Former Bloomberg Executives to Be Charged in Construction Fraud Scheme
More than 18 months ago, the Manhattan district attorney’s office opened yet another investigation into fraud in the city’s $62 billion construction industry, this one involving Bloomberg L.P., the financial information and media company owned by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is considering running for president in 2020.
As investigators peeled back the complex layers of contracts, contacts and under-the-table favors between electrical contractors, vendors and corporate executives they made a startling discovery: It was an inside job.
On Tuesday, the district attorney and the State Police are expected to arrest more than a dozen executives, including senior executives in New York of Bloomberg’s global construction and facilities department, on fraud, theft and bribery charges, according to one executive briefed on the investigation and defense attorneys.
The pay-to-play scheme, investigators say, operated undetected at Bloomberg and involved interior construction work at the company’s offices, including its headquarters at 731 Lexington Ave. Subcontractors and vendors are accused of paying bribes and kickbacks in various forms over nearly four years to executives at Bloomberg and to two executives at Turner Construction, a general contractor that oversaw work at Bloomberg.
The executives at Bloomberg and Turner and the vendors would then pad the bills for the work, raising the cost by millions of dollars for Bloomberg.
There is no evidence Mr. Bloomberg was aware of the alleged fraud happening in his company, people briefed on the investigation said. He has been sending signals he might run for president, making a recent visit to Iowa to talk about climate change. A central part of his appeal to voters, along with his three terms as New York’s mayor, is his success as a businessman and self-made billionaire.
Spokesmen for Bloomberg and Turner said the companies were victims of a long-running scheme by rogue employees. “We thank the Manhattan district attorney’s office for uncovering this scheme,” Ty Trippet, a spokesman for Bloomberg L.P., said.
On Monday, the district attorney’s office declined to comment on the investigation.
Anthony Guzzone, the former global head of construction at Bloomberg, is said to be at the center of the investigation. Mr. Guzzone, who was recruited by Bloomberg from a construction company more than 15 years ago, was fired in October 2017, as the State Police and investigators seized computers and company records at Bloomberg headquarters.
“Mr. Guzzone has had an unblemished life and a distinguished career,” said his lawyer, Alex Spiro, who expects his client to be indicted Tuesday morning. “We will fight any allegation against him.”
Mr. Guzzone had a particularly close relationship with the owners of Litespeed Electric, a contractor based in New Jersey, who are also scheduled to surrender to the authorities on Tuesday.
Mark Agnifilo, a lawyer for Robert Fleming at Litespeed, said there was no evidence that Mr. Fleming paid “cash kickbacks” to Mr. Guzzone or anyone else, or that Bloomberg paid more than it should have for electrical services. Mr. Agnifilo said that many of the things that Mr. Fleming was being accused of are common practices in the industry.
“The New York City construction industry is obviously highly competitive,” Mr. Agnifilo said. “Honest companies go to great lengths to keep getting lucrative contracts. I don’t think Litespeed is any different.”
Investigators also seized records at Turner Construction offices downtown. The company has insisted that two of its top executives in the interior construction division — Ronald Olson and Vito Negro — had gone “rogue,” deliberately evading the company’s internal compliance program. Those men were fired by Turner in October 2017.
Tom Curran, a lawyer for Turner Construction, said his company and Bloomberg aided the district attorney’s investigation from the start. Neither company is being charged with anything or fined, he said.
For months, the close-knit industry has been rife with rumors about a pending indictment involving as many as 40 executives and millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains. In recent months, more than 14 people have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Corruption scandals in the interior construction industry, a specialized subset of construction work, occur periodically The highly profitable work covers the guts of a building, everything from dry wall, electrical and plumbing to lighting and carpeting.
In 2015, the district attorney office successfully prosecuted John Cassisi, the former director of global construction for Citibank’s Citi Realty Services, for operating a scheme in which he received $500,000 in cash and gifts from contractors seeking work.
Plaza Construction, Tishman Construction, Granite Construction and Hunter Roberts Construction Group paid a combined $92 million in restitution and penalties for overbilling connected with fraud charges brought by the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn.
And Bloomberg has been burned before.
Structure Tone, once the largest interior construction firm in New York and nationally, pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2014 brought by the Manhattan district attorney and agreed to forfeit $55 million for defrauding its clients, including Bank of America and Bloomberg.
Bloomberg replaced Structure Tone with Turner.
In response to questions earlier this year about the latest investigation, Bloomberg said it had overpaid for construction work by about $1 million. But investigators say that the participants in the scheme enriched themselves and overcharged Bloomberg by tens of millions of dollars.
Javier Paulino, a former Bloomberg manager, pleaded guilty in July to bribetaking and stealing more than $1 million by overcharging for work done at Bloomberg offices, or charging the company for work that was never done.
He has been cooperating with the authorities, as has Frank Zustovich, 42, who worked at Jonathan Metal & Glass, a vendor for Bloomberg, a defense lawyer said. Mr. Zustovich pleaded guilty to stealing more than $50,000 from Bloomberg and agreeing to provide unnamed executives at both Bloomberg and Turner with special benefits.
The latest investigation apparently began when the district attorney’s office got a tip in 2017 about wrongdoing by some managers at Jonathan Metal & Glass, a relatively modest Queens company that fabricates and installs architectural walls and glass for office interiors.
An investigation was launched by Christopher Beard, who heads the district attorney’s rackets squad, and members of the Special Investigations Unit of the State Police.
Jonathan Glass fired Mr. Zustovich and two other employees in October 2017, according to a note it sent to clients. By then, however, investigators had seized business records and computers used by executives at both Turner and Bloomberg who were suspected of participating in the scheme. The State Police also raided the homes of some of the suspects.
The article was published on nytimes.com