The Bell Begins To Toll For Building Departments In The Townships
Few were surprised by the rash of recent arrests of Building Department personnel -- including a former Commissioner -- in the Town of North Hempstead.
Everyone knew, if but intuitively, of the corruption, the payoffs, the "consultant" fees. No surprised looks on anyone's face.
Joye Brown, one of our favorite Newsday columnists, writes about the lawlessness of what was -- and, to a lesser or greater extent, probably still is -- a wild, wild west mentality.
Anything goes, and it typically does.
Fact is, despite our common knowledge of despicable conduct (okay, alleged despicable conduct) unbecoming of elected officials -- or of anyone, for that matter -- we condoned both the untoward and the unlawful, year after year, with the tacit approval of our votes.
Brown ponders what prompted the Nassau District Attorney's investigation. "Why did officials decide to delve into North Hempstead's building department? Prosecutors say it started with a spate of anonymous complaints about houses with illegal apartments and too-big mansions on too-small lots."
Well, it certainly took them long enough. Then again, Denis Dillon wasn't going to go after what was, at the time, his own.
If what we're seeing in North Hempstead is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg, one has to ask, what about Hempstead Town, where there, too, even the Building Commissioner apparently held himself above the law?
Hempstead Town, where there hasn't been a changing of the guard -- or a cleaning of the house -- for 105 years.
Assuming "complaints about houses with illegal apartments and too-big mansions on too-small lots" are the lithmus test for investigation and possible prosecution, the law is about to catch up with the lawless, and Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen (not related to Kate) Rice has her work cut out for her.
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Rounding up the suspects
The Wild, Wild West had nothing on North Hempstead's building department. Corruption and lawlessness reigned, for years, prosecutors alleged, and thar was little helpless townsfolk could do about it.
The presumption of innocence remains, as it should, for former building commissioner David Wasserman and his, um, deputy, John Madden; and with former plans examiner Andrew Acierno and building inspector Thomas McDonough, too.
But a 16-month investigation by the Nassau district attorney's office churned up more than enough tidbits to weave together a tale of a town in desperate need of a cleanup.
Let's meet the cast:
The sheriff would be Wasserman, who headed the department, left, and circled back as a consultant. He was also economic and planning commissioner and remains chairman of the town's community development agency.
Prosecutors pegged him as leader of the wild bunch. Not only did he work for the town, they said, but worked to cover up the private architectural firm he ran on the side. He's so tough, prosecutors alleged, that he managed to shake down guys at a gym, right after he approved its construction plans. He's so smart, he figured out a way to get paid for attending meetings (as a consultant) rather than sitting for free (as a commissioner), the indictment said.
He was also sitting so high and pretty, prosecutors said, that he made more than $300,000 in extra income over three years, but never bothered to pay taxes.
Madden, the deputy, is accused of having traded cash for inspection certificates and building plan approvals. Acierno, the plans inspector, is alleged to have loved plans so much that he, too, had a business on the side - drawing plans. He wasn't an architect, but why should that matter? He affixed other architects' seals, prosecutors said, to his work. Voila!
McDonough, meanwhile, is accused of giving one hapless homeowner a choice: Your money ($900 for a ticket to a political fundraiser) or your drywell inspection. The homeowner bought the ticket.
Kathleen Rice, Nassau's district attorney, twice noted during a news conference yesterday that the four did not act in concert. Thus, it would be grossly unfair to tag them the North Hempstead Building Department Gang.
No, it's worse than that.
The department was so wild, so lawless, that each had the freedom to act alone. Each had the unchecked authority to devise four personal plans to, as Rice said, "put their personal greed ahead of the public good and ... that greed and that corruption has crippled this department and decimated the trust these communities have in their public officials."
The department has been under investigation for almost two years. As a result, it was, at worst, seven or eight months behind in processing necessary permits, Supervisor Jon Kaiman told me yesterday. Now, it's about four months behind.
"This is a different department," Kaiman said, noting that he had instituted a number of reforms. "I am the guy at the top," he said. "Do I get kudos for finding it out and trying to fix it or do I get blame for being the supervisor in office when the story broke?"
Residents will decide, come November, all of which takes us back to a key question. Why did officials decide to delve into North Hempstead's building department?
Prosecutors say it started with a spate of anonymous complaints about houses with illegal apartments and too-big mansions on too-small lots.
I'd say the townsfolk weren't so helpless, after all.
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