Barrett: Builder Blamed In Firefighter Deaths Is Building Bill Thompson’s Wife’s Museum


Bovis Lend Lease, the contractor whose admitted failings contributed to the deaths of two firefighters at the Deutsche Bank fire in 2007, is building the $180 million museum and condo project on Fifth Avenue spearheaded by Elsie McCabe, the wife of mayoral candidate and Comptroller Bill Thompson.

When the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA) endorsed Thompson last month, its president, Steve Cassidy, repeatedly cited the “egregious” mishandling of the takedown of the Deutsche bank building as the prime rationale for the endorsement. As the construction manager of the job, Bovis, one of whose employees faces negligent homicide charges in the bank fire case, began doing preliminary work on McCabe’s Museum for African Art project four months after the tragedy.

By then, Bovis’ role in the unsafe management of the Deutsche Bank deconstruction had already been highlighted in news accounts. Park View Fifth Avenue Associates, a partnership of the museum and the developers building a companion 115-unit luxury condo project signed the construction contract with Bovis in October 2008, according to Rod O’Connor, an executive with Brickman Associates, the lead developer.

When the contract was signed, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was actively considering indicting the city and the company in the death of firefighters Robert Beddia and Joseph Graffagnino, a fact that was widely reported. In December, Morgenthau indicted Bovis’ site safety manager but not the company itself, though his statement said the office had “determined that it could institute a criminal prosecution” against Bovis, but didn’t because an indictment could bankrupt the construction giant, which employs thousands.

I have tried repeatedly to get a statement from Bill Thompson about the construction of his wife’s musem to no avail. He’s also been reluctant to talk about Bovis and Deutsche Bank fire. I can’t say for certain that he’s avoiding these issues because Bovis is building his wife’s museum.

But the guys at the UFA, who do care about dead firefighters, can’t be too pleased with the news.

We reported earlier that the DA found that Bovis had filed “fraudulent” daily checklists that failed to report the breach in the standpipe that made it impossible to get water onto the bank fire, as well as covered up numerous other fires and incidents that occurred prior to August catastrophe. Bovis also hired a mob-tied subcontractor with a foul safety record to do much of the demolition over the objections of investigators, and two of the subcontractor’s top employees were also indicted for murder, as was the company itself. Morgenthau uncovered a safety consultant report filed just weeks before the deadly fire that concluded that Bovis “could no longer be trusted to ensure building safety” and that the project was an “accident waiting to happen.”

At the same time that McCabe and her partners were signing up with Bovis, the Bloomberg administration was cutting them loose. The company built Bloomberg L.P.’s Lexington Avenue headquarters during the mayor’s first term and was seen as the mayor’s favorite builder prior to the fire, profiting from what one city official says was “a special relationship.” After it, Bovis lost major contracts with the Economic Development, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, and the School Construction Authority. The Times reported in September that the city was giving it no new work.

Morgenthau and federal prosecutors are continuing to investigate allegations of overbilling and bribery against Bovis on several city jobs, another reason why the city has pulled much of its business. Ironically, one of the chief functions of a comptroller is to review claims filed by construction firms like Bovis to ensure that they are not overbilling the city.

In July, I did the cover story linked to above about the Deutsche Bank fire. It was not just another piece of copy for me. I co-authored a book called Grand Illusion about 9/11 and spent a year learning all the ways the city figured out to kill firefighters before and on that day. I have five living firefighters, mostly retired, on my Brooklyn block. I proved in that story why the Deutsche Bank fire was Mike Bloomberg’s “biggest scandal,” and why it was fair to call them “deaths by official dereliction.”

When the story was published, I tried, with many phone calls and e-mails, to get Bill Thompson to say something. He wouldn’t. His top aides explained that Thompson, as comptroller, might have to rule on a settlement figure for the families of firefighters who have sued the city. I took them at their word. I went to a memorial service for the firefighters marking the two-year anniversary of their deaths at a Manhattan church, but Thompson did not show.

I watched the video of the UFA endorsing Thompson in September, and Cassidy repeatedly attributing the union’s opposition to Bloomberg to the lack of accountability over the mishandling of the Deutsche Bank deconstruction. Thompson gave a speech after Cassidy at that event, but oddly refrained from even saying a word about fire deaths that had been the fiery heart of Cassidy’s grim statement. During a question period dominated by Deutsche Bank issues, Thompson finally said: “I think the Mayor acted miserably. They dropped the ball.” It was the only public comment Candidate Thompson has ever made about this disaster.

When the Voice went by the museum construction site last week, Thompson’s wife was roaming it with a photographer, apparently shooting public relations shots on a site swarming with Bovis signs. One even said “Bovis Lend Lease–Incident and Injury Free.” O’Connor, the developer, told us that Park View is “Brickman and the museum,” though he made it clear that “when we deliver the museum unit,” meaning complete the construction of the museum, it “effectively gives up their interest” in the partnership. Elsie McCabe will then have her dream museum on Museum Mile, built by Bovis.

I e-mailed Thompson’s top people yesterday about this item. No one responded. These are the same people who told me that Thompson couldn’t talk about the fire because he had to rule on the suits, which seems odd since he won’t be comptroller when these suits are settled. Elsie McCabe didn’t return a call either. Cassidy’s press guy said he was in a meeting all day as soon as he heard what it was about. I have done four cover stories on Bloomberg in this campaign, banging him again and again, and Howard Wolfson et al still call me back. I do one blog on Thompson and the phone line goes dead.