Views of New York City Housing Authority residences: Queensbridge, North America’s largest public housing development. – New York City – November 26, 2017 (Shutterstock)
At least 19 children contracted lead poisoning while living in public housing apartments that NYCHA supervisors falsely claimed had been properly cleaned of lead paint, according to the city Department of Investigation.
The kids, all under age 6, lived in 18 of the hundreds of apartments that managers running the authority’s lead paint-abatement unit said had undergone work approved by employees authorized by the federal government to handle removal of the toxin.
In fact, a three-year DOI probe found, workers with the necessary credentials were forced to sign off on cleanup jobs they hadn’t overseen.
DOI’s report, released Thursday and spurred by a whistleblower, found 900 cases between 2016 and the summer of 2018 in which NYCHA lied — swearing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the apartments had been abated under the watchful eye of a qualified supervisor.
“NYCHA managers involved in the lead abatement process had a total disregard for the facts, for the law and integrity, and most importantly for the well-being of NYCHA residents,” DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett said in a statement.
In an interview with THE CITY, Garnett revealed that DOI, as a result of its investigation, cross-referenced all the apartments affected by the false-signature scheme with city health department records of children with elevated blood-lead levels living in NYCHA. They discovered the 19 youngsters.
The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene intervened to ensure the children’s needs are being addressed, Garnett said.
She added that the kids were “living in apartments that we could identify where there was the presence of lead after abatement had supposedly been done and that there is reason to believe that that contributed to the child’s elevated blood lead level.”
On Thursday, NYCHA revealed that Ralph Lacono, one of two supervisors involved in the alleged scheme, had been suspended from his job earlier this week. The authority said it’s moving to fire him. The other supervisor, Robert Stern, has already retired.
Lacono and Stern were not immediately reachable for comment.
No Criminal Charges
No charges were filed based on DOI’s investigation, which paralleled a federal probe by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney that revealed in 2018 NYCHA had falsely claimed for years it was performing all required lead paint inspections in its aging portfolio of 172,000 apartments.
Garnett said DOI turned the case over to the U.S. attorney but the federal prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges. A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney did not respond to inquiries Thursday.
The U.S. attorney’s lead paint probe spurred the appointment last year of an independent federal monitor, under a deal between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The monitor, Bart Schwartz, is now overseeing reforms to the authority’s handling of the lead crisis, which is among the top woes affecting the nation’s largest public housing system.
The DOI report comes more than two years after the city health department was forced to reveal in 2018 that more than 1,100 children living in NYCHA had been lead poisoned in the prior six years.
NYCHA is now inspecting thousands of apartments and recently dramatically increased its estimate of how many of those units are home to or regularly visited by young children, to 9,000. In late October, THE CITY reported that number is on pace to hit 20,000.
Whistleblower’s Sign of Trouble
During its nearly three-year probe, DOI investigators found a longstanding pattern of deception in the Housing Authority’s lead paint unit.
They tracked down 163 work orders with false signatures certifying that the apartments had been abated of toxic lead paint in accordance with federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations. And they learned the bogus certifications allowed NYCHA to claim 323 apartments were exempt from annual inspection for lead paint, according to DOI.
The investigation launched in December 2017 after a NYCHA worker with EPA certification contacted DOI and alleged Lacono made him sign off on jobs he didn’t supervise. The whistleblower wasn’t even in the lead unit at the time the documents with false signatures were filed with EPA.
DOI found that Lacono and Stern — both longtime NYCHA supervisors overseeing required lead paint cleanup in thousands of apartments — had “caused NYCHA to file hundreds of EPA notifications falsely stating that an EPA certified supervisor oversaw each abatement job.”
The DOI report states that Lacono tried but failed repeatedly to acquire EPA certification himself, and was only able to obtain temporary six-month certificates that he let expire regularly.
Lacono only occasionally would show up at abatements, and relied almost exclusively on making two NYCHA staffers with actual EPA certification sign off on the lead paint jobs, according to the report.
One turned out to be the whistleblower.
‘Okay to Sign the Papers’
Neither of the two EPA-certified supervisors was present at any of the cleanup jobs, DOI found.
At one point, according to DOI, the whistleblower asked Stern whether “it was okay to sign the papers” since his understanding of EPA rules was that he was required to be present for the lead abatement jobs.
Stern told him it was fine to sign, DOI’s report alleges.
When the whistleblower showed up at Lacono’s office in the Jacob Riis Houses on the Lower East Side, the veteran manager presented him with a “large stack of papers” and told him to sign half — and that “someone else” would sign the rest. The whistleblower complied.
The other employee, who also was EPA certified but did not supervise any of the lead cleanup work, signed dozens more of the papers, according to DOI.
DOI investigators retrieved the 163 work orders filed with false signatures between 2016 and 2018. In its report, DOI made a point of noting: “Given all the evidence of policy and practice at NYCHA’s lead unit, the true number is likely much higher.”
In some cases, the whistleblower told DOI, he “suspected that his signature had been forged on a number of these documents.”
A Private Warning
The report suggests at least one higher-up at NYCHA was aware of the scheme.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYCHA’s top management, including then-NYCHA Chairperson Shola Olatoye, have said they first learned in April 2016 that the authority had failed for years to perform required lead paint inspections. At the time, they did not notify the public or tenants about this.
That month Jay Krantz, a NYCHA employee who was then one of the authority’s top executives, wrote to a subordinate about the problem.
Krantz asked the supervisor if lead paint unit employees signing off on inspections had EPA certifications. The lower-level employee responded that in some cases, Lacono had signed off on inspections even though his temporary EPA certification had, once again, expired, according to DOI.
Krantz ordered the employee to “Please have the EPA notification changed to one of the other supervisors immediately,” the report said. Krantz was terminated by NYCHA in late 2017, shortly after a DOI report that first revealed NYCHA was falsely claiming it was meeting its lead paint remediation requirements.
In the next three years, NYCHA submitted 900 notifications to EPA falsely claiming that abatements had been supervised by EPA-certified staff, DOI found. Both the whistleblower and the other EPA-certified worker told DOI they were unaware they had been listed as the certified supervisor on all these jobs.
Abatement work continued without the supervision of an EPA-certified supervisor until June 2018, when the existence of DOI’s investigation surfaced in the press after then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman announced the findings of his long-running probe into NYCHA malfeasance.
In an August 2018 letter sent shortly before de Blasio fired him, then-DOI Commissioner Mark Peters privately warned NYCHA to re-test hundreds of apartments that had received city lead paint law exemptions and to make sure that going forward, an EPA-certified supervisor would be personally involved in all further abatements.
DOI made the letter public Thursday.
At the time, NYCHA did not notify the public or tenants about the re-testing or Peters’ warning. On Thursday, Barbara Brancaccio, a NYCHA spokesperson, said that NYCHA took action in response to Peters’ letter.
A Promise of ‘Accountability’
In response to DOI’s report, NYCHA stated that all lead-paint abatement work is now assigned to an EPA-certified supervisor who is required to perform an on-site inspection before signing off on the work.
“NYCHA cooperated with this investigation and has made significant systemic changes to its lead abatement program,” Brancaccio said. “NYCHA continues to work with the federal monitor to establish the highest standards for its policies and programs, not only to fulfill the terms of the 2019 HUD Agreement and bring the authority into compliance but also to rebuild a culture of employee service and accountability; regain resident, employee, and public trust; and ensure this never happens again.”
The release of DOI’s report implied that the ongoing investigation by federal prosecutors is now over with no criminal charges brought.
The report notes that the DOI investigation was conducted with the Manhattan U.S. attorney, the EPA’s criminal investigation division and the U.S. Housing & Urban Development inspector general “to determine if criminal charges were appropriate.”
The report states that DOI “spent considerable time” working with the other law enforcement agencies and “awaited the conclusion of that process before issuing this report to address the findings of its investigation.”
On Thursday a spokesperson for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney did not respond to an inquiry from THE CITY about the status of that investigation.
This story was originally published on [December 10, 2020] by THE CITY.”