Kickbacks Charges Brought Against New York City School Custodians

Eleven N.Y. City public school custodians, all members of Int’l Union of Operating Engineers Local 891, were arrested and charged Dec. 11 with receiving bribes and kickbacks and rigging bids for window cleaning services. According to N.Y. State Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer, from June 2000 to Nov. 2001 the suspects received kickbacks of $300 to $2,000 in cash, or 10% of the contract price, from the cleaning services in exchange for selecting them for their schools. The suspects allegedly asked contractors to supply false bids as a way to circumvent NYC Board of Educ. requirements for at least three bids for services costing more than $250.

“These . . . employees put personal gain before the well-being of our school children,” Spitzer said.  Edward F. Stancik, special commissioner of investigation for NYC schools said the latest allegations result “from a fundamentally flawed system that distorts supply and demand in favor of corrupt custodians and vendors, to the detriment of school children and their parents.” Stancik and Spitzer said custodians have too much latitude in spending money for school maintenance. They criticized the lack of oversight in bidding procedures.

The arrests, the culmination of an 18-month investigation  drew further scrutiny to a union that has been the subject of several corruption scandals, allegations of union featherbedding and nepotism dating back two decades.  In 1996, for example, five custodians were indicted for stealing school money by manipulating time clocks and other abuses. John C. Fager, who has investigated the custodial system for the City Council and others over the past two decades, said, “It’s a permanent scandal, and the system never changes.”

The suspects work at schools in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. If convicted, each suspect faces as much as seven years in prison and/or $100,000 in fines. Although these arrests involved only window washing, Spitzer said “it would defy logic” to suggest that other parts of the city’s $40 million custodians’ budget were not also affected by corruption. “This really is a window into a corrupt system,” he said. Prosecutors did not identify the firms involved in the kickbacks, saying that the investigation is continuing and that they did not want to jeopardize a confidential informant at one of the companies who was an important source.[Bloomberg News 12/11/01; N.Y. Times 12/12/01]