Thursday, September 17, 2009

Federal Stimulus Money Going to the Mob?

Everybody is looking for stimulus money.

From bridge builders to food stamp recipients, from roofers to subway riders, from teachers to housing project residents, people are eager to feel some part of a tidal wave of federal dollars in their lives.

The mob is eager, too.

Federal and state investigators who track organized crime believe that some members have geared up to take advantage of the swift and enormous cash influx — if they have not already — looking, as the old Sicilian expression goes, to wet their beaks.

Nimble, innovative and with a seemingly boundless appetite for the taxpayer’s dollar, the mob’s more sophisticated cadre has plundered municipal, state and federal coffers for generations.

So the F. B. I. office in New York has conducted an extensive analysis of the money flowing into the area to create a blueprint of its vulnerabilities, a process, an official said, that is being continually updated. Also, some of the 28 inspectors general who have oversight of the federal agencies receiving stimulus money are considering having federal agents sit in on selected screening interviews of contractors to tell them that if they lie to a federal officer, they could be charged with a crime, officials briefed on the matter said.

“Because there is so much money involved, criminals will look to exploit the system,” said Guy Petrillo, chief of the criminal division in the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, referring to the New York area’s five Mafia families.

Because the money is being widely dispersed — flowing to federal agencies, then to states and localities and then to contractors and smaller groups — opportunities for fraud abound at a level rarely seen. And despite recent improvements, the screening of contractors sometimes still presents a challenge for local, state and federal agencies, which time and again have failed to halt the flow of public money to companies accused of having ties to organized crime or having otherwise troubling histories.

Indeed, even with the mob’s power waning, some members have profited handsomely in the past few years on projects large and small. They have benefited from new baseball stadiums for the Yankees and the Mets, the city’s $3 billion water filtration plant and the post-9/11 cleanup at ground zero, as well as from work on federal buildings, state highways and city schools and playgrounds.

The audacity and accomplishment exhibited by some contractors seem to match the gusto they have for government work. One mob associate, convicted in 1994 in a case stemming from organized crime’s control of lucrative Housing Authority window replacement contracts, pleaded guilty nearly a decade later in a case involving window replacement work on city schools. After serving nearly three years in prison, he got in trouble again last year for improprieties involving another window replacement contract, this one at the same federal courthouse where he was convicted in 1994.

In another case, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s pet project to spruce up City Hall Park was delayed because two successive concrete contractors were found to have ties to organized crime. The mob also had long cornered the market on the city’s lucrative emergency snow removal contracts, as well as controlling city school bus contracts.

The distinctiveness of the immediate challenge surrounding the stimulus money is owed in part to the bill’s twin imperatives: Get a lot of money out and get it out as fast as possible. And it is compounded by the fact that law enforcement agencies like the F. B. I. and prosecutors’ offices are hip deep in the competing priorities of counterterrorism and the explosion of corporate and mortgage fraud cases.

Making matters worse, the money is flowing into familiar territory for those with a history of feeding at the public trough. Two of the largest portions of the stimulus pie in the New York City area are going to sectors of the economy — Medicaid and infrastructure projects — where the mob and Eastern European crime groups have flourished for decades, perfecting old schemes and developing new ones. And it is not just criminals who are causing concern. Several officials noted that in an area where close to two dozen state and city legislators have been indicted in recent years, the flow of stimulus funds through government agencies will provide ample opportunity for corrupt public employees.

Marc La Vorgna, a spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose administration will dole out nearly $1 billion for infrastructure projects and $2.5 billion in Medicaid and social service money, played down concerns about the vetting of contractors. The amounts to be awarded, he said, are far from astronomical for a city with a $60 billion budget and “robust fraud- and waste-prevention measures,” which include a staff that has doubled in eight years and an additional layer of review for stimulus contracts.

Mr. La Vorgna added, “The notion that the city’s vendor integrity mechanisms will somehow be taxed is false.”

State officials said they, too, were comfortable with their vetting procedures. Gov. David A. Paterson appointed a panel last month to coordinate the state’s antifraud efforts. And Congress has appropriated about $220 million in additional money to assist 23 of the 28 federal inspectors general involved in overseeing stimulus money, said Ed Pound, a spokesman for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the federal stimulus watchdog. But despite these measures, the speed with which the program has been put in place, along with what many officials have called insufficient oversight, has left some in law enforcement with grave concerns.

“It’s coming out without the internal controls in place,” said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. “It’s like putting a bank robber in a toll booth.”

Thanks to William K. Rashbaum

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