This is Part II in a series.
The extent of the corruption in the City School District of New Rochelle is so vast that there is no obvious way into the morass. It is like a fibrous network with interconnected parts and nodes that mesh and overlap within the District among various people, groups of people, and tentacles that extend outside of the District into the City government, into the State government, into the private sector and the non-profit world. The best one can do is to follow a particular strand back to a node on the network and then follow the strands emanating from that node to other nodes. These nodes are departments, or positions within departments or administrators or agencies, or corporate entities but in the end they are all just people. And the people in this network make money from this corruption and they are not inclined to stand idly by while someone like me tries to take away their proverbial rice bowl.
There are people in the world who are supposed to care about this corruption, and to do something about it. First and foremost there is the New Rochelle Board of Education which has oversight responsibility for the entire District. There are the outside auditors at O’Connor, Davies. There is Southern Westchester BOCES. There is the New York State Office of the State Comptroller. There is the New York State Department of Education. There is the New York State Attorney General’s Office. There is the New York State Department of Labor. There is the U.S. Department of Education. There is the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. There is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. There is the Westchester County District Attorney. And, finally, the last best hope for New Rochelle, the U.S. Department of Justice.
They are supposed to care but they do not. Some may do something when some issue is shoved onto their plate but even then they will do the bare minimum in order to shove the issue back off their plate. This is not necessarily corruption per se but just as often bureaucratic inertia. The entire system around a school district like New Rochelle is to place great power in the hands of the Superintendent. They are like medieval barons and princes, theoretically obligated to some far off emperor but for the most part left to their own devices within their own principality. This is often heralded as “local control” which can be a good thing if the district is ruled by a “philosopher-king” but New Rochelle has found such educational leaders in short supply.
A couple of small examples will illustrate the point.
For many months one summer about five or six years ago, residents near Jefferson School were complaining because work was being done on the Jefferson School. This ties back to the Buildings and Grounds department and the use of outside contractors, a subject I will return to, but in this case it is just about the noise generated by the work. New Rochelle has noise ordinances. They were being violated by the District. Complaints to Central Office were dismissed. So, residents complained to the City government. The City sent the police to the school. The police then met with the affected residents and told them there was nothing they could do because the school district is not bound by local noise ordinances. So, the neighbors had to put up with loud noise, early each morning including weekends for the rest of the summer.
Three years ago, a parent of a student at the high school, complained to the District because their wheel-chair enabled child was unable to gain access to the New Rochelle High School Planetarium. After these complaints were ignored for a couple of years, the parent filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. The OCR contacted the school, sent an inspector to make an evaluation and concluded that the lack of access to the high school for wheel-chair enabled students violated their civil rights. The District signed a consent agreement to build a ramp to the specifications required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The work was done under an illegal, severely inflated no-bid contract (more on that later). But the work was done. The District sent a letter to the OCR starting that work had been completed as required under the consent agreement and the OCR closed the case. Except that the District lied to the OCR. The access ramp was not built to ADA specifications and the student’s rights were still being violated. The communications from the OCR to the parent stated that the OCR acted merely as a finder of fact in the complaint. There was no provision for any consequences if the District lied and falsely claimed to have complied with the OCR consent agreement. It was up to the parent to take further action against the District. So, the parent is left the choice of hiring an attorney to file a lawsuit in a case that will drag on for years where the District has, for all purposes, unlimited (taxpayer) money to tie the case up in court, a case most likely to settle with District being ordered to build a new ramp, one they had already paid for with other taxpayer money, by which time their children will have graduated (and, in this case, did).
For a New Rochelle resident or parent, dealing with the City School District of New Rochelle is a Sisyphean task but in this case there is one person pushing a large rock up a hill and there is a horde of lawyers, school board members, administrators, PTA members, and assorted hangers-on standing above, pushing the rock back down on top of them.
So, there are fibers and nodes and they were woven together to create an impenetrable mesh that is designed to keep everyone else out while stolen money and kickbacks and patronage jobs and favors flow through the network. And there are these various organizations and institutions that are supposed to prevent that but most often do not.
Where then to begin?
As a story teller, I prefer to begin with a story that might help illustrate these points and help frame out what is to come in my reporting on corruption in the New Rochelle schools.
So here is a story.
One day I obtained an internal memo from the New Rochelle Police Department to the Westchester County District Attorney. It is a report regarding DA Complaint # P12013-0057 and a subsequent police investigation Event #18260/CR #01544. Now let me stop right there for a moment. If you are the school district I just lost you, right? Because you are far less concerned with what this report says and completely obsessed with how I came to have this report. Well, I am not telling so let’s move on with the story.
The case was assigned to Detective Joseph Savoca of the Criminal Investigations Unit. The memo was written by Detective Sgt. Daniel McKenna. It is important to note as the story unfolds that despite the findings in this investigation no action was ever taken against any of the people involved. It mostly focuses on the school district but in one instance the police observed criminal activity involving a City of New Rochelle employee working for the Public Works Department. Incredibly, the police department never bothered to share this information with the City Manager and so no charges were even contemplated against this individual. But I want to focus on the school district.
The report states that on March 26, 2013, a complaint was forwarded to the New Rochelle Police Department from the Westchester County District Attorneys Office regarding “the possibility of illegal activity taking place within the New Rochelle School Districts Buildings and Grounds Department”. The complaint was that workers were commingling private business waste with that of the New Rochelle School Districts. Talk of the Sound was told by a source that the initial focus of the investigation was Phil Rossetti picking up private trash at his son’s business near Weaver Street and Stratton Road in New Rochelle. Rossetti is the district employee who, just days ago, was promoted to Working-Foreman by the New Rochelle Board of Education. As we shall see, Rossetti has engaged in all manner of corrupt, criminal activity in league with Vincent James “Jimmy” Bonanno, the man he just replaced. Make a mental note of that for later.
The investigation lasts about a month. The police secretly install a GPS tracking device on E-88, a New Rochelle Board of Education garbage truck operated by Sal Porretto and also occupied with his helper John Consolo. Police investigators follow the truck, all the while observing, photographing and videotaping the activities of Poretto and Consolo.
On Wednesday April 03, 2013 at about 10 a.m., police observe Poretto and Consolo. They are “observed picking up a substantial amount of trash from a private business, New Rochelle Truck Repair”. Talk of the Sound readers will recall that New Rochelle Truck Repair, located at 12 Beechwood Avenue in New Rochelle, is owned and operated by John Balascio. He is a personal friend of Jimmy Bonanno and was the subject of a story I wrote about Bonanno attempting to extort money from a District vendor, a mechanic whose company performs maintenance work on District vehicles. Bonanno demanded that Chris Dowling of Chris’ Diagnostic perform work for free on Bonanno’s personal vehicle or he would take all his department’s vehicle maintenance work elsewhere. Dowling refused and Bonanno made good his threat and took the work to Balascio at New Rochelle Truck Repair.
On Tuesday April 16th, 2013 police installed an electronic tracking device on E-88, the New Rochelle School District’s 2010 Mack garbage truck, NY registration plate II M61666 (official). Electronic and visual surveillance was begun.
The report describes the normal activities of E-88 during a typical work day.
“Normally the truck is operated by Porretto and Consolo. The vehicle leaves the Cliff St. lot between 0645 and 0700hrs. It makes daily trash pick up at all the schools beginning in the south end of the city and ending in the north end. It also makes stops at the school district building on Grove Avenue. The truck is then driven to the transfer station on Newton Place in Mt. Vernon where it is unloaded. The truck is then refueled at the city yard and parked back at Cliff St. at approximately 1100hrs. At approximately 1300hrs the truck leaves Cliff St. and makes a second pick up at most of the schools. The truck is then parked on Cliff St. between 1430 and 1500hrs.”
The report then notes “During our surveillance a number of discrepancies In this routine were observed.”
- Porretto makes a daily stop either morning or afternoon at 19 Bonnefoy Place. At first we thought that this was some type of garbage pick up but upon further observation this does not seem to be the case. It appears Porretto has some type of interest in this premise as he is observed collecting mail and placing the trash out for normal pick up. Talk of the Sound was told 19 Bonnefoy Place is or was Poretto’s mother-in-law's house.
- Friday 04/19 at 0925hrs a Board of Education pick up truck is observed in the driveway of New Rochelle Truck Repair at 12 Beechwood Avenue. Talk of the Sound was told this was Jimmy Bonanno’s truck.
- Friday 04/19 Porretto is observed meeting with a man known as Jacob Vinci. Talk of the Sound knows this person to be a local landscaper, known as “Jake the Rake”.
- Tuesday 04/23 11OOhrs a City of New Rochelle garbage truck 11 NY-77251MC (not a school district truck) is observed backing into the dead end of Odell Place. Jacob Vinci pulls his landscaping truck onto Odell Place and backs it up to the rear of the garbage truck. A full load of landscaping debris is unloaded from Vinci's truck into the city's truck. The DPW workers did all the unloading. As mentioned above, the New Rochelle police did not report any of this to the City Manager at the time. Informed of this report recently, the City Manager did investigate the matter, obtained the video but determined through consultation with Corporation Counsel that too much time had passed to take action against the employee involved.
- Thursday 04/25 a School District Supervisor, James Bonanno, is observed on the property of 12 Beechwood Ave., New Rochelle Truck Repair. Before leaving Bonanno opens and checks the garbage bins on the property. At 1250hrs the Board of Education garbage truck, operated by Porretto, backs into the driveway of 12 Beechwood Ave. and loads a substantial amount of trash into his truck.
- From Monday 04/29 - Friday 05/03 the School District garbage truck is being operated by Leonard Pace with the same helper Consolo. The pick up route remains relatively the same.
- Wednesday 05/01 at 1230hrs the School District garbage truck was parked on Cliff St. (not In the yard) A 1989 Ford pickup truck bearing NY EDL7848 was backed up against the loading area of the garbage truck. Two other employees, Willie Clark, 07/02/67 and Philip Rossetti Jr. 01/29/50, were observed unloading the contents of this fully loaded pick up truck Into the rear of the School District garbage truck. The contents appear to be furniture, windows and decking material. Rossetti is the registered owner of the pick up truck.
- The New Rochelle School District garbage truck was electronically monitored on the weekends, 04/20, 04/21, 04/27, 04/28, 05/04 and 05/05 and it appeared that it did not move.
The report ends with "Friday May 03, 2013, 1440hrs Visual surveillance of this New Rochelle School District garbage truck and its operators was terminated. Monday May 06, 2013. Electronic surveillance of the New Rochelle School District garbage truck was terminated and the tracking device removed. Photographs and video are available for review. Detectives Savoca, McKenna, Geertgens, Wilson and Benge assisted on this Investigation."
Not stated in the report is that as part of the investigation — and our sources say this was at some point in June 2013 — Poretto and Consolo were pulled over by the New Rochelle police department after making a trash pick up at New Rochelle Truck Repair with E-88 and taken into custody. The contents of the garbage truck was inventoried.
Jimmy Bonanno, the direct supervisor of Poretto and Consolo was called down to the police station as was his direct supervisor, John Gallagher of Aramark the then-Director of Buildings & Grounds. Bonanno later testified under oath that he was not called down to the police station and knew nothing about Poretto and Consolo being detained by the New Rochelle police. I believe these statements to be false for reasons that should become clear.
Poretto played the part of the loyal soldier. He refused to answer questions. Consolo, on the other hand, talked freely. He is reported to have told police that he and Poretto were acting under orders from Jimmy Bonanno. For their part, Bonanno and Gallagher reportedly told police that they knew nothing about what Poretto and Consolo were doing at New Rochelle Truck Repair. Poretto was angry about this, feeling that Bonanno and Gallagher had left him hanging out to dry. Poretto was particularly upset with Gallagher.
In July of 2013, Poretto stumbled upon what he saw as an opportunity to get even. Poretto would later tell investigators from the New York Department of Labor’s Asbestos Control Bureau and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (acting also on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) that he received a panicked phone call from Gallagher — bypassing Poretto’s supervisor, Bonanno — ordering him to go directly to Davis School to remove a rolled up carpet in the lobby. Poretto and Consolo went to the school and found the carpet in the lobby covered in asbestos particles and asbestos dust. They dragged the carpet through the front door of the school, placed it in the truck, brought the truck back to Cliff Street and later took the carpet to the waste transfer station on Newton Place in Mt. Vernon.
At some point, it dawned on Poretto that Gallagher had ordered him to commit a crime. In fact, several crimes were committed related to the handling and disposal of toxic asbestos material (as was later confirmed by the District’s own lab and a lab used by the State). Poretto went back to the school the next day to collect samples of asbestos material. He met with the Tony Sinkfield, the Head Custodian at Davis School. Sinkfield has received a similar panicked phone call from Gallagher, telling him to hide stacks of asbestos tiles. Several large plastic garbage bags were filled with asbestos tiles, many of them broken and cracked. Sinkfield would later tell state investigators that when workers removed the rug, the asbestos dust was all over the hallway between the main offie of the school and the lobby. He used a broom to sweep up the asbestos dust, spreading the material throughout the building.
Gallagher’s panicked calls came after he was contacted by a senior official at CNS Management, the asbestos consulting firm hired by the District to perform a required triennial asbestos inspection as required under the federal AHERA law. The inspector happened to be at Davis school that day when he stumbled upon employees of George Wood (G.R.W. Plumbing), ripping up sheets of asbestos tiles in the school’s main office. The asbestos inspector was horrified. He told the workers to put the tiles down and stop work immediately. Gallagher was made aware of what the inspector had observed, setting off the panicked phone calls to Poretto and Sinkfield to cover up what were numerous violations of state and federal law.
It is important to realize that this sort of illegal removal, handling and disposal of asbestos has been for many years routine in New Rochelle Schools. It took an inspector, who comes to New Rochelle once every three years, to stumble upon the right room, in the right school, at the right hour, on the right day to bring it to light. And had it not been for Poretto telling people about it — word which soon got back to me — this would have been covered up by school officials as is almost always the case in these situations.
The people involved will all be addressed more throughly in future articles but for now let me just say they are George Wood, the contractor, John Quinn, the Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration, John Gallagher, the Director of Buildings and Grounds and Scott Empara, an electrician but also the asbestos testing person for the District.
What should have happened in this case (in all cases) is that Gallagher should have checked the most recent AHERA report which is required to document all rooms that have actual or suspected asbestos in them, the main office would have been listed, he would then have the option to send Empara to test the tiles. If the tiles tested negative, they could be removed by any workmen. If the tiles tested positive (which they later did after I broke the story) Gallagher would have to seek approval from Quinn to hire a licensed asbestos abatement company with licensed employees to “tent” the office, set up special air filtration equipment and the abate the room. This is far more expensive and time consuming and so what happened at Davis is what almost always happened at every school — Gallagher assigned the work to a contractor with no abatement license, who then brought in untrained, unlicensed workers, who casually tossed around asbestos material, spreading it all over the main office, the hallway, the lobby and the closet where Tony Sinkfield hid the garbage bags full of asbestos.
Gallagher was forced by CNS Management to stop work and hire a licensed asbestos company. Gallagher asked CNS Management to hire a company to do the work. Ironically, as the State investigation later showed, CNS Management hired Edgar Montalvo dba Maki Group LLC which was found to be operating under a forged license. There were later state sanctions, warning letters and fines all around. The district initially failed to pay their fines and only did so the following year after I reported on the unpaid fines.
Gallagher lied not only to the New York State Department of Labor but also the New York State Department of Education. He submitted invoices from Edgar Montalvo for abatement work done after CNS Management caught G.R.W. Plumbing workers ripping up tiles in the main office (they had already completed other illegal work in the Principal’s office) and claimed to the State that all of the work done at Davis School had been done by Edgar Montalvo, never mentioning the role of G.R.W. Plumbing.
Incredibly, even after G.R.W. Plumbing was caught illegally handling and disposing of asbestos material, Gallagher and Quinn assigned the same company to perform similar work at Albert Leonard Middle School and Barnard Childhood Center. The following year, even after Interim Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Korostoff banned G.R.W. Plumbing as a contractor, G.R.W. Plumbing was provided bid forms by Purchasing Agent Ellen Bruzzese and Business Manager Lynda Greenbaum. G.R.W. Plumbing submitted three bids and won all three contracts. These contracts were subsequently revoked after I reported how G.R.W. Plumbing had been “rehired” as a district contractor.
After I published my first story on asbestos at Davis School, senior leadership of the district convened to put together a public response in order to dampen public concern. A statement was drafted with input from Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak, School Board Member David Lacher and the District’s attorney, Jeffrey Kehl. Organisciak then read the statement into the record at the next school board meeting. The information in the statement was also sent to parents and guardians via the school’s reverse-911 system.
The statement was full of inaccuracies, contradictions and lies. The most egregious lie being that the Westchester County Department of Health had made a determination that none of the staff, students and visitors to the school over the days the illegal asbestos work had been done were in at any medical risk, a claim attributed to Dr. Adrienne Weiss, the school physician. The County Attorney’s office got involved, as well as County Legislator for the area including Davis School, threatening the District if they did not retract the statement. A second statement was then issued. This statement also contained inaccuracies, contradictions and lies including continued reference to the Westchester County Department of Health having given an “all clear” on the incident. A third statement, this one accurate, was then issued. However, that accurate statement, which removed any mention of the Westchester County Department of Health giving an “all clear” was never sent out to parents via the reverse-911 system.
While parents and children were never notified that the Westchester County Department of Health did not issue an “all clear” determination, the District did send letters to employees in the building that day to report to Mt. Sinai Hospital for chest x-rays and a full work up to evaluate their exposure to asbestos.
So there is a story to consider.
This stuck me as a good story to tell as a warm up for what is to follow over the coming weeks and months because it is a narrowly defined series of incidents that illustrate the fibers and nodes that make up the network of corruption in the New Rochelle schools and how it touches so many people, at so many levels, and reaches outside of the District.
Just in this one story, one strand among the corruption, we have here involved the Westchester County District Attorney, the Westchester County Department of Health, the New York State Department of Labor, the New York State Department of Education, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New Rochelle Police Department, the New Rochelle Public Works Department, the Mount Vernon Waste Transfer Station, New Rochelle Truck Repair, Rosetti’s son’s business, Jacob Vinci’s landscaping business, Aramark Corporation, George Wood Plumbing, CNS Management, Edgar Montalvo dba Maki Group LLC, and Bond Schoeneck & King PLLC, the New Rochelle Board of Education and key individuals who will be recurring characters in this little drama including Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak (former), Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration John Quinn (former), Buildings & Ground Director John Gallagher (former), Grounds Maintenance Working-Foreman Jimmy Bonanno (former), Electrician Scott Empara, Dr. Adrienne Weiss, Purchasing Agent Ellen Bruzzese and Business Manager Lynda Greenbaum.
As readers know, none of this would ever have been known had I had not persisted, for years, in my reporting. But what may start to become more apparent to readers is the complexity and scale of the criminal activities by district employees, district administrators and district contractors and the complicity of members of the New Rochelle Board of Education. It often amazes me — and I deal with this every day — to see how these fibrous threads weave themselves into a cancerous mass of corruption.
From this story, and my efforts to report it over the past few years, it should also start to be apparent that there are many people who have good reason to want to convince you not to read Talk of the Sound.