Friday, July 13, 2012

Superintendent Who Underpaid Workers Gets Jail Time

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is sending a clear message to government contractors who bilk their workers. From now on, those who knowingly violate state labor laws won't simply walk away with paying a fine - they'll face criminal charges and jail time. That's what the co-owners and Superintendent of a construction firm learned the hard way this week.

A construction manager who underpaid workers by at least $800,000 on infrastructure projects at La Guardia Airport and a housing development in the Bronx was sentenced Friday to four months in jail.

William Mazzella paid less than half of what he owed to workers on public works projects he managed for Decora Construction, a Mahopac, N.Y., masonry subcontractor, according to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Decora Construction submitted certified payroll reports to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the airport, stating that all workers were paid the legally required prevailing wages of between $51.54 and $70.54 per hour.

Mr. Mazzella, the on-site superintendent of Decora, actually paid the workers $18 to $25 per hour, according to a felony complaint filed in the case. Judge James Reitz of the County Court of Putnam County handed down the sentence Friday.

The attorney general got involved after the Port Authority's inspector general discovered the underpayments while checking a security issue. While investigating the La Guardia case, Mr. Schneiderman's office discovered Mr. Mazzella was not paying required prevailing wages at a Bronx project managed by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Mr. Mazzella pleaded guilty in May to grand larceny and a violation of labor law, both felonies. In related charges, Francisco Tavares, a Decora owner, pleaded guilty to grand larceny; and his ex-wife, Aurora Perreira, pleaded guilty to falsifying records. They were previously sentenced to five years probation. As a condition of probation, they may not work on public construction projects in the state for five years.

An attorney for Mr. Mazzella did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Decora's phone has been disconnected.

"This sentencing will serve notice to all contractors that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will not tolerate wage fraud or any other criminal misconduct on public projects," said Robert Van Etten, the agency's inspector general.

The case against Decora is the latest example of Mr. Schneiderman taking an aggressive approach on wage and hour violations, often seeking criminal charges.

In recent months, an investigation that followed the death of a Guatemalan immigrant in a Brooklyn tortilla factory led to a guilty plea from the company's owner. The owner of a Queens catering hall who paid workers as little as $2 an hour and a Bronx recycling center that failed to pay minimum wage also entered guilty pleas. A Brooklyn garment manufacturer was arrested for tampering with witnesses before a hearing on wages owed to workers.

"Paying workers less than the law requires and then lying about it in official documents is not a mistake or a paperwork problem—it is criminal behavior," Mr. Schneiderman said.

About 70 workers will share in restitution totaling $800,000. The money was withheld by the city's housing agency and the Port Authority against contract payments.