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US: At Ground Zero, Builder Is Barred but Not His Kin

by Chalres V. BagliThe New York Times
July 21st, 2006

The pieces of Dino Tomassetti Sr.’s construction empire are all over ground zero.

A glance into the pit at the World Trade Center site reveals his company’s Laquila cranes, heavy equipment, pickup trucks and crews. His oldest son’s blue and white Empire Transit Mix trucks will deliver concrete for the foundation of the Freedom Tower, the most symbolic of the five planned skyscrapers. His daughter’s company will deliver the steel rods, or rebar, that strengthen the concrete walls.

But Mr. Tomassetti, the 79-year-old patriarch of this empire, is barred from setting foot on the 16-acre site.

He is under indictment, accused of making thousands of dollars in illegal payoffs to union officials over a 10-year period. He denies the charges.

Federal prosecutors and testimony have linked him to organized crime figures. His companies have been banned from obtaining city contracts and stripped of a special permit to operate a solid waste transfer station. One Laquila company was fined for its part in a scheme organized by a member of the Gambino crime organization to dump construction debris illegally in New Jersey.

But none of this means his family will be on the sidelines when it comes to building what will be the city’s tallest tower. The central contract for excavation and foundation work, which is worth tens of millions of dollars, was awarded to his youngest son, Dino Tomassetti Jr., 27, who until recently chauffeured his father from job site to job site in a black Lincoln Navigator.

The developer building the Freedom Tower, Larry A. Silverstein, says that the elder Mr. Tomassetti owns one of the best foundation companies in the city, Laquila Construction. Hiring the son and his company, Laquila Group, was a way to take advantage of that expertise while avoiding doing business directly with the father, according to Silverstein executives.

And then there are the safeguards. Mr. Silverstein has hired an experienced integrity monitor, with the authority to audit the books of the Laquila Group and watch its bank account to ensure that the elder Mr. Tomassetti will not make any money from the $2 billion project.

The monitor, Thomas D. Thacher, is a former inspector general at the New York City School Construction Authority, who barred Laquila from getting school contracts in 1991. “Whatever happens, at least on this job, will be entirely by the book,” Mr. Thacher said.

These measures underscore the extraordinary lengths to which developers will go to operate in an industry long plagued by racketeering and corruption. Rightly or wrongly, suspicion hangs over many contractors, in a city where only a handful have the resources and expertise for skyscraper projects. Developers and contractors, in turn, are vulnerable to extortion and the temptation to pay bribes to avoid delays that could cost millions.

“Private developers, who can be penalized for not completing a project, are under enormous pressure to hire a contractor who can get the job done quickly,” said Ronald Goldstock, former director of the New York Organized Crime Task Force.

Mr. Tomassetti, a stocky man with a thick mane of gray hair, has pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he made thousands of dollars in payoffs to officials of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents heavy equipment operators. Prosecutors said the union officials, many of whom pleaded guilty in an earlier corruption case, allowed the contractor to use fewer workers, or pay less overtime, than required by their contract.

“Mr. Tomassetti is prepared to defend himself to the fullest extent possible,” said Angelo Sisca, the longtime chief of operations at Laquila Construction who is also overseeing the foundation work at the Freedom Tower for Mr. Tomassetti’s son, Dino Jr. “He will be found not guilty.”

Mr. Tomassetti’s companies are named after L’Aquila, Italy, his birthplace 58 miles northeast of Rome. He moved to New York after World War II and formed his first Laquila company in 1968. A biography supplied by Mr. Sisca portrays him as a workaholic “can-do contractor” who has labored on major projects for the State Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as well as for some of the top developers in the city. It cites a long list of charitable endeavors, including efforts on behalf of the City Parks Foundation, the United Jewish Appeal and the Italian American Heritage Center.

Today, Laquila companies are working on the Goldman Sachs headquarters across West Street from ground zero, condominium projects at Battery Park City and at Barclay and Church Streets, and the Bank of America headquarters at 42nd Street and the Avenue of the Americas. Empire Transit Mix, one of only eight concrete suppliers in the city, is providing concrete for the foundation and superstructure of the new headquarters of The New York Times Company at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street, which is under construction by Forest City Ratner, the newspaper company’s partner and developer.

Mr. Sisca said Laquila crews work very hard, “and that’s the reason they want us on the World Trade Center.” He added, “We are the best qualified contractor to do that job, beyond a doubt, or we wouldn’t be there.”

Dara McQuillan, a spokesman for Silverstein Properties, said that the Laquila Group was the most qualified of the three companies that competed for the foundation work.

“There is a tremendous urgency to rebuild the World Trade Center quickly and safely,” Mr. McQuillan said. “However, Silverstein also believes that it is necessary to assure that Laquila Construction, the predecessor firm of the Laquila Group, has no possibility of profiting from the contract.”

Nearly every detail of the rebuilding effort downtown has been the subject of roaring debate and criticism, but the widespread presence of Laquila companies has largely gone unnoticed. Stefan Pryor, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, said he was unaware of Laquila’s role. And a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land at ground zero and is scheduled to take financial responsibility for the Freedom Tower in September, would only say it was reviewing the status of the contractors.

Alan Jay Gerson, a councilman who represents Downtown Manhattan, said the normal governmental checks and balances were absent at ground zero and officials should make sure that “only companies beyond reproach and that have a record for top quality work are allowed on the site.”

Mr. Thacher, the monitor, was not hired until a month after the Laquila Group got the contract. He said that Dino Tomassetti Jr. would be using his father’s Laquila Contracting trucks and equipment. The concrete will come from Empire Transit Mix, which is run by Dino Tomassetti Jr.’s half-brother, Rocco Tomassetti, 40, and the rebar from J & E Industries, run by his half-sister, Elaine T. Scotto, 39.

But while the Laquila crews will be paid for their work, Mr. Thacher said, “the equipment is donated,” and the elder Mr. Tomassetti will not benefit.

Mr. Sisca of Laquila said: “He is unable to be enriched in any shape or form on that project. But, it’s his son’s company.”

Mr. Silverstein and Mr. Thacher may find it difficult separating the patriarch from his empire. Laquila Group, Laquila Construction, Laquila Contracting and Laquila Industries all use the same phone number and operate out of the same office at 1590 Troy Avenue in Brooklyn. A black Ford pickup at the Freedom Tower site has a sign on its door reading Laquila Industries, but is registered to Laquila Group. Nearby, a red pickup with a Laquila Construction sign on its door is registered to Laquila Industries.

And while Dino Tomassetti Sr. may be barred from ground zero, he is not the only person at the Laquila companies with a troubling past. Mr. Sisca and Laquila pleaded guilty in 1997 to filing false documents in connection with a scheme to pump up the company’s profits on a job at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens.

And a January report on the Tomassetti empire by the city’s Department of Sanitation says Mr. Tomassetti and his son Rocco “lack good character, honesty and integrity,” and therefore, should not work for the city or receive permits for a waste transfer station. The report cites a 20-year pattern in which the Laquila companies filed false documents that failed to describe their legal problems, or misled authorities about who ran the companies.

Empire Transit Mix had earlier been banned from city work, in 1989, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani learned it was pouring concrete for one of his pet projects, the renovation of City Hall Park.

The city’s Business Integrity Commission has recommended that another Tomassetti company, Red Hook Crusher, be denied a Sanitation Department permit for a solid waste transfer station in Brooklyn, in part because Red Hook and Dino Tomassetti Sr. had insisted that he was only an investor in the company and that Rocco Tomassetti had little to do with the Laquila companies. But the commission’s investigators later learned that the elder Mr. Tomassetti was the only person who could approve payments and issue checks for Red Hook and that Rocco was still an important figured at Laquila, the report says.

Over the years, Dino Tomassetti Sr. has also been linked by investigators to organized crime figures, including Ralph Scopo, a leading official of the Cement and Concrete Workers District Council and a reputed member of the Colombo family, and Edward Garafola, a member of the Gambino family. In December 2004, Michael DiLeonardo, a high-level mob turncoat, testified in the racketeering trial of Peter Gotti that the Gambino family had a “working relationship” with Laquila, which had paid it $75,000 in “key money” to get into the concrete business in Manhattan.

“We had control of the industry,” Mr. DiLeonardo testified. “For them to get into the industry, they would have to pay us.” He testified that Laquila then paid $10,000 a month that was split between the Gambino and Colombo families.

Mr. Sisca said that he was unfamiliar with the testimony of Mr. DiLeonardo, but that he was someone “who’ll say anything to keep himself out of jail.”

“I know there’s no Gambino here,” Mr. Sisca said. “We get up at 5 a.m. and work every day.”





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