansky said, “I don’t care to make that judgment.”

Absent a referral letter on Marrone’s possible culpability from Kuriansky, Hynes issued a statement noting simply that “the investigation is concluded.” At the time of the indictment of the contractor and its site supervisor, Hynes said that “the ineptitude of SCA employees” at the school did not rise “to the level of criminal conduct,” adding that “it came pretty damn close” and “better not happen again.” But Assemblyman Sanders told the Voice he was “reaching out to Hynes” to ask him “to widen the scope of the investigation.”

As damning as the bare-bones chronology of the report is, the failure to state hard-nosed sound-bite conclusions about Atanasio or either of the Marrones, as well as the unwillingness to make referrals, may turn it into a dead letter. Kuriansky acknowledged at the press conference that changes were made in the report after it was sent to the mayor, who asked DOI to probe the incident shortly after it occurred. Everyone involved insists that Giuliani did not “sanitize” the report, but its delayed release could not have appeared at a worse time in the news cycle.

Coincidentally, Giuliani, who has never been endorsed by the Conservatives but convinced them to leave their line blank in the 1997 mayoral race (for the first time in their 36-year history), attended a party fundraiser the night before the report was released. Should Giuliani seek the Moynihan senate seat in 2000, he will need Long’s support. No Republican has won statewide office without the Conservative line since Jacob Javits ran as a Republican-Liberal in 1974.

If a Republican other than Giuliani gets the Conservative line that spring, it would compound the problems Rudy might face in a September GOP primary and split the November vote if he won the primary. Long’s invitation to Giuliani to attend his first Conservative event last week suggests that either the party boss had no idea how the Marrones and Atanasio would be described in the report, or was satisfied that the timing, muted language, and absence of referrals protected his flank.

Atanasio concedes in the report that he hired Fran Marrone on Long’s recommendation. Gary Marrone concedes he got a job at the Javits Convention Center— where he was hired and fired prior to going to the SCA— “with the assistance of Mike Long.” Fran Marrone admits that, sometimes with Atanasio’s help, she tried to get 20 other people jobs at the SCA, succeeding at least twice. She refused to disclose to investigators who her candidates were, but all three whose names the Voice obtained were connected to Long’s tiny party.

That’s the heart of this story— a patronage empire encouraged by the Pataki administration and tolerated by Giuliani appointees that eventually contributed to the death of an innocent.

Research: Will Johnson, David Kihara, David Shaftel, and Nicole White