A top aide to Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino admitted in federal court this week that he falsified records on the presence of potentially dangerous asbestos during the demolition of a Syracuse bowling alley.
In a second Syracuse case, a company run by Paladino agreed to pay a $500,000 fine -- the highest allowable -- after admitting its officials failed to perform a thorough inspection for asbestos in another building that was being demolished.
Federal prosecutors said Paladino has not been personally implicated in either of the incidents, and the developer told The Buffalo News on Friday that the felony crimes were oversights, rather than intentional criminal activities.
"We're not alleging that (Paladino) was aware these activities were going on," said Craig A. Benedict, an environmental crimes prosecutor in Syracuse. "He personally did not have criminal responsibility, but his corporations did."
Paladino has been one of Western New York's busiest and most prominent developers since the late 1970s. He also is active in fund-raising for local charities and politicians.
His aide, Nicholas Ersing, 49, of Buffalo, took a felony plea deal, admitting that he falsely told city of Syracuse officials there was no asbestos in the building, which was torn down last year.
Investigators said the false information could have exposed demolition workers and neighborhood residents to cancer-causing asbestos particles during the demolition project.
Ersing is a long-time supervisor of construction and asbestos removal for Ellicott Development Corp., a Paladino firm that has demolished and built dozens of commercial buildings in Western New York and elsewhere in the state.
In a related case, a second development company headed by Paladino also took a felony plea deal. The company, 4628 Group Inc., agreed to pay a $500,000 fine after admitting its officials failed to perform a thorough inspection for asbestos in another Syracuse building that was demolished last year.
The $500,000 fine that is being paid by 4628 Group Inc. is "the highest allowable fine for a single Clean Air Act violation," Benedict said.
Paladino, the president of both Ellicott
Development and 4628 Group, appeared in Syracuse's federal court with Ersing on Wednesday. Paladino said his companies usually are careful to observe asbestos-removal safety regulations on building demolition and renovation projects, throughout Western New York and elsewhere in the state. He described the crimes committed in Syracuse as "a paperwork thing," adding that he does not believe any workers or Syracuse residents were endangered.
"Technically, we violated the law, and because I'm a high-profile person, the government said they were going to look at my other projects," Paladino said. "They looked at 50 of our projects in Syracuse and Western New York. They found problems with these two.
"I'm not trying to make light of our responsibilities under the law . . . I've always tried to do things the right way. Sitting in that courtroom was very humbling."
Prosecutor Benedict said demolition workers, neighborhood residents and passers-by all could have been endangered by the improper removal of asbestos at the bowling alley. He noted that the symptoms of lung cancer and other ailments caused by exposure to asbestos particles often do not become apparent for 20 years or more.
The asbestos present in the Syracuse bowling alley was especially dangerous because it is "friable" material, Benedict said.
"Friable means it can be crumbled or pulverized by hand," he said. "There was potential for endangering workers and the public at this demolition site."
Asbestos was a widely used insulation and fireproofing material until the 1970s. According to the state Labor Department, specially trained workers and strict safety procedures must be used when asbestos is removed from any building. Decontamination rooms must be set up for workers, and the areas where the asbestos removal is performed must be sealed off with airtight plastic sheeting.
In recent years, a number of contractors throughout the state have been prosecuted for using untrained workers and improper safety procedures on asbestos-removal projects, said Betsy McCormack, spokeswoman for the Labor Department.
"If somebody decides to demolish a building, they must first do a demolition survey, and report whether there is any asbestos in the building," McCormack said. "Then, they must use licensed contractors and certified asbestos workers to remove it.
"Some contractors have been caught falsifying their reports. The motivation is usually that it is cheaper for them to do their demolition. They pay less in licensing fees, and significantly less in labor costs, because they are not using properly trained workers."
McCormack added that she was speaking in generalities about such cases, and not referring specifically to the Paladino case in Syracuse.
Paladino said the improper activities uncovered in Syracuse were mistakes, and not intentional crimes motivated by greed.
He described Ersing as "one of our top people" for at least the past 15 years, adding that felony crimes will not cause Ersing to lose his job with Ellicott Development.
"I stand up for my people. I take responsibility. I piled too much work on the guy," Paladino said. "Nick was distracted . . . A single, little omission turns to hell."
In the case involving the Syracuse bowling alley, Ersing became tied up with another construction job, and he submitted an incomplete survey report to the city of Syracuse. The survey report mistakenly indicated that there was no asbestos in the bowling alley, Paladino said.
According to Benedict, the false report caused the city of Syracuse to issue a demolition permit, but the demolition work soon was halted after state labor investigators learned about the asbestos.
Paladino also explained the failure of his employees to conduct a thorough asbestos inspection at another Syracuse building before it was demolished as a matter of harried workers making an honest mistake. That case resulted in a corporate guilty plea and the $500,000 fine.
"There is no way -- absolutely no way -- that Carl was aware of any of this activity," reiterated Thomas J. Eoannou, Paladino's attorney in the matter. "Carl was completely unaware of this. Carl had in place all of the proper procedures for the handling of asbestos, and it was entrusted to (Ersing), a certified asbestos-removal expert."
Eoannou said there are strict asbestos-removal guidelines that are closely monitored by state and federal agencies at demolition sites where asbestos is present.
But if contractors do not provide honest information about the presence of asbestos in buildings, the state and federal agencies cannot properly monitor the jobs, said McCormack of the state Labor Department.
"This is a very serious violation," McCormack said, referring to Ersing's actions.
Ersing's attorney, Joel L. Daniels, said the federal investigation cleared Paladino of any illegal activity. He declined to comment further.