This story was originally published by ProPublica and Voice of America News.
The headquarters of Sanitation Salvage, one of the largest private trash haulers in New York City, is a squat brick building that sits unremarkably amid the garbage dumps and razor wire of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx.
The Squitieri brothers, owners for decades, can be found on the top floor of the house-like structure on Manida Street. The three brothers are men of considerable wealth and fixtures in Bronx politics, and one of them, Steven, has been seen riding to special events in a white chauffeured Rolls Royce. They are also, according to employees, unforgiving bosses, profane taskmasters who push a small army of drivers and off-the-books workers through grueling shifts of 18 hours or longer.
The building’s basement is the domain of the men who work in neon reflective gear. Each night the workers, most of them black or Hispanic, descend the steps to sign in and get their assignments. The supervisors make sure everyone has the printout from the Squitieris: “Do your job or get written up.”
From the basement, the workers head to the trucks out in the yard. Once on their routes, the drivers and their helpers often pick up young men on the street as additional hands, everyone sprinting through fatigue and red lights to finish nightly routes of 1,000 stops or more.
In 2016, Mouctar Diallo, a teenage African immigrant, stepped into the rough-and-tumble world of Sanitation Salvage. He was hired off the streets of the Bronx for a few bucks in cash, then spent 18 months as one of the company’s “third men,” hustling ahead of the trash trucks to grab garbage from the curb and keep the gritty show rolling.
Then, nearing the end of a shift on Nov. 7, 2017, Diallo wound up crushed to death under the wheels of a Sanitation Salvage truck. The men he’d been helping lied to the police, saying their dead colleague was a homeless person who had come out of nowhere. The police took them at their word, and Diallo was buried quietly by his family, the circumstances of his death a cynical fiction.
Even in the bruising, often chaotic world of New York’s nighttime trash collection, Sanitation Salvage cuts a distinctively brutish profile. Its role in Diallo’s death — and, in April, the death of an elderly Bronx man run down while crossing the street with a cane — has set off a firestorm for the company as well as the city agency that oversees the commercial trash industry.
An investigation by Voice of America and ProPublica, drawing on thousands of pages of public documents and interviews with more than a dozen current and former workers, depicts a workplace environment in which concerns about safety, as well as workers’ rights and compensation, are flouted despite years of complaints from workers to regulators.
Records show that more than three-quarters of Sanitation Salvage trucks have been ordered off the road after federal safety checks. Yet the company has paid lobbyists to fight local legislation that backers say would compel haulers to improve on working conditions and safety.
The Department of Labor several years ago found that Sanitation Salvage had cheated workers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages. Today, the New York State Insurance Fund is suing the company for $780,000 in unpaid workers’ compensation insurance obligations for on-the-job injuries.
Workers say their union is a sham and was installed by the company’s owners more than a decade ago. Records show it was long run by a man later convicted by federal prosecutors of running an extortion racket at construction sites for the Genovese crime family. Many workers say they have never had reliable health care and other benefits, yet 2017 union records show that the convicted mobster, James Bernardone, continues to receive “deferred compensation” from the union.
On May 9, two weeks after a Sanitation Salvage truck killed 72-year-old Leo Clarke, more than 50 elected officials, labor leaders and community organizers rallied outside the Manhattan offices of the Business Integrity Commission. The agency was created two decades ago to root out organized crime by licensing and investigating the roughly 250 private commercial trash haulers operating in New York City.
Antonio Reynoso, a Democrat representing Brooklyn and Queens and the chairman of the City Council’s Sanitation Committee, told those gathered that Sanitation Salvage’s license should have been suspended after the deaths. He accused BIC of softening oversight of the private trash industry, saying it had never once suspended or revoked the license of a private trash hauler over safety concerns or unpaid wages.
“Sanitation Salvage is not a bad apple,” he said. “We’re talking about an entire orchard that is rotten.”
Sanitation Salvage did not answer a list of detailed questions from Voice of America and ProPublica concerning the fatal accidents, the union and its connection to a convicted mobster, and other issues involving the company’s operations.
“The recent accidents are absolutely tragic, and we are saddened by the untimely loss of life,” spokesman Lee Silberstein said in a statement. “However, our operation is predicated upon three important principles: 1) safety, first and foremost; 2) fulfilling a crucial need for our customers and the city; and 3) being a good neighbor.
“A complete review of our record and operation will show that we live by these principles and a revocation of our ability to do business is unwarranted.”
BIC Commissioner Daniel Brownell said an investigation of Sanitation Salvage is under way and could result in revoking the company’s license. The commission said it had looked into earlier worker complaints about Sanitation Salvage, leading to a fine for a recordkeeping violation.
Brownell has maintained that his agency lacks the legal authority to hold companies liable for safety shortcomings but is actively seeking such powers.
At a City Council hearing in March 2017, however, Brownell offered a broad defense of the private trash industry and his agency’s oversight of it.
“As I have said many times now, the city’s trade waste industry has made real strides over the past 20 years,” Brownell testified. “With BIC oversight in place, the trade waste industry has become largely a vibrant, competitive and fair one. Much of the credit for this must go to those in the industry itself who have worked hard for these improvements.”
The New York Police Department is now investigating the Sanitation Salvage driver, Sean Spence, who was behind the wheel when both Diallo and Clarke were struck.
Michael Maldonado worked for 12 years at Sanitation Salvage, where he earned the nickname “Mikey Cardboard” because one of his routes required picking up lots of paper for recycling. Maldonado said the scrutiny of Sanitation Salvage is long overdue. But, like many current and former workers, he believes the Squitieris — who are major donors to the local Bronx Democratic Party machine — are too powerful and connected to face any serious consequences.
“How has this been under the radar for so many years?” he asked. “How is it that somebody has to fucking die for people to notice?”
The story of Sanitation Salvage began in 1978 with the Squitieri family of Morris Park, which was then a largely Italian neighborhood of the Bronx. Matteo Squitieri, the father, worked for a garbage company before buying his own truck. Matteo drove and his sons — Steven, John and Andrew — worked on the back, hauling trash. Matteo’s wife and daughter kept the books and answered the phone out of their house.
Today, the company employs dozens of drivers and helpers, and has grown so dominant that in vast swaths of the Bronx, just about every business gets their trash picked up by Sanitation Salvage. The company is not required to publicly report how much money it earns every year, but Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., in an October 2016 speech honoring Sanitation Salvage’s president, Steven Squitieri, said the company takes in tens of millions of dollars annually.
“You’ve done well, my friend,” Diaz said with a laugh.
In New York’s bifurcated world of garbage, the city’s Department of Sanitation handles residential trash, and a legion of garbage trucks from scores of private sanitation companies carts away the trash and recycling from businesses. For nearly a half-century, the commercial garbage industry had been seen as almost hopelessly corrupt: The mob’s control of the industry was absolute, through both the companies and unions.
In 1995, the Manhattan district attorney’s office brought a sweeping racketeering case against a wide range of mobsters, the trade associations that enforced what amounted to a cartel, and many private carting companies. The prosecutions prompted a massive reform effort. The Trade Waste Commission was created under then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to regulate the industry and root out bad actors. The waste commission later became BIC when it was granted wider authority to oversee other industries in the city.
The Squitieris were not indicted in any of the criminal cases, although BIC required Sanitation Salvage to retain an outside monitor until 2005. (Sanitation Salvage had been a member of the Queens County Trade Waste Association, which pleaded guilty to a criminal antitrust violation in 1998.)
On the civic stage, the Squitieris have worked hard to cultivate an image of benevolence and public service. Steven Squitieri, known as Stevie, is a board member of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, and his brother John, known as Johnny, is the president of the North Bronx Democratic Club. In 2015, Steven Squitieri was honored on the floor of the New York state Assembly by the Bronx delegation for being “an extraordinary business person” and “a great philanthropist” who “truly understands the meaning of giving back.”
“No one gave them anything. They worked hard. They earned it,” Diaz said of the Squitieris at the function in 2016. “They still work hard each and every single day.”
Many of those who have worked for Sanitation Salvage offer different testimony and, for them, the events of 2005 provide a telling counterpoint.
Sanitation Salvage at the time was a Teamsters union shop, with strict wage and benefit requirements. The Squitieris, according to the Teamsters, often tried to get away with hiring off-the-books helpers. In response, the Teamsters said they chased down Sanitation Salvage trucks in the night, trying to catch the company in the act.
“It was a constant battle,” said Teamsters Local 813 President Sean Campbell.
Management ultimately ended the battle by installing what, in effect, became their own union, according to current and former workers. The new union was called Local 124, and it was run chiefly by James Bernardone and another man, Louis DeAngelis. Workers say the union has since its inception been a sham, little more than a tool for management to exploit employees. (Local 124 did not respond to a detailed list of questions.)
Unions like Local 124 — they are often called “independent” unions — have long been a curious and problematic feature of New York’s private sanitation industry. The function of such unions, according to law enforcement and labor experts, is to cut sweetheart deals with employers, often locking employees into jobs with low wages, poor benefits and low safety standards. Just like a legitimate union, these unions are registered with the Department of Labor, and dues are taken out of workers’ paychecks. But the union serves the interests of the employer, not the employees it ostensibly represents.
“In the old days,” explained Ronald Goldstock, the former head of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, if “you wanted to stop your workers from joining a particular union that you were afraid of or worked on behalf of the employees, you signed a contract with a phony local. So there was a collective bargaining agreement, but you kept it in a desk drawer. Nobody ever saw it. But if anybody ever wanted to unionize, you would hold it up and say, ‘We’re already unionized!’”
Bernardone and DeAngelis both came out of a mob-tainted Teamsters local in Yonkers. The Teamsters had agreed to sweeping government oversight in 1989 in order to settle a federal racketeering suit, and this meant forming a court-appointed Independent Review Board that investigated and expelled members for corruption and ties to organized crime. In 1991, the Teamsters Independent Review Board accused DeAngelis in writing with having “knowingly associated with members of La Cosa Nostra,” and to settle the claims, DeAngelis agreed to a lifetime ban in an affidavit that was submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The Teamsters Independent Review Board stripped Bernardone of his membership for five years through a similar process in 2000, concluding in a formal written finding that he had entered into “sham collective bargaining agreements with employers.”
The new union at Sanitation Salvage was installed with little pretense of legitimacy, according to workers and other labor advocates.
Maldonado, the former driver — Mikey Cardboard — told the story of the switch like this: A supervisor named Christopher Markgraf showed up at his house. Markgraf, dubbed Whiteboy Chris, had a clipboard with a list of signatures. “Here, sign this,” said Markgraf, according to Maldonado. Maldonado signed.
“We were blindsided,” he said.
Another worker, who requested anonymity because he still works for the company, said he, too, did as he was told.
“Whiteboy Chris was running you down,” the worker said. “‘If you don’t sign this list, you gonna have problems.’ Everybody just signed that shit.”
Markgraf did not respond to requests for comment.
Sanitation Salvage workers today say they never understood exactly what happened, and had no idea that federal labor law protects the rights of workers to choose their own union and prohibits an employer from interfering with that choice by sponsoring or assisting any kind of union petition. All the workers knew was that the new union held no meetings or elections, they said. No union officials came around, no contract negotiations were discussed.
Before “the list,” they said, workers were Teamsters. After the list, many of the helpers were hired and paid off-the-books.
The off-the-books helpers made $80 a night at most, whether a shift took 12 hours or 20, according to interviews with 15 current and former workers. On payday, the $80 guys went down into the basement of the house on Manida Street, workers said, and a supervisor gave them money out of a bag or envelope. Their pay was rolled up with a rubber band and a piece of paper with their name on it. Workers called this “rubber-band money.” This was how all helpers started at Sanitation Salvage, workers said.
As for drivers, they began to get envelopes of cash along with their weekly paychecks with the new union in place, Maldonado said. Their supervisors told them to take it and keep quiet. “Once a week, we got side money. That was for me and everybody else who signed that paper,” he said. Three additional current and former workers confirmed this account of payments of questionable legality. “I saw the envelopes,” said Orrett Ewen, a helper at Sanitation Salvage from 2006 to 2016. “The whole time I was there, the side money was there.”
In 2011, a traditional union, the Laborers, tried to take on what they regarded as the exploitation at Sanitation Salvage. They began organizing for a vote to replace Bernardone’s union. Bernardone’s union won an initial vote, but the results were tossed out because of what the National Labor Relations Board found to be coercion on the part of the company.
Sanitation Salvage had threatened to fire workers who supported the Laborers, the NLRB found, and supervisors had warned workers to “do the right thing.” Bernardone showed up at Sanitation Salvage wearing a Local 124 t-shirt, and a supervisor — who workers learned doubled as their shop steward — also wore a Local 124 t-shirt.
“Hey Cardboard, who are you voting for?” Maldonado remembered Steven Squitieri calling out to him. The right answer, Maldonado said, was clearly Local 124.
A second vote followed with the same results, and even though the NLRB found that Sanitation Salvage had again favored Bernardone’s union, the threats didn’t reach the legal threshold required for a new election. The Laborers were forced to concede.
But the Laborers did not go away. The following spring, the union approached BIC about Sanitation Salvage and Local 124. Laborers attorney Tamir Rosenblum sent the commission a 108-page memo dated May 7, 2013, that included sections with headings like “wage theft” and “unsafe operations.”
Helpers typically started working for the company off-the-books, according to the memo, and the routes were so long that workers “have little choice but to solicit non-employees to assist as helpers.” When employees were injured, the memo continued, supervisors instructed them not to file for workers’ compensation. The memo laid out Bernardone and DeAngelis’ involvement in Local 124 and their respective organized crime histories. The memo noted that Bernardone was still running the union despite having been formally indicted by federal prosecutors on racketeering charges and named as a Genovese soldier. He would remain so until his eventual conviction in 2014.
BIC officials today acknowledge having received the memo of worker allegations. They say they gave some material to prosecutors, “other governmental agencies” and “labor inspectors” but did not specify who they were or what was turned over. They also said they conducted their own audit of Sanitation Salvage that lasted from 2013 to 2015 and involved a “forensic examination” of the company’s records, a process that resulted in an $85,000 fine for the company’s failure to maintain books and records.
As for allegations made about Local 124, BIC said, “Though thoroughly investigated, the evidence did not sufficiently establish that there was an improper relationship between the company and James Bernardone.” BIC’s statement did not address DeAngelis but noted that at the time of its review Bernardone was in prison.
One night in late spring of 2016, two workers on a Sanitation Salvage truck stopped for a break at a deli on East 188th Street in the Bronx. The men were about eight hours into their shift and still had vast areas of the Bronx left to traverse. Their work assignment was known at Sanitation Salvage as Route 3, notoriously long and backbreaking. Almost all of the garbage for their roughly 1,000 stops was “on the floor,” as workers called it: heavy bags that had to be lifted by hand off the ground.
The driver, Timothy Belgrave, and his helper, Christopher Bourke, sat on the truck’s steps. They were exhausted, Belgrave recalled. Bourke, known as Big Chris, eventually struck up a conversation with a young man who lived nearby.
“Yo, you want to work?” Bourke asked the young man, according to Belgrave.
Right then and there, Mouctar Diallo hopped on the back of the truck and finished the rest of the route with them. Bourke gave him about $20 out of his own pocket at the end of the night, Belgrave remembered.
What happened to Diallo over the next year and a half included a number of distinctive indignities, the worst, of course, coming with his terrible and covered-up death. But the work life he enlisted in that night on East 188th Street in many ways was, and is, par for the course at Sanitation Salvage and other companies that collect trash from businesses in New York City.
Once on the back of a Sanitation Salvage truck, Diallo proved a natural for the grinding work, according to those he labored alongside. Best, perhaps, he was unafraid of rats. Just past the 52nd Police Precinct on Webster Avenue, Route 3 picked up a dumpster behind a BP gas station, in a gated area teeming with rats.
Diallo, who soon picked up the nickname Gotto (it’s unclear what the moniker referred to), didn’t mind being the one who wrestled the overflowing dumpster to the truck. The rats stuck out their heads, and he smacked them away with his gloved hand. Sometimes he’d even grab a rat and hold it up playfully, his colleagues said.
Diallo was a “third man,” an extra helper, one of many added off-the-books helpers who are both encouraged and approved by management at Sanitation Salvage, according to current and former workers. A current worker explained, “A driver will ask for a third man, and the supervisor will say, ‘No, that’s on you if you want to find somebody.’” Sometimes the company gave workers money to give to people like Diallo. With a pliable union in place, there was no one to stick up for workers when needed.
Before long, Belgrave said, Bourke brought Diallo to the Sanitation Salvage office in Hunts Point to meet with a supervisor to try to get him on the books. Bourke complained about the length of the route to the supervisor, telling him he had to hire a permanent guy to help him out, Belgrave said. But for whatever reason, Diallo wasn’t put on the books.
After a month or two, a driver named Vernando Smith replaced Belgrave on Route 3, working with Bourke as his chief helper the whole summer and early fall of 2016. Diallo was their third man three or four nights a week, said Smith, who has since left Sanitation Salvage for another company.
There was no doubt that management at Sanitation Salvage recognized Diallo and knew him as a worker, according to Smith and current workers. “Everybody knew who he was,” said one current worker. A night supervisor, Charles Mahr, drove around observing routes and knew Diallo by sight, the workers said.
On payday, said Smith, Bourke would get his paycheck and his rubber-band money to pay him back for his third man. The cash would be folded or rolled, with a piece of paper labeled with Bourke’s name or “Chris and Vernando’s helper.” It was $80 per night, according to Smith. (Bourke disputed this, saying the money always came out of his own pocket.) This was common practice, according to current workers. One explained that supervisors would say, “If you’ve got a third man off the books, let us know and we’ll pay you and you pay him.” A second current worker added, “A lot of days, you don’t have a third man. And they’ll say, ‘Find somebody.’ And you say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this kid.’ And they give you the money.”
As a third man, Diallo’s pay was likely much less than $80. Bourke maintained that he was only giving Diallo $5 or $10 for what he described as an hour or two of work. Diallo’s friend Mamdou Diallo (no relation) thought he was getting paid $30 or $40. If so, said Smith, Bourke would have been pocketing the difference — a not uncommon practice at the company, workers said. “Sometimes you got guys that would get the $80 and then short the guys,” explained a current worker.
Mouctar Diallo soon earned the title of “a banger” — a good worker. He banged it out, he was tireless, racing up and down the street from stop to stop. And almost always with a smile.
When you worked with Diallo, Smith and others said, the young man made you laugh the whole night.
It rained one summer night, Smith remembered. Diallo took off his shoes, put them inside the truck’s cab, and did the whole route barefoot.
What exactly happened in the dawn hours of Nov. 7, 2017, remains unclear.
At roughly 5 a.m., Diallo’s truck, driven by Sean Spence with Bourke as the main helper, arrived at Gun Hill Road. The truck had only a few stops left on Route 3. It appears Diallo stepped on the step leading to the passenger side door before suddenly falling off and under the truck as it turned right on Jerome Avenue.
Spence and Bourke, according to the authorities, disavowed knowing Diallo. An NYPD report was written up that left blank the place for the dead man’s name. News accounts referred to a “daredevil homeless man” who had inexplicably tried to board the moving truck.
Spence could not be reached for comment. Bourke, in a recent interview with VOA and ProPublica, sought to downplay how often Diallo helped out on the truck and denied that he had ever tried to get him placed on the books. He said he did not know how the phony tale of the homeless man had come to be.
Workers and labor advocates say it’s likely Diallo’s death and the cover story told was known to management that very night. Workers told BIC, the oversight agency, that Mahr, the supervisor who workers said had seen Diallo on the job for some 18 months, came to the scene of the accident to retrieve the truck. Neither Mahr nor anyone else at Sanitation Salvage made an effort to correct the lie about the homeless man.
VOA and ProPublica contacted Mahr to ask about retrieving the truck and the made-up story of the homeless man. Before hanging up, Mahr only said he never knew Diallo. “I never saw that poor kid in my life,” he said.
Workers at Sanitation Salvage soon learned by word of mouth who had died. Vernando Smith, Diallo’s onetime driver on Route 3, did too. He then posted a farewell on Facebook.
“RIP Gotto,” Smith wrote. “Sanitation Salvage banger.”
On Feb. 10, 2018, about a dozen Sanitation Salvage workers sat in folding chairs in a small community center in Hunts Point. They were joined by several members of the Teamsters, eager to try to mount a challenge to Sanitation Salvage’s union. The Teamsters officials had chosen to invite a reporter, as well as Daniel Brownell, BIC’s commissioner. Brownell took a seat in the front of the room.
The stories began pouring out: men who worked for years off the books, paid $80 per night; workers logging upwards of 85 or 90 hours a week; the timesheet that the bosses changed so that they weren’t paid for all their hours; a white supervisor using racial slurs against the black and Hispanic workers; supervisors forcing them to keep working through major injuries; supervisors telling them to take taxis to the hospital instead of ambulances — and then to lie and say they weren’t hurt on the job; medical insurance cards that were mysteriously rejected; the way the Squitieri brothers loaned workers money, which kept them indebted to the bosses, they said, and thus under management’s control.
And, of course, the lie put forward about Diallo.
Brownell seemed surprised at the number and gravity of the complaints. He also seemed to lack a command of Sanitation Salvage’s history and operations. At one point, he asked the workers if they had a union.
“Yeah, that’s their personal union,” a worker called out.
“Their personal union?” asked Brownell, sounding perplexed.
“They run the union,” answered a second worker.
“They are the union,” said a third.
At another point, a Teamsters organizer asked if any of the off-the-books third men — the workers like Diallo — were in the room. The workers said that the $80 guys had wanted to come, but were too scared.
In a phone call with VOA and ProPublica after the meeting, Brownell maintained that Sanitation Salvage had “been on our radar for a long time.”
Yet when asked about Bernardone and DeAngelis, the Genovese soldier and purported mob associate who’ve been listed on the publicly available financial filings of the company’s union for more than a decade, Brownell said, “I’m sorry, remind me who they are?”
Brownell’s confusion was all the more striking because BIC, the agency he runs and that touts its licensing procedures as rigorous and effective, had just renewed Sanitation Salvage’s license in December.
For the last two decades, BIC has been charged with enforcing Local Law 42, which requires that New York City’s trash haulers be of “good character, honesty and integrity” in order to be licensed. And no one disputes that for many of those 20 years, BIC aggressively and regularly booted companies from the industry for failing that test.
Brownell took over the enforcement of BIC’s operations when he was appointed by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. He’d been a prosecutor with a sterling reputation: chief of the Rackets Bureau at the Manhattan DA’s office, and before that an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. In the world of law enforcement, people typically describe Brownell with terms like “a serious guy.”
The commission he commands has a staff of 83, and 13 of them work in a dedicated background investigation unit. The sole professional responsibilities of the unit are to dig deep into BIC licensees. The agency also has subpoena power and can require company principals, managers and employees to come and testify under oath. Additionally, BIC has a squad of detectives from the NYPD’s Criminal Enterprise Investigations Unit who work on investigations with the agency.
Yet a number of local elected officials as well as labor and workplace safety advocates have recently begun to question whether Brownell and BIC have become less aggressive in policing the trash industry.
Sanitation Salvage isn’t the only company with a union that appears to serve the employer’s interests instead of the employees it ostensibly represents. In January, ProPublica reported on LIFE 890, a union run by a man who has put his wife, three children and son-in-law on the payroll over the years and is based in a residential townhouse the family owns through an LLC. LIFE 890 is at two of the other largest companies in New York City. (BIC declined to comment specifically on Local 124 and LIFE 890, citing open investigations.)
BIC is writing fewer violations against carters, too. According to the 2018 Mayor’s Management Report, an annual breakdown of agency performance across all city government, the number of violations issued to trash haulers by BIC fell by roughly half from 2015 to 2017, from 1,166 to 640. Haulers can be cited for everything from improperly commingling waste to driving an unregistered vehicle.
“The reduction in violations overall is likely due to higher levels of compliance in the industry generally,” BIC responded. The agency maintained it had increased its enforcement actions against the unlicensed haulers that sometimes work the city’s streets.
Brownell has also instituted an “advisory board” composed of company owners and industry lobbyists. The monthly board meetings are not open to the public, although minutes are posted online. One BIC advisory board member lobbies for New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, a trade association whose secretary-treasurer is a convicted felon: a lawyer named Ray Shain who was disbarred from practicing law in New York in 2003 after pleading guilty to a bid-rigging, bribery and kickback scheme that defrauded Queens public schools out of an estimated $6.3 million.
In fact, a number of the city’s largest garbage companies are members of NYRWM, which is curious: Because of the industry’s history of corruption, New York City law bans BIC licensees from being members of trade associations where anyone holding a position “has been convicted of a racketeering activity or similar crime.”
“Shain’s crimes did not relate to the trade waste industry,” BIC responded in a May 24 statement. “BIC reviews each case on its merits; there is no automatic bar based on someone’s criminal past.”
“NYRWM operates in accordance with all city and state rules and regulations,” said spokesperson Sam Spokony in a statement. “Mr. Shain was readmitted to the bar in 2011 and his role with NYRWM is limited to providing administrative services and counsel.”
BIC also sponsors what it calls “safety symposiums” in conjunction with NYRWM. These are industry-led events and have included panel discussions and displays of safety technology.
Council Member Reynoso, chair of the Sanitation Committee, has called the safety symposium effort a “dog and pony show.”
The agency responded in a statement: “BIC takes great pride in the work the agency has done to help improve safety in the industry, including the safety symposia.”
Brownell discussed BIC’s relationship with the industry it oversees before the City Council last year.
“We continue to work collaboratively with leaders from the trade waste industry taking to heart the belief that since running their companies in the city is difficult enough, they should not have to labor under unnecessarily burdensome regulations from BIC,” Brownell said.
As for safety matters, it is Brownell’s position that BIC lacks the authority to revoke licenses over safety issues, whether involving workers on the job or people walking or biking the city’s streets. Under the city’s administrative code, Brownell said in a statement to VOA and ProPublica, in order for BIC to take any action or even issue a violation, “another agency must first establish that a law, rule or regulation [in] its jurisdiction has been violated.”
The claim has infuriated some lawmakers and safety advocates, for the administrative code governing BIC’s authority and responsibilities includes “compliance with safety and health measures” as one of the commission’s “powers and duties.” Yet, BIC maintains that that is a “misunderstanding of the code,” and claims the agency’s hands are effectively tied. The agency says it is working on proposed legislation to expand its authority to enforce rules “without coordination with another regulatory entity.”
Waste and recycling work is the fifth-most fatal job in America. Amputations and other serious injuries are commonplace but often go unreported to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to labor advocates and workplace safety watchdogs.
Hauling trash at night can also be dangerous to the public.
Since 2010, 33 people have been killed in private garbage truck accidents in New York City. Some of the fatalities, according to the New York Police Department, were the result of errors made by pedestrians or bicyclists. But for the most part, BIC’s responses to the deadly accidents have been limited: sending companies what the agency calls “safety letter directives.” BIC did not respond to questions about the contents of any of the 12 letters it says it has issued since 2015.
In seven instances since 2010, the agency issued no violations against companies for fatalities that involved drivers who had not been properly registered with BIC. In the case of bicyclist Neftaly Ramirez, who was killed by an Action Carting truck with a driver who left the scene and lacked a commercial driver’s license, BIC’s punishment amounted to a $5,000 fine. (Action Carting said in a statement that NYPD cleared the driver, whose license had lapsed. The company called it an “administrative issue, unrelated to the accident and immediately addressed.”)
“Safety continues to be an issue,” Brownell said. “Carters need to drive more safely, cyclists need to operate more safely, have the proper equipment and the same with pedestrians and motorists. It’s everybody working together to be more aware of what’s happening out on the roads.”
In its May 24 statement, BIC said the trash industry “continues to require regulation, but it would be a mistake to apply the same approach today that BIC took 20 years ago … when the entire industry was corruptly influenced by organized crime; and when organized crime’s corrupting influence resulted in physical violence, threats of violence and property damage.”
“BIC’s record speaks for itself.”
That BIC did not intervene more aggressively when it learned Sanitation Salvage employees had lied about Diallo’s death was incomprehensible to some critics of the agency.
According to BIC, Brownell learned of the possibility that Diallo was a worker for the company from labor advocates in January. In subsequent interviews with BIC investigators, the driver and the helper admitted to creating the fiction about a homeless man. But BIC did not ask Sanitation Salvage to suspend the driver. Months later, the same driver was behind the wheel when Leo Clarke was killed on April 27. It was then that BIC asked Sanitation Salvage to suspend Spence, which the company did.
“They treated Diallo like the trash they wanted to throw in the back of the truck,” Sean Campbell, president of Teamsters Local 813, said of Sanitation Salvage at the May 9 rally outside BIC’s offices. “This company is going to continue to play games until somebody drops the hammer on them.”
In an interview with VOA and ProPublica on April 23, Brownell said Sanitation Salvage was currently the subject of an investigation. But when asked about Sanitation Salvage’s license, he said he didn’t know when — or if — it had been renewed. Brownell’s signature is on the license renewal, dated Dec. 20.
In angry terms, Brownell insisted at length that his agency was doing the best it could and wasn’t interested in responding to what he called “gotcha” questions from reporters.
Brownell claimed BIC was “a small agency,” and that its investigators “don’t always have access to the people that you as a journalist would have because we’re law enforcement.”
He said it would be wrong to think “that we haven’t been doing what we can, especially in the last two and a half years, to add on to what we do with regard to integrity and with regard to corruption in this industry.”
Of the Sanitation Salvage investigation, Brownell said: “I have acknowledged for many months that Sanitation Salvage is a very screwed up company.” But Brownell said he and his investigators had to take care to “actually make the case.”
“And that takes a lot of time and a lot of effort,” he said.
The Squitieris, for their part, appear ready to fight on behalf of their business. They hired a public relations firm with deep roots in Bronx politics to handle media inquiries. One of the firm’s representatives was at the May 9 rally, handing out copies of the Sanitation Salvage statement expressing condolences and defending their record.
The Squitieri family has a history of getting its way.
In 2016, the de Blasio administration came out in support of a plan for overhauling the private trash industry. New York would be carved up into zones, companies would make bids to collect the garbage in a given zone, and then the city would pick the winners. In this system, backers have argued, the city could make winning a bid contingent on meeting strict benchmarks for things like safety training, wages, hours or recycling rates.
“A commercial waste zone plan will provide inherent safety benefits to pedestrians, the public and workers,” a spokesperson for New York’s Department of Sanitation said in a statement. “With fewer trucks on the streets and shorter routes, zoned collection will also mean less unsafe driving behavior and worker fatigue, and improved traffic and air quality.”
BIC said in a statement it supported the city Sanitation Department’s proposal.
The industry has staunchly resisted the proposal, which is still under city review. Sanitation Salvage hired the MirRam Group, a powerful lobbying firm, to push back on the city’s zoning plan as well as other issues. The company paid the MirRam Group $50,000 in 2017. (The firm did not respond to a request for comment.)
Sanitation Salvage pulled off a victory when City Council legislators tried to push legislation that would reduce waste transfer station capacity in parts of the South Bronx, north Brooklyn and southeast Queens. The legislation aims to provide relief to communities of color that have been disproportionately burdened by the clustering of transfer stations. The Squitieri brothers co-own Metropolitan Transfer Station, a dump in Hunts Point. A version of the bill included a special carve-out so that the Squitieris’ dump — and their dump alone — wouldn’t be affected.
On May 30, with Sanitation Salvage the subject of multiple investigations, legislators amended the bill to remove the Squitieri carve-out. It remains to be seen whether Bronx lawmakers will support the bill in its new form.
For some, it’s hard not to see the Squitieris’ influence in the context of their considerable political giving.
Since 2010, the Squitieris’ companies have given over $30,000 to the Bronx Democratic County Committee. Since 2007, the Squitieri family, along with their companies and a web of realty corporations and LLCs, has given over $100,000 to state Sen. Jeff Klein, whose district includes Hunts Point. Steven Squitieri wrote the Independent Democratic Conference, headed by Klein, a check for $20,000 in 2012.
“Sanitation Salvage is a major employer and service provider in the Bronx with a more than 30-year record of supporting communities throughout the borough,” said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokesperson for Klein, in a May 11 statement. “Political donations do not influence, and have never influenced Senator Klein’s opinions.”
Local 124, the union at Sanitation Salvage, also represents workers at several other Bronx companies owned by the Squitieris, including Metropolitan Transfer Station and D&J Ambulette. It turns out that Local 124 often gives to the same politicians as the Squitieris — and often on the same day.
On five separate occasions between 2006 and 2010, Local 124 donated to the same Bronx political causes on the exact same days as the Squitieris and their companies, according to state campaign finance records. One of those same-day matching donations was to Bronx Borough President Diaz, and two of them were to Klein. (Representatives for Diaz and Klein did not respond to questions about Local 124 donations.)
“The Squitieris run the Bronx,” said Kajeem “Q” Hill, a former helper at Sanitation Salvage. (Political insiders point out that the Bronx has multiple powerbrokers, but share Hill’s sense of the family’s reach.)
BIC said it would pursue its investigation of Sanitation Salvage as it would any other company.
“We approach each investigation with an open mind and will follow the facts where they lead and take appropriate action, without fear or favor,” BIC said in a written response to questions from VOA and ProPublica.
To date, the local politicians who have worked with the Squitieris and benefited from their donations have continued to back them.
Diaz, a rising star in Bronx politics and likely 2021 mayoral candidate, has received donations of more than $40,000 dollars from the Squitieris over the years. Diaz’s office did not comment on his acceptance of donations or past praise of Sanitation Salvage owner Steven Squitieri.
Diaz issued a statement calling for the Bronx District Attorney’s office to investigate the deaths of Diallo and Clarke, adding that he looked forward to the results of BIC’s inquiry.
“The borough president believes that all employees, regardless of their employer, should be paid for the hours they work. Any substantiated violation of labor rules by Sanitation Salvage must be addressed and remedied,” said John DeSio, communications director for Diaz.
Newly elected Bronx City Council Member Mark Gjonaj was, until January, a New York state Assemblyman. Diallo’s November death took place in Gjonaj’s Assembly district. Gjonaj has received more than $40,000 from the Squitieris as well.
“I regret the tragic loss of life, and my thoughts and prayers are with the families of the deceased,” Gjonaj said in a May 11 statement. “With that said, in the 20 years that I have known the Squitieri family, I have always known them to be generous and philanthropic people.
“They care deeply about the Bronx and their successful business is the gold standard of partnership between small business owners and community,” he added.
The Sanitation Salvage union, recently renamed Local 741, signed a new contract with the company on May 8, the day before the rally outside BIC’s offices. Current workers said they had no choice in the matter. Current and former workers described DeAngelis, the purported mob associate, as the primary official who has negotiated union matters with Steven Squitieri over the years. Two current workers said they saw DeAngelis at Sanitation Salvage headquarters within the past few months. The new contract locks workers into the union through April 2021.
In Hunts Point, the night following the rally, a dozen workers declared a wildcat strike at Sanitation Salvage headquarters. They stood in their reflective gear in front of their trucks and refused to go out on their routes. It was a showdown with one of the Squitieri brothers, a scene recorded in a video and shared with VOA and ProPublica.
“We’re tired,” said a driver.
The worker was talking about their treatment, their pay, the deaths, everything.
“It hurts,” said the worker.
“It hurts me too,” said Andrew Squitieri. “My signature is at the bottom of your checks.”
He implored them to get back to work. And ultimately the men would drive out into the night — they had families to feed and rent to pay. But for a few hours, at least, the garbage trucks sat silently.