In response to the death of a construction worker in a Manhattan work site, New York City officials have announced the formation of the Construction Fraud Task Force, an interagency initiative that seeks to crack down on unsafe practices in the construction industry.
The group, which was launched after authorities announced manslaughter charges against supervisors and companies running a construction site in 9-19 Ninth Avenue, was installed with marching orders “to identify and prosecute citywide corruption and fraud in the construction industry.”
“There are human consequences to New York City’s historic building boom,” said New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, whose office formed the body with the Department of Investigation, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Office of the Inspector General and the Business Integrity Commission.
“A rush to develop can often result in hazardous lapses in safety practices. Unfortunately, many of these dangers are only exposed after the lives of workers and residents are jeopardized, which is why my Office and our partners have formed the Construction Fraud Task Force to investigate proactively construction-related crimes that threaten the integrity of the industry and safety of the City.”
While authorities claim that the group can be a deterrent against unsafe practices in work sites, construction industry representatives say that companies remain wary of the new task force.
“It’s making a difficult job become more difficult,” said Brian Gardner, the chairman of the construction services department at law firm Cole Schotz.
Gardner, whose firm represents one the companies indicted for the 9-19 Ninth Avenue incident, said that “criminalizing” accidents, coupled with formalizing ambiguous rules, may have harmful effects on the industry.
“I think the construction industry is being unfairly targeted. I think that they do an incredible job as a whole in terms of safety and there are no guidelines being put out by the DA’s office,” he said.
Gardner added that there is no evidence that there are more accidents in spite of a construction boom in the city.
“There’s a lot of construction going on and I don’t think they can show that there’s an increase in accidents,” he said.
David Pfeffer, the chair of the construction practice group at law firm Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, disagreed with Gardner’s assertion, saying: “The more construction you have, the more chances there are for accidents.”
City statistics show an uptick in construction-related fatalities for the first half of this year.
According to data from the Department of Buildings, there were eight construction-related deaths in the city during the first half of this year, which equals the total for the whole of 2014.
Pfeffer, who lauded the city for establishing the task force, said that the group is necessary for protecting the public.
“The construction industry has been notorious for its failure to self-police itself,” he said. Pfeffer said that companies that have a focus on safety will not be affected by the formation of the task force.
“The vast majority of operators don’t need to change how they operate,” he said.
The agencies involved in the task force will meet monthly to investigate fraud, bribery, extortion, money laundering, bid rigging, safety violation cases.
According to a press release, the task force will be headed by Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence, who has been appointed as Attorney-In-Charge.
The new task force will oversee a construction industry that is operating on record levels of activity.
According to US Census Bureau figures, developers in the city received residential building permits for 42,088 houses and apartments during the first half of the year.
The amount, which received a boost from developers rushing to qualify before the 421-a tax break expired last June, is more than any full-year figure since 1963.
The launch of the task force coincided with indictments over the death of construction worker Carlos Mancayo. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Investigation charged supervisors Wilmer Cueva and Alfonso Prestia, and their employers, Sky Materials, Inc. and Harco Construction.
Along with the indictments, authorities also suspended HARCO’s license and issued a Stop Work Order for a site where Sky Materials served as a subcontractor.