U.S. Attorney's Office Announces Final Conviction Involving Kensington Towers Asbestos Project; NYS Department of Labor Official is the Ninth Defendant to be Convicted
BUFFALO, N.Y. – U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul announced today the final conviction relating to the four year investigation and prosecution involving the asbestos abatement project at Kensington Towers. The announcement came as the ninth defendant, former New York State Department of Labor inspector Theodore Lehmann, 67, of Tonawanda, N.Y., pleaded guilty before U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara, to violating the Clean Air Act involving the negligent endangerment of the public. The charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison, a fine of $100,000 or both.
“Today’s development brings to a close the prosecution of those responsible for endangering the public during the asbestos abatement project at the Kensington Towers,” said U.S. Attorney Hochul. “This prosecution revealed wrongdoing by those who contracted to perform the work correctly, both abatement and air monitoring employees. It showed further that public officials, ranging from City of Buffalo inspectors to a New York State official, also committed federal crimes. As shown once again by this prosecution, the Office will not permit those in either private employment or public service to endanger the health of the public.”
“Improper disposal of asbestos endangers human health and can seriously harm the environment," said Vernesa Jones-Allen, Special Agent in Charge of EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division in New York. "Government officials have a responsibility to protect those they serve. If they fail to do that, EPA will hold them accountable to protect the public's health and safety."
Assistant U. S. Attorneys Aaron J. Mango and Russell T. Ippolito, who are handling the case, stated that in June of 2009, Johnson Contracting was awarded a sub-contract to conduct the asbestos abatement project at Kensington Towers, a six-building complex owned by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, located on the East side of Buffalo. In an environmental survey conducted before the commencement of the abatement project, it was estimated that each building at Kensington Towers contained in excess of 63,000 square feet of hazardous asbestos-containing material.
In January 2010, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation received an anonymous telephone call indicating that friable asbestos was being mixed with non-friable asbestos in open containers at Kensington Towers. The caller further noted that work practice standards, designed to minimize the risk of asbestos becoming airborne during renovation and demolition activities, were not being followed. With demolition of the six Kensington Towers buildings imminent, the DEC partnered with Special Agents of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate. That investigation revealed substantial quantities of asbestos containing materials still remained in all six buildings.
Had the Kensington Towers demolition occurred as scheduled, a significant amount of asbestos material would have been released into neighboring communities. The area immediately surrounding the Kensington Towers includes a residential area, two schools, multiple businesses and the Erie County Medical Center.
The defendant convicted today was employed by the New York State Department of Labor as an inspector. In this capacity, Lehmann was responsible for conducting periodic inspections to ensure compliance with state environmental regulations during the asbestos abatement project. During his inspections, the defendant negligently released asbestos into the air and negligently relied on previous inspections conducted by JMD Environmental Inc., and its employees, who were responsible for conducting air monitoring and testing at the site. JMD indicated all asbestos had been removed from the buildings when in fact a substantial quantity had been left in the building. The abatement work itself was to have been by Johnson Contracting of WNY, Inc. and its employees.
Defendant Lehmann is the ninth and final defendant to be convicted as part of the Kensington Towers asbestos abatement project. Also convicted:
• Johnson Contracting supervisors Ernest Johnson and Rai Johnson were convicted of violating Clean Air Act asbestos work practice standards;
• JMD project monitor and supervisor Evan Harnden was convicted of aiding and abetting a violation of the Clean Air Act asbestos work practice standards;
• JMD project monitors Chris Coseglia, Henry Hawkins and Brian Scott were convicted of being an accessory after the fact to a false statement under the Clean Air Act;
• City of Buffalo inspectors Donald Grzebielucha and William Manuszewski were convicted of a negligent endangerment charge under the Clean Air Act.
The plea is the culmination of an investigation on the part of Special Agents of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Criminal Investigation Division, under the direction of Acting Special Agent-In-Charge, Vernesa Jones-Allen; Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Special Agents of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - Office of Inspector General, under the direction of Special Agent-In-Charge Christina Scaringi; and Investigators of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Police, BECI, under the direction of Captain Frank Lauricella. Additional assistance was provided by the New York State Department of Labor, Asbestos Control Bureau.Theodore Lehmann will be sentenced on August 22, 2014, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. before Judge Arcara.