2000-10-07 / Front Page

Local Indicted In Scandal Queens Buildings Commish Condemned! By John C. McLoughlin

Local Indicted In Scandal
Queens Buildings Commish Condemned!
By John C. McLoughlin

Scandal and corruption within the New York City Buildings Department has led to the indictment of several individuals, including Belle Harbor resident James Leonard, who as of last week was the Queens Borough Commissioner of the Buildings Department.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and New York City Department of Investigation Commissioner Edward Kuriansky announced last week the arrests and indictments of eight people in an on-going investigation involving the Buildings Department. Included in those arrests were Leonard; James Mineo, executive chief inspector for the Buildings Department; and Joseph Defronzo, an employee of the New York State Canal Authority.

Leonard, Mineo and Defronzo are charged with various crimes stemming from the manipulation of Buildings Department records on a home in Middle Village, Queens, that was owned by Defronzo’s family. Defronzo wanted to sell his mother’s home, but there was a problem related to its certificate of occupancy. Although the certificate of occupancy allowed only two apartments, the house actually contained four apartments. As a result, the certificate had to be changed in order for the house to be sold legally.

To avoid the time and expense of legally amending the certificate of occupancy, a bogus certificate was created to provide to real estate agents to sell the property. In addition, false plans were filed with the Buildings Department showing compliance with all code provisions in order to get a real certificate. In order to approve the plans and obtain a real certificate of occupancy, the Buildings Department requires an actual inspection of the premises. In this case, however, the drawings submitted did not match the physical structure of the house, which would be apparent to any inspector. To get around this problem, Leonard agreed to obtain a "blind" inspector and arranged for the Defronzo file to "disappear". Mineo, who was then the Buildings Department chief of construction inspector for Queens, arranged for an actual certificate to be issued.

Leonard is charged with tampering with public records in the first degree for his role in eliminating the Defronzo file; offering a false instrument for filing in the first degree for filing the false plans; and two counts of official misconduct for helping obtain the "blind" inspector and for his role in moving to destroy the Defronzo file. In addition, Leonard is charged with official misconduct for waiving a civil penalty that had been levied on the Defronzo house.

Defronzo is charged with two counts of bribery in the third degree for bribing a Buildings Department clerk and an inspector, and attempted criminal possession of a forged instrument for possessing the bogus certificate of occupancy.

Mineo is charged with bribe receiving in the third degree, official misconduct and receiving unlawful gratuities for taking cash and gift certificates in exchange for providing the construction sign-off for the Defronzo house. In addition, Mineo faces a second count of receiving unlawful gratuities for acceptance of theater tickets for issuing violations on a house in Queens.

Bribery in the third degree, bribe receiving in the third degree, and tampering with public records in the first degree are Class D felonies punishable by up to seven years in state prison. Offering a false instrument for filing and attempted criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree are Class E felonies punishable by up to four years. Receiving unlawful gratuities and official misconduct are Class A misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail.

"These indictments represent the most common form of municipal corruption," D.A. Morgenthau said. "These city employees – some of them very high ranking officials – developed too cozy a relationship with the very people they are supposed to scrutinize and regulate…rules and procedures were ignored by those charged to enforce them in exchange for favors, gifts, and in some instances cash. This type of corruption simply cannot and will not be tolerated."

Both Morgenthau and Commissioner Kuriansky called for a complete overhaul of the Buildings Department. "Dramatic change is required to cleanse and professionalize this agency, and to assure the public that its buildings will be safely, speedily, and honestly constructed and maintained," Kuriansky said.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded to the indictments of Leonard and his colleagues by appointing a task force to conduct a top-to-bottom management review of the Buildings Department, and develop recommendations for the agency’s future operations.

"Serious consideration must be given to dramatically revamping the agency, even possibly shifting certain key functions to a separate new agency or other city agencies," Giuliani said.

The task force will be charged with developing measures to improve the agency’s ability to detect and deter illegal behavior. Such measures to be reviewed will include:

  • Monitoring and eliminating potentially corrupt relationships between supervisors and inspectors;
  • Monitoring, controlling, and limiting the role of expediters at the Buildings Department;
  • Developing adequate internal controls to prevent fraud and abuse in the areas of self-certification and computerization; and
  • Reviewing the Buildings Department’s file and record retention system.

The task force will analyze functions of the Buildings Department to access the possibility of shifting certain responsibilities, particularly inspections, to a newly created agency or other city agencies, such as the Fire Department.

Giuliani has also directed the Department of Investigation to conduct a review of all work done by government and other personnel now under indictment or investigation "to ensure that all safety regulations were satisfied."

This case was investigated by Assistant District Attorney Robert Roach of the Rackets Bureau. It was presented to the grand jury and will be prosecuted by Rackets Assistant District Attorney Daniel G. Cort. Both ADA Roach and Cort are supervised by Rackets Bureau Chief Patrick J. Dugan and Rackets Deputy Bureau Chief Eric Seidel.

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