Five building inspectors worked on behalf of slumlords in Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant to evict tenants under false pretenses and erase code violations on dozens of properties for tens of thousands of dollars in bribes, prosecutors allege.
The charges came out of the massive bribery bust on Tuesday that netted 49 building inspectors, property managers, landlords, and contractors alleged to have participated in an array of schemes to gloss over building infractions, strong-arm renters, and hush up construction accidents in exchange for favors and cold, hard cash. A Brooklyn Legal Services attorney who represents tenants in housing court said the staggering 26 indictments show the need for greater oversight in the borough’s overheated real estate market.
“Corruption in these agencies should be a huge concern for tenants, especially in these times of rapid, rapid development,” Adam Meyers said. “We look at these agencies to apply the brakes on gentrification and make sure developers are respectful of laws we have in place.”
Meyers said his organization, Brooklyn Legal Services, is sorting through the criminal complaints to see if any of the buildings or tenants it represents were affected by the pay-to-play culture that Manhattan prosecutors say pervaded the departments of Buildings and Housing Preservation and Development.
“When you have people on the take, those laws are not going to be enforced and tenants will not be protected,” Meyers said.
Manhattan prosecutors led the investigation, but as it expanded, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson oversaw the portion on his turf. He said he would keep an eye on slumlords and their abettors in government as this prosecution proceeds.
“I pledge to continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to root out public corruption caused by those who try to use their money to gain an unfair advantage,” Thompson said in a statement.
The allegations span Brooklyn and Manhattan, but the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Bushwick was a hotspot for the sleazy behavior prosecutors describe.
In the most egregious incident outlined in the criminal complaint, a property manager paid two Housing Preservation and Development inspectors to fraudulently evict tenants from 1249 Jefferson Ave. — prosecutors sited the building at 1249 Jefferson St., but there is no such address — under the guise of a city-issued vacate order, per law enforcement. But first, the suspects delivered the bogus news to the tenants at the wrong building, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office — not that there was a right building. When the manager reiterated the address in a wiretapped phone conversation, the inspector realized his mistake, prosecutors said.
“I talked to the wrong f------ people then,” he said. “Got to go back.”
The inspectors returned to the first address, told the tenants they could stay, then went to 1249 Jefferson and called the police on the renters there, telling the authorities they were trespassing, according to an indictment. On Friday, the building appeared freshly painted, but its steps were chipped, and its front yard contained rubble and disassembled scaffolding. The area in front of the steps had not been shoveled.
A landlord paid the same pair of purportedly crooked inspectors to give his tenants the boot, the indictment says.
One of the two worked with a third inspector to wipe a total of 778 violations from 24 Brooklyn properties for more than $41,000 in bribes from May to August of 2014, prosecutors said. The scheme netted this pair $1,000 to $2,500 per property, including $20,000 from one property manager for 13 buildings in Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, prosecutors said. The erased entries included violations for mice and roach infestations, missing smoke detectors, and a defective hallway ceiling, per the authorities.
The third inspector allegedly worked out a similar deal with landlords at 1122 Willoughby Ave. and 32 Kossuth Pl., both in Bushwick. In the Kossuth Place incident, the inspector allegedly helped the landlord clear $270,000 worth of fines.
The building at 1122 Wiloughby has wires sticking out of the wall where a buzzer should be, though with only six apartments, it is not required to have an intercom. A lot with the address 30 Kossuth Pl. — 32 does not appear to exist — is currently vacant with a construction fence around it.
A second property manager paid the inspector more than $300 to dismiss violations including exposed electrical wiring, a mice infestation, and a water leak in the ceiling at 1406 Putnam Ave. in Bushwick, prosecutors said. The suspect finagled the assignment to go to the house for a scheduled re-inspection, then falsely claimed that the landlord had remedied the problems, according to a court document.
The list goes on.
When arranging the alleged fraud on Putnam, the suspect stressed the level of risk, and the importance of being paid, in another recorded phone conversation, prosecutors said.
“Listen, when I do something of this nature right, and I have to put this monkey suit on, there is a number attached to that,” the inspector allegedly said. “If I go there with your repairman, you know, and dress that up, my numbers have to be taken care of. Because I am taking a chance and a risk, and I know what I am doing, but we just have to be careful.”