Thursday, September 11, 2008

This Week's Forum West and South

Seminerio Charged in Corruption Scandal

Building Memories, Preserving 9/11

Civic Accuses Developer of Violating Stop Work Order

CB 10 Unanimously Rejects Group Home Proposal

Addabbo Calls on DEP to Clean Up its Act as Fish Continue to Die

Company Accused of Illegal Dumping at Newtown Creek

Another Death on Queens Boulevard

Stolen Torahs Recovered, Temple's Custodian Charged

Seminerio Charged in Corruption Scheme

By Conor Greene

Longtime state Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio was charged by federal prosecutors with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from groups doing business with the state, including executives from a local hospital.

The charges center on Seminerio’s consulting firm Marc Consultants, which he has run from his Ozone Park home since 2000. The charges were expected to be formally announced by U.S Attorney for the Southern District Michael Garcia and FBI Agent Mark Mershon at a press conference Wednesday.

Seminerio, a Democrat from Richmond Hill who has served on the assembly for three decades, was arrested that afternoon.

Authorities allege that more than $500,000 in consulting fees paid to Seminerio, 73, were actually payoffs made in exchange for political favors. He was able to prevent the scheme from coming to light sooner due to a state law not requiring him to reveal the names of his clients.

A witness cooperating with the federal investigation, reported to be disgraced former Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, recorded conversations with Seminerio during which the politician said he was tired of doing “favors” for people who were “making thousands” of dollars. “Screw you, from now on, you know, I’m a consultant,” he said to the cooperating witness. He added that he would lose “sixty percent” of his consulting business if he were to leave the assembly.

Among the groups doing business with Seminerio was a hospital “whose funding was substantially affected” by the state’s budget. “The intercepted communications... demonstrated that on numerous occasions Seminerio took action... to benefit the hospital at the time he was receiving payments from the hospital,” wrote FBI Special Agent Julie Brown in the complaint.

At one point, Seminerio bragged to a hospital executive that he can provide the “kind of relationship you can’t buy for a million dollars.” Later that day, the hospital informed Seminerio that his check would be sent the following week. The “consulting” work came as hospitals were threatened with budget cuts which were considered to close projected budget deficits.

That hospital executive later complained that a state official “has not been such a great friend for us.” Seminerio told the executive, “You got to tell me those things, and I’ll break his balls, and I have to know what to break his balls about.”

As the investigation continued, the FBI had an undercover agent approach Seminerio about legislation needed to privatize probation services. The agent offered a payment, but was told, “Let me produce something for you... If I produce, then, we’ll you know, we’ll sit down and you’ll congratulate me.” The undercover later agreed to pay him “consulting” fees in exchange for setting up meetings with members of the legislature.

Seminerio, who was a city corrections officer before he launched his political career, was paid $79,500 for his work as an assemblyman.

Building Memories; Preserving 9/11


As the world remembers the seventh anniversary of 9/11, thousands will gather at a ceremony at two massive pools set within the footprints of the Twin Towers- with the largest man-made waterfalls in the country cascading down their sides. They will be a powerful reminder of the Twin Towers and of the unprecedented loss of life from an attack on our soil.

The names of the 2,980 who were killed in the September 11 attacks in New York City, Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, and the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing will be inscribed around the edge of the Memorial pools.

An eight-acre landscaped Memorial Plaza filled with more than 300 trees will create a contemplative space separate from the sights and sounds of the surrounding city. The design is unique in its use of ecological considerations which exceed sustainability standards.

As the Memorial Competition Jury explained its decision, "In its powerful, yet simple articulation of the footprints of the Twin Towers, "Reflecting Absence" has made the voids left by the destruction the primary symbols of our loss. It is a memorial that expresses both the incalculable loss of life and its consoling renewal, a place where all of us come together to remember from generation to generation."

Complementing the Memorial, a state-of-the art memorial will offer visitors an opportunity to deepen their experience at the site. The Museum will help facilitate an encounter with both the enormity of the loss and the triumph of the human spirit that are at the heart of 9/11.

Dynamic exhibitions including artifacts and personal effects; a resource center, contemplative areas, and innovative educational programming will convey responders, area residents, and witnesses.

The Museum, designed by Davis Brody Bond, LLP will have its primary exhibition space below ground. The Museum will be accessed through an entry pavilion designed by Snøhetta. As visitors descend below the Memorial voids, they will see the slurry wall - the wall that held back the Hudson River when the Towers collapsed - and other remaining structures at the foundation of the site where the tallest buildings in the world, a triumph of human ingenuity and aspiration once stood.

The remaining eight acres of the site will include the Freedom Tower, three other grand WTC Towers, retail development, the WTC Transportation Hub and a Performing Arts Center. The site also includes significant underground infrastructure, including PATH tracks, a chiller plant and other mechanical spaces.

Civic Accuses Developer of Violating Stop Work Order

Residents, JPCA, Continue Battle with Huang

By Conor Greene

Police were called to a Mazeau Street after work at a construction site there continued despite a stop work order, according to a local civic group.

Members of the Juniper Park Civic Association’s executive board recently observed workers on property at 57-39 Mazeau Street, where notorious developer Tommy Huang is building a multi-family house. Residents say the empty lot adjacent to the house construction is also owned by Huang, and is being used as a storage area for
heavy equipment.

The property has been the site of numerous violations. Earlier this year, the city forced Huang to remove the top floor of what was a four-story house after being pressured by the civic and Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside). The city Department of Buildings (DOB) issued a stop work order, which was partially rescinded recently so that the developer could clean up the site.

On Saturday, residents heard loud banging at the property at about 8:30 a.m. and saw several people trying to break the lock on the security fence. They called 911, and police responded quickly since it was a possible break in attempt, according to JPCA member Manny Caruana, who lives near the scene.

“Apparently what happened was, [the developer] has been storing heavy equipment on the premises,” said Caruana. The workers claimed they were there to clean up, but were moving heavy equipment from the site, according to Caruana.

“It’s being used as a transfer site for heavy equipment,” he said. “They do this all time. It’s not clean-up. They sent five guys there to load a truck and leave, but there’s nothing left to clean up.”

After several years of pressuring the city to force Huang to comply with building codes, residents are starting to lose patience, said Caruana. Several houses across from the site have been put up for sale, and another next to Huang’s property has been allowed to fall into disrepair. “People are getting fed up with this. It’s an ongoing battle, the thing is ugly as hell, and it was built illegally.”

While police responded to the scene, they are not equipped to deal with Buildings Department issues, said JPCA member Tony Nunziato, who is challenging Marge Markey for her seat on the state Assembly. “They come five hours later and they don’t know the regulations,” he said. “The DOB knows this area has been a problem for two years. The city has to have a system [allowing] people who are watching the developers to call and have an inspector come down within an hour.”

Huang’s checkered past includes a conviction for allowing 200 gallons of oil to spill into the basement of the landmarked RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing and then lying about cleaning it up. As a result of Huang’s repeated violations, officials including Avella have demanded that the city refuse to issue him any future building permits, a request which has been ignored.

“The city has to step up to the plate and watch what is going on in the neighborhood,” said Nunziato, adding that the DOB must put an end to the self-certification process. “Where is the government that is supposed to protect people? Is it a payoff, or total ignorance by people who don’t want to work?”

CB 10 Rejects Group Home Proposal

Plans for South Ozone Park Facility Angers Board Members, Residents

By Nicole Turso

A unanimous vote against the addition of another community residence program group home in the Community Board 10 district marked the first monthly meeting of the board for the new season, held last Thursday.

Community Board 10 Queens was back in session after a summer off, meeting at the Knights of Columbus on Lefferts Blvd. Their first order of business was a presentation from St. Vincent’s Youth Residential Services to establish a children’s group home on 126th Street in South Ozone Park.

Chris Jones, a representative from St. Vincent’s, gave the presentation for the residents program, which would service eight disabled children from Queens, up to age 18, deemed suitable for community living. The home would serve as a transition ground for children plagued by social, emotional and behavioral difficulties with the intent to return to their families after a year.

A Queens designated Single Point of Access (SPOA), a government designated program for children and families used to identify children with the highest risk of placement in out-of-home settings, would place the majority of children in the facility, with an intake screening committee involved in placement decisions. Some children may also be placed through the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

Martha Taylor Butler, a representative from Assemblywoman Michele Titus’ (D-Queens) office attended on behalf of the community’s interest, denouncing the addition of another facility. “In our community we have too many residential programs. We’ve had enough,” she said. “We are against anymore residential beds in Ozone Park.”

Jones claimed at the meeting that there is no saturation of residential group homes in Ozone Park or its surrounding communities, but CB 10 Chairperson Betty Braton produced a list with the number of group homes established and running in zip codes-- 11420, 11417, 11419 and 11414. Just in the community of South Ozone Park alone there are 14 facilities.

“It seems that when people don’t know where to put something, they plant it in Ozone Park,” said Community Board member Margaret Finnerty, “Enough is enough in our community.”

St. Vincent’s planned to build an eight-bedroom, five-thousand square foot residential home, comparable to a one-family home already in place in Springfield Gardens that has been operating for six months. The home would be staffed with 15 full-time supervisors, and at least two to three staffers on duty at all times.

After hearing St. Vincent’s presentation, the board motioned to vote, and was followed by a unanimous vote to reject the proposal — the board viewing another group home as saturation of the zip code.

Photo: An overgrown empty lot on 126th street will serve as the site for a group home if St. Vincent’s Youth Residential Services has its way.

Addabbo Calls on DEP to Clean Up its Act

Residents, Elected Officials Angry Over Lack of Action

By Patricia Adams

Angry residents of Howard Beach gathered with Councilman Joe Addabbo on Monday afternoon at a press conference to address the dead fish that have been washing up in Shellbank Basin for the past two weeks. Some at the conference have lived on the canal for more than four decades and insist the problem has never been anything like this.

Addabbo was joined by Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, CB 10 chairperson Betty Braton and Democratic District Leader Frank Gulluscio. “We’ve seen the same problem for several weeks in a row,” said Councilman Addabbo. “That’s more than twice than it has ever occurred in the history of the area. Obviously something is wrong.”

Addabbo went on to express his sentiment that the situation was definitely not part of a naturally occurring phenomenon and that immediate action must be taken.

“I have sent letters to both the DEP and the DEC demanding a site meeting immediately,” said Addabbo. “We don’t want to meet with these agencies in our offices. We want to meet them right here where they can experience the same disgusting smell we’ve been forced to endure for weeks.”

Don Sclafani says he has been boating and using the canal since he was a teenager. Now more than 40 years later, the Howard Beach resident says the DEP still clears their tanks by dumping them every August leaving what he claims is a slick that resembles anti-freeze at the surface of the water.

“First they dump and then the fish die,” said Sclafani. “The DEP is lying to us. I have spoken to a retired DEP employee who confirmed for me that they [DEP] dump chlorine and chemicals in the water when they clean their tanks. I can’t give you his name,” Sclafani said, “I promised I wouldn’t give him up.”

Elected officials and residents agree that resolving the problem begins with dredging the mouth of the canal. Because the water at the mouth of the canal is very shallow and at the top of the canal is much deeper, dredging it would begin to fix the problem by making the water depth more even. The diverse layering of the water leads to problems with oxygenation, resulting in the fish kill.

“If the water was stirred up and the oxygen was distributed more evenly throughout the canal, there would definitely be a great benefit in dealing with this problem,” said Betty Braton, chair of CB 10 and a resident living on the canal for 50 years. “Dredging would not eliminate the problem completely, but it would certainly be a vast improvement,” said Braton, “in addition to which it would make it much easier and safer for boaters who use the mouth of the canal to navigate in and out of the waterway.”

Braton says that as a resident she has been sickened for the past weeks, trying to clear dead fish from her dock and boat. “I care for my 102-year-old mother and the only fresh air she gets is outside in her back yard. She has been in the house for the past few weeks because the odor here is so unbearable.”

And Braton is certainly not alone in vocalizing her disgust over the situation. For weeks, residents have been gathering at the parking lots of CVS and Starbucks, both of which overlook the most troublesome parts of the canal, to share their woes over the mess surrounding their homes. Many attended the press conference holding photos of the hundreds of dead fish they took from the decks off their homes.

Bob Giallanzo, a resident who lives on the canal was toting the photos of hundreds of fish that had washed up on the beach. “I called DEP to complain so many times. I even got routed to DEP in another state. Obviously they are an agency that needs to be supervised.”

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer was quick to point out that in addition to area residents who must deal with the nauseating odor, there are also major consequences for business owners. “How is an establishment like Starbucks, where people want to sit by the water and have their coffee, supposed to deal with this,” Pheffer questioned. “In a community like this, where many businesses, especially eateries, use the waterfront as a selling point, there is a real problem. This situation has severe economic ramifications and is a major contributor to a decline in the quality of life for our residents.”

Among the areas of concern to those pushing for the meeting with DEP and DEC are whether or not the temporary de-stratification system is operational now and has been working through the summer, the current status of plans to construct a permanent facility and the protocol for timely cleanup should there be a similar event in the future.

Councilman Addabbo assured residents that he will not rest until the appropriate measures are taken to remedy the problem as quickly as possible. “I want an explanation from both DEC and DEP as to what is going on here, and I want this cleaned up now. Whether or not this fish death is a natural thing, the residents don’t care. We just want it cleaned up. Now.”

Councilman Addabbo donned rubber gloves to give the “reel feel” approach to the problem of dying fish in Shellbank Basin. Addabbo has promised residents that he will press the DEP and DEC for answers and results.

Company Accused of Illegal Dumping at Newton Creek

Riverkeeper, Gioia, Plan Lawsuit Against LIC Supply Co

By Conor Greene

A local City Councilman and environmental watchdog group are planning legal action against a Long Island City concrete manufacturer they claim illegally dumped waste into the Newtown Creek.

The environmental group Riverkeeper and Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) announced they have filed a notice of intent to sue NYCON Supply Corporation for discharging concrete waste into a tributary of the heavily-polluted Newtown Creek.

Riverkeeper, an independent organization dedicated to protecting waterways throughout the city, claims it observed NYCON employees dumping concrete waste into the Dutch Kills tributary of Newtown Creek without required Clean Water Act permits. The group also claims the company left piles of gravel and layers of concrete on the riverbed adjacent to the company’s facility.

The group filed a notice of intent last Thursday to sue NYCON, claiming the recent instance of dumping constitutes “an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and environment under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which is the nation’s primary law governing the disposal of solid and hazardous waste.

“The pollution issues confronting Newtown Creek and other waterways surrounding New York City cannot be fully addressed without enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters accountable for their actions,” said Riverkeeper Investigator Craig Michaels. “We will continue to work with elected officials and government agencies to track down and protect environmental lawbreakers who threaten the environmental and public health of our communities.”

Both the Clean Water Act and the RCRA allow citizen groups to sue polluters, subjecting violators to up to $32,500 in penalties per day for each violation.

“For too long, Newtown Creek has been the forgotten waterway of New York City, and polluters have taken advantage by dumping with impunity,” said Gioia. “We’re here today to send a strong message that we will not stand for more dumping and more pollution in the creek. Polluters beware: we are watching, we are vigilant, and we will go after you.”

The Newtown Creek is a three-mile long tributary of the East River separating Brooklyn and Queens. It was the site of a 17-million gallon oil spill in 1950, which continues to be the center of numerous lawsuits against Exxon-Mobil by environmentalists and lawmakers. Pollution at the site dates back to the 1870s, when dozens of refineries were located along the creek banks.

The creek was recently identified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a contaminated area warranting further study for possible inclusion in the Superfund program.

Another Death on Queens Boulevard

Elderly Woman Struck while Crossing in Forest Hills

The notorious “Boulevard of Death” claimed another life when an 81-year-old woman was struck by a car and killed last Friday.

According to police, Shellie Parris was hit at about 8 p.m. while crossing in front of 109-15 Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills. An 83-year-old woman driving a Toyota Camry remained at the scene and was not charged in the accident.

Michelle DeMerse, who lives in a nearby apartment building, said she heard a loud “thump.” A short time later, she saw paramedics attempt to revive the woman. “You see CPR all the time on television but seeing it live is like getting hit with a brick. It’s shocking,” said DeMerse.

A section of Queens Boulevard was closed while the accident was investigated, and the driver held at the scene by police for nearly three hours, according to DeMerse.

The Forum Newsgroup/photo courtesy of MICHELLE DEMERSE

Stolen Torahs Recovered; Temple's Custodian Charged

By Conor Greene

Eight Torahs stolen from a central Queens synagogue last month have been recovered
and a live-in custodian has been charged in the thefts, according to police.

Eric Giraldo, 23, who has worked at the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills for the past four years, was charged last week with grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property. A friend, Alan Lozano, 28, was also charged in the theft after detectives found the stolen Torahs in a closet in his Fresh Meadows apartment.

The theft was discovered during Saturday morning services on August 16. About 60 members were shocked when the curtain over the ark was pulled back to reveal that the Torahs, worth more than $400,000, were missing. Since they’re kept under lock and key, congregants and police immediately suspected it was an inside job. “We couldn’t continue the service,” congregant Herman Saltzman told The Forum at the time. “I saw everybody just standing, bewildered. It was something we had never seen before.”

Authorities are currently in possession of the silver-plated Hebrew texts, but Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said his office hopes have the items returned within a week or two, in time for the High Holy Days later this month.

“Eric was a good employee. I personally liked him and so to me it was really a devastating blow,” the center’s Honorary President Alan Gerard told NY1. “I was sort of his patron and I trusted him with a lot of things.” Giraldo reportedly continued to show up for work in the
days following the theft, according to staff members.

Brown commended “the men and women of the 107th Precinct Detective Squad for their diligence and professionalism in bringing about the arrest of those allegedly responsible for the theft of the sacred Torahs... and for the recovery of those Torahs.

Authorities say Giraldo planned on selling the Torahs. The men face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. During their first appearance in Queens Criminal Court following their arrest on September 4, Giraldo was ordered held on $25,000 bail and Lozano on $10,000, neither of which had been posted as of Tuesday. They are due back in court on September 18.