They were supposed to be the watchdogs, the final word on whether asbestos was properly removed from the Kensington Heights housing complex.
Instead, they allowed cancer-causing material to escape into the air.
Two City Hall inspectors, William Manuszewski and Donald Grzebielucha, pleaded guilty Thursday to misdemeanor crimes in connection with the botched asbestos-removal effort at the vacant East Side development.
A third, Theodore Lehmann, who retired from the state Department of Labor, is expected to follow suit next week.
If that happens, it would mark an end to the government’s three-year-old prosecution of companies and individuals involved in the cleanup of Kensington Heights, a symbol of decay and decline for three decades.
“The defendants did inspections at the buildings,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango said of Manuszewski and Grzebielucha on Thursday, “and during those inspections, asbestos material was released into the air.”
The two inspectors, as part of their plea deals, stopped well short of admitting they falsified records, the allegation in the government’s 2011 indictment. They pleaded guilty instead to negligent endangerment under the Clean Air Act and admitted putting other people at risk because of their actions.
The plea deals, reached just days before they went on trial before U.S. District Richard J. Arcara, mean Manuszewski and Grzebielucha get misdemeanor, not felony, convictions.
In addition, Manuszewski will be able to keep his job with the city, according to defense lawyer Michael J. Stachowski. Grzebielucha is retired.
Stachowski said his client weighed the risks and benefits of going to trial versus taking a plea and in the end decided it was best to acknowledge that he and City Hall were partly to blame for the problems at Kensington Heights.
“He was untrained and ill-equipped,” Stachowski said of Manuszewski.
If Lehmann also pleads guilty – his lawyer, Mark S. Carney, said he intends to take a plea deal next week – it would end a criminal case that rocked the neighborhood around the housing complex.
When prosecutors announced their indictment of nine individuals and two companies connected to the asbestos-removal project, residents who live and work around the site raised questions about the potential health effects of the bungled asbestos project.
The 17-acre complex, located behind Erie County Medical Center, is also near three schools and a park frequently used by youth sports teams.
Air samples from the neighborhood later indicated that asbestos levels inside the complex’s six towers exceeded federal standards but levels outside the complex did not.
Manuszewski and Grzebielucha became the seventh and eighth defendants and the first inspectors to plead guilty in the three-year-old case. The other plea deals involved two asbestos-removal contractors and four private compliance monitors.
The grand jury indictment also charged two companies, Johnson Contracting of Buffalo and JMD Environmental Inc. of Grand Island, but those charges were dropped when the companies went out of business.
Johnson was hired to remove and dispose of the estimated 63,000 square feet of asbestos in each of the six towers, and JMD was hired to monitor their work.
Ernest Johnson, president of the asbestos-removal company, recently pleaded guilty and, as part of his plea deal, admitted his role in the bungled project. Among other things, his workers dumped asbestos down holes cut in the floors.
The initial allegations against the two city inspectors involved falsifying inspection reports from the Fillmore Avenue development.
Manuszewski, for example, was accused of using his final inspection reports to claim that asbestos work in five of the complex’s six buildings had been completed when, in fact, he knew it had not been finished.
Manuszewski and Grzebielucha will be sentenced by Arcara on Aug. 18.