The botched demolition of one of Buffalo’s oldest public housing complexes took a new turn Tuesday – an admission that workers on the project tried to cover up the illegal removal and disposal of asbestos.
Henry Hawkins, a compliance monitor on the failed project at Kensington Heights, admitted falsifying inspection reports in order to protect Johnson Contracting, the Buffalo company hired to remove asbestos from the complex’s six towers.
Hawkins’ admissions – he is the first defendant to be convicted – are part of a deal that allows him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge in return for his promise to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
“There is a cooperation clause in the plea agreement," said Patrick J. Brown, Hawkins’ defense lawyer. “It’s a very serious charge and this seemed like an appropriate way to resolve it."
Hawkins was one of 11 defendants – nine individuals and two companies – charged in a 23-count indictment related to the asbestos-removal project at Kensington Heights on Fillmore Avenue. The defendants include three inspectors – one from the state and two from the city.
As part of his plea deal, Hawkins said he and Rai Johnson, a supervisor at Johnson Contracting, worked together to cover up the fact that asbestos remained in four buildings they had certified as clean.
“Rai Johnson wrote in his log book that all the asbestos had been removed," Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J, Mango said in court. ”At the time he wrote that, all the asbestos had not been removed. And the defendant knew all the asbestos had not been removed.”
Kensington Heights, which is located behind the Erie County Medical Center, has been a symbol of decay and abandonment for three decades.
Visible from the Kensington Expressway, the 17-acre complex is owned by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and was targeted for demolition three years ago as part of a larger plan top redevelop the site into a $105 million retirement community.
The charges outlined in the indictment center around the work of two companies – Johnson Contracting and JMD Environmental Inc. of Grand island – and the allegations that they violated the federal Clean Air Act by improperly removing and disposing of asbestos.
The federal indictment alleges that from June 2009 to January 2010, Johnson Contracting and two of its managers – Rai Johnson and President Ernest Johnson – instructed workers to dump asbestos down holes cut in the floors of each building.
They also are charged with failing to wet the asbestos and leaving it in open containers.
Mango has said in the past that the government is likely to dismiss the charges against Johnson and JMD because the two companies are now out of business.
Hawkins’ admissions – he pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact – is significant because it was his employer, JMD, that was accused of conspiring with Johnson. The company was hired to conduct air-sampling tests and other oversight work but, according to prosecutors, failed to do those tests properly.
The indictment also charges a now retired state Labor Department inspector, Theodore Lehmann, and two city inspectors, Donald Grzebielucha and William Manuszewski, with falsifying inspection reports.
In the year since the indictment was announced, the BMHA has made progress in resuming the asbestos abatement and demolition work at Kensington Heights.
The authority has torn down one of the six towers and has removed the asbestos from a second tower awaiting demolition.