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Political link seen in repeat hiring of indicted contractors Asbestos probe was under way

Ernest and Rai Johnson face seven counts of illegally disposing of asbestos at the Kensington Heights public housing project, following an investigation that began months earlier.

They also face significant jail time if convicted.

So why were the Johnsons hired to work on another public housing project -- this one at LaSalle Courts -- just months after it was known that the Johnsons were being investigated in connection with asbestos removal problems at Kensington Heights?

"They were well aware of the problems with Johnson," developer Hormoz Mansouri said of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the agency overseeing both projects. "When we became aware of Johnson's problems, we immediately informed BMHA."

The Johnsons' problems at one BMHA project and subsequent hiring at another BMHA project is just one chapter in a tale of politically connected contractors, some of them now in trouble with the law.

From top to bottom, from Mansouri to the Johnsons, most of the contractors at Kensington Heights had ties to one or both of its biggest backers -- Mayor Byron W. Brown and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo. Not only did the Johnsons get more work after the problems at Kensington Heights, they also had more problems, this time at LaSalle Courts.

A contractor who worked with the Johnsons at LaSalle, a family-oriented complex in North Buffalo, said their biggest mistake involved a negative air machine.

The machine backfired and, instead of sucking asbestos particles out of the room, spewed them back into it, said the contractor who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name.

"Why they hired this guy, with his problems, is amazing to me," said BMHA Commissioner Joseph Mascia.

BMHA officials confirmed two incidents involving the Johnsons' work at LaSalle, including an instance when a filter failed. They stopped short of confirming whether the filter was part of the negative air machine that Mascia and the contractor mentioned.

They also suggested there was little they could do to avoid hiring the Johnsons for the LaSalle Courts project, even though they suspected problems at Kensington Heights.

"We can't just say, 'OK, there's a cloud of suspicion around you, we can't hire you," said Adam W. Perry, a lawyer for the housing authority. "At the time, Johnson was a noncharged, non-indicted minority-owned company."

The indictment alleges that from June 2009 to January 2010, Johnson and two of its managers -- President Ernest Johnson and Supervisor Rai Johnson -- instructed workers to dump asbestos down holes cut in floors of each building.

The Johnsons are not the only Kensington Heights contractors with ties to Brown and Peoples-Stokes.

Two others, Mansouri and Cambria Contracting of Lockport, also have been contributors to Brown and Peoples-Stokes. By all accounts, Mansouri's relationship with the mayor soured when the BMHA ended his $5 million contract at Kensington Heights. "We need to give credit where credit is due," Perry said when asked about Brown's political ties to Mansouri. "He was fired during the tenure of Byron Brown."

There was a time, not so long ago, when Brown, Peoples-Stokes and Mansouri stood side by side to bask in the spotlight created by a large state grant and the prospect of new life for Kensington Heights. All three appeared at a June 2009 news conference, held on the 17-acre site, to announce the $5 million demolition spearheaded by Mansouri's company, HLM Holdings, and outline plans for new senior housing at the site.

"When someone donates money, they expect something in return," Mascia, a frequent critic of the authority, said of the contributions to Brown and Peoples-Stokes. In Mascia's eyes, the biggest share of blame belongs with Cambria, the firm that hired the Johnsons. And like the Johnsons, Cambria ran into legal problems related to its asbestos work.

While working at Kensington Heights, the company also had a crew at the AM&A's warehouse downtown and, in late 2009, was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 11 "willful" asbestos-related violations.

Cambria is accused of not providing its workers with the proper respirators and protective clothing. It faces a potential $484,000 fine.

"This employer knew that training and other safeguards, which are well known in the industry, were required, yet chose not to provide them," Robert Kulick, OSHA's regional administrator, said in a statement.

Cambria is appealing OSHA's findings.

Cambria, unlike Johnson, was not indicted as part of the government's investigation of Kensington Heights. Prosecutors did, however, indict JMD Environmental Inc., a Grand Island company hired to conduct air testing at the six towers on Fillmore Avenue. JMD is charged with falsifying visual inspection reports and failing to take enough air samples.

Like Johnson, the company continued working on other government projects well after the FBI and others began looking into its record at Kensington Heights. JMD, for example, has done work as part of Buffalo's ambitious demolition program, a strategy geared toward eliminating vacant housing across the city. "We're told that we cannot disqualify a company unless they're found guilty," First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey said last week.

Casey also noted that JMD was awarded its contract despite the fact that it never gave money to Brown's campaign committee.

The fact that Johnson and JMD continued working on other publicly funded projects is upsetting to lawmakers involved in Kensington Heights.

"It does concern me," said Peoples-Stokes, who played a major role in getting the $5 million demolition grant. She described the two companies as "unscrupulous employers" who caused Kensington Heights to languish for 18 months.

And what about Mansouri, a longtime friend and political ally? "He's still a friend," she said. "It could have been my mother on that job. But if it became clear at some point that she wasn't going to finish the work, she would be gone, too."

Peoples is quick to note that Mansouri was fired despite their relationship, and that ultimately he and the other contractors are responsible for what went wrong at Kensington Heights.

Not surprisingly, the dispute over who's to blame has spawned a series of suits and countersuits. Mansouri is suing BMHA, as well as Cambria, Johnson and JMD, for breach of contract, and Cambria has filed a similar suit against HLM. "What we have here is a developer who hired a contractor who hired a subcontractor who was irresponsible," said Jonathan Fuzak, an organizer with Laborers Local 210.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com