Danger Below


On July 24, 1997, crooked buildings consultant Ronald Lattanzio and the head of the city’s largest building-contractors group were heard on wiretaps celebrating their good fortune and singing the praises of City Councilman Thomas Ognibene.

The Queens Republican had gone to bat for their proposal to the state’s Department of Labor to set up a training school for construction-site safety managers. Lattanzio was to be a well-paid instructor. The good news had just come from Albany: They were getting a $123,000 state grant.

Lou Colletti, director of the New York Building Trades Employers Association, was telling Lattanzio how he had relayed the news to the president of his association, contractor Michael Mazzucca.

“I told Mazzucca, who almost shit,” said Colletti. “I said, uh, ‘Tom Ognibene really delivered for us.’ . . . And I says, ‘And now I’m gonna tell you something else.’ I says, ‘You know how I got to meet him?’ He says, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Through Ron Lattanzio.’ I says, ‘Yeah, I didn’t know Tom Ognibene,’ I said, ‘Ron Lattanzio has really gone the extra mile to help us connect all the dots and get this thing in here and I’m gonna involve him, Mike.’ ”

Political representatives usually take pride in helping constituents win government funding. But Ognibene, the City Council minority leader and close ally of Mayor Giuliani, isn’t taking any bows for the state labor grant or anything else he did with Ron Lattanzio, who has since been revealed as the epicenter of a bribery and bid-rigging ring preying on the city’s buildings department and other agencies. In the wake of a Voice story last week revealing his relationship with Lattanzio, Ognibene isn’t taking phone calls from the press at all. At the same time, investigators in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office are continuing to investigate the politician’s dealings with the consultant.

Lattanzio, who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors after his 1998 arrest, has admitted to plying Ognibene with campaign contributions and offers of travel. Lattanzio said Ognibene helped squelch a troublesome state investigation, pushed City Hall to hire the consultant’s pals, and regularly used his political clout on behalf of Lattanzio’s building projects.

In turn, Lattanzio was Ognibene’s chief campaign fundraiser, raising contributions from contractors and buildings consultants. In his conversation with Colletti—one of the most influential figures in the city’s construction industry—Lattanzio went straight from discussing the new state grant to his benefactor’s upcoming political fundraiser.

“Okay, now, the other thing is, you will get it probably in the mail within the next couple of days. Tom’s big fundraiser’s gonna be August 28. . . . The governor’s gonna be there . . . from six to six-thirty, and the mayor’s gonna be there,” said Lattanzio. “It’s gonna be a big one.”

“Thanks, Ronnie, for everything,” said Colletti in closing.

“All right buddy, now we’re together on this one,” responded Lattanzio. Minutes after he got off the phone with Colletti, Lattanzio promptly put in an excited call to Ognibene’s chief of staff, Dennis Gallagher, who was handling the councilman’s reelection-campaign fundraising activities. Colletti was “crawling all over himself to see what he can do for you,” Lattanzio said.

“Yeah, what do you think he’s gonna bring in?” asked Gallagher eagerly.

“I think you gotta look between 35 and 50 [thousand dollars] from him,” said the consultant.

“Huh. That would be great,” responded Gallagher.

The men briefly discussed the state grant again. “It’s a grant that he hasn’t had in two years you guys got him. . . . He is doing fucking cartwheels,” said Lattanzio.

The council aide still wanted to make sure Colletti understood how to bring in the campaign checks. “Plus he’s got to get individuals, corps, companies, businesses. . . .”

“Oh yeah,” said Lattanzio. “We’re gonna start churning some dollars now.”

Campaign filing records show that Colletti’s organization gave $1000 to Ognibene’s campaign for the fundraiser. Members of his association gave thousands more.

It is illegal for elected officials to give assistance in exchange for campaign contributions. Colletti and Gallagher did not return calls. State labor department officials confirmed that the grant was awarded but were unable to provide specifics.

As leader of the city’s unionized construction contractors, Colletti has been an ardent advocate of increased safety in construction. He has backed New York City’s laws—considered some of the toughest in the nation—that require contractors to have a certified site-safety manager at every construction project of a building over 15 stories or that covers more than 100,000 square feet.

Safety managers are responsible for checking every aspect of a construction job, from the roof to giant cranes. They must attend a 40-hour city-approved safety course, pass a written test, and complete on-the-job training under an already licensed safety expert.

For Colletti, training more safety experts was another way to improve his industry. For Ron Lattanzio, safety was just another potentially lucrative scam. For his main business, expediting building permits and arranging contracts, sidestepping city regulations was routine. The consultant has admitted to bribing inspectors and rigging bids. His other firm, All Safe Consultants, which provided certified safety consultants to contractors, had similar practices. Investigators listened as Lattanzio’s staff discussed forged safety logs and site managers who illegally covered two jobs at the same time.

On August 13, a couple of weeks after the state grant came through, investigators heard Lattanzio excitedly telling a fellow buildings consultant about the new program.

“I’m telling you this fuckin’ safety shit is just gonna be; I’m putting together a demonstration project that we’re gonna do through Colletti,” Lattanzio said. He would combine the training program with another plan that called for exempting certain construction jobs that used site-safety managers from supervision by OSHA, the federal watchdog of workplace safety, he said. He could barely contain himself.

“It’s a fuckin’ home run,” he said. “We can make some money on this one,” he added.

Lattanzio said he would bill the program $65 an hour for his services. “Which is like $15 an hour more than my normal rate, and we’ll whack that out. You take $7 for every hour my guy works, it’s 2000 hours . . . a year, it’s a year-and-a-half project, it’s over 20 grand.”

“Okay, fine with me,” answered Frank Fortino, head of Metropolis Consulting. Fortino’s firm donated $3000 to Ognibene’s 1997 campaign. But he said he had no recollection of the phone conversation. He hasn’t been charged and has not spoken with Lattanzio since his 1998 arrest. “We do strictly consulting, no site-safety work,” he said.

Lattanzio’s company, however, held several site-safety contracts, including one at the 48-story Condé Nast Tower in Times Square where a scaffolding collapse caused the death of an 82-year-old woman in 1998. Lattanzio’s attorney said at the time that All Safe wasn’t responsible for monitoring the scaffolding.