05/05/2010

New York, NY (Mesothelioma News) – Stunning admissions by a New York City safety inspector who faked hundreds of critical asbestos tests have spurred prosecutors to broaden their investigation into the scheme, which is now believed to have operated for at least a decade and involved hundreds of buildings.

Saverio “Sam” Todaro, owner of SAF Environmental Corp. of Queens, pleaded guilty March 26 to 11 felony counts-including mail fraud, making false statements, and violating the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

Todaro, who is free on bail, faces a sentence of between 51 and 63 months.

“Todaro’s guilty plea is not the end of the story,” said the Manhattan U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara. “This investigation is very much ongoing.”

Among the questions investigators hope to answer is whether Todaro conspired with others or acted alone. The breadth of his crimes-filing hundreds of reports saying no lead or asbestos danger had been found when, in fact, no tests had been performed -and the ease with which Todaro evaded detection for so long, suggests that the city’s oversight of hazardous materials testing was lax.

In the case of asbestos, vigilant oversight is particularly important, because the substance has long been linked to deadly diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, a nearly always fatal cancer of the protective lining that covers many internal organs.

Some of these conditions-particularly mesothelioma-can take decades after asbestos exposure to develop; by the time a diagnosis is rendered, the prognosis is usually grim. Indeed, victims’ only recourse has typically been the courtroom, where asbestos lawsuits have often ended with multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements against those who have improperly used the material or exposed others to asbestos dangers.

Todaro submitted clean asbestos or lead test results for well over 200 New York buildings and apartments, including some that were demolished or renovated to make way for publicly financed projects under the city’s affordable-housing program. Indeed, there are so many potential victims of the fraud, that the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office has created a separate Web page to meet its notification obligation.

Even more disturbing: Those 200 cases are thought to be only the beginning. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said one official briefed on the matter. “We just don’t know how big the iceberg is.”

Federal and city officials have not made public the precise number and location of the buildings involved. In at least a dozen instances, the buildings involved have been demolished and replaced with others, or gutted and renovated, so it is impossible in those cases to know if proper testing would have revealed potentially dangerous levels of asbestos-and whether residents and workers were ever put at risk for lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related diseases.

As a result of the fraud, New York’s Department of Environmental Protection (D.E.P.) intends to increase its audits of lead and asbestos testing, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With just 15 inspectors on its staff, the agency currently audits a small fraction of the roughly 28,400 projects that contractors like Todaro certify as safe each year. The agency says it has suspended nine asbestos investigators and revoked the licenses of seven in the last 10 years.

Todaro’s asbestos testing fraud may not be the only one. Currently, six other federal cases are pending in New York, all alleging similar schemes of faked lead or asbestos testing. Within the New York City area, some 1,500 people hold city or federal certifications to test for lead or asbestos.

Oversight of NYC asbestos testing falls to a jumble of city agencies: the D.E.P., which certifies asbestos investigators; the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which enforces the city’s housing maintenance code and oversees its affordable housing programs; and the Department of Buildings, to which documentation regarding some asbestos inspection and abatement work is filed.

Gaps in communication among the various agencies are common. For instance, when the city’s environmental agency suspended Todaro’s license in 2004-for improper building surveys and poor record keeping-it never notified the other agencies for which he did asbestos-related work. That lapse helped Todaro continue his asbestos inspection fraud unhindered.

One concern prosecutors have is that building owners, management companies, or contractors may have paid bribes for bogus lead and asbestos inspection reports.

Officials say that substantial amounts of money could have been saved by avoiding expensive asbestos abatement. Without that work, however, any asbestos that was present could have been released into the air, and asbestos fibers would have been breathed in by workers and others nearby. Asbestos is in its most dangerous state when airborne, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Several people briefed on the growing investigation say it will be some time before determinations are made as to whether others will be charged. Adds William V. Lometti, who heads the New York office of the federal E.P.A’s Criminal Investigation Division: “As you pull one thread, the sweater unravels, and right now we are in that mode.”

This news story is provided by the asbestos and mesothelioma trial lawyers at Cooney & Conway, a nationally recognized firm that has brought recovery-and justice-to victims of asbestos exposure and the deadly diseases it can cause.

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