NYC concrete-testing racketeering trial starts

AP News
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Posted: Dec 09, 2009 7:54 PM

NEW YORK _ The builders needed concrete. The strength test results they got were anything but, prosecutors said Wednesday at a racketeering trial surrounding concrete tests for such landmarks as the new Yankee Stadium and ground zero's tallest skyscraper.

Testwell Laboratories Inc. is accused of concocting phony concrete and steel test results for more than 100 projects, ranging from an airport terminal to apartment houses. The stadium, ground zero's rising Freedom Tower and more than a dozen other projects have been retested and pronounced safe, but officials are awaiting results for at least 64 more, the New York City's Buildings Department said this week.

The company and three executives on trial say prosecutors are making crimes out of contract disputes, honest errors and common industry practices.

A raft of criminal cases has arisen from the city's recent building boom, which prosecutors say was riddled with shortcuts and corruption in areas from crane safety to a city building inspection staff that included reputed mobsters.

But the Testwell case and another against a separate concrete lab strike at the underpinnings of building in the nation's largest city.

"Concrete and steel _ two materials, ladies and gentlemen, so basic to our lives and our city that they are on a par with air and water," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence told jurors in her opening statement Wednesday.

In a city where skyscrapers rise over subways, "we trust that these buildings, tunnels, roads and paths are constructed the way they were supposed to be."

But Testwell systematically doctored _ or simply made up _ results for tests designed to insure buildings will hold up, she said.

The company generated concrete formulas, or "mix designs," from a computer program instead of actually mixing up the product and testing how it withstood pressure, Florence said. And when it came time to test actual concrete samples from construction sites, results were invented or altered, she said.

Some steel test results were literally incredible: They described welds on pieces of steel that weren't welded, prosecutors say.

The company, President V. Reddy Kancharla, Vice President Vincent Barone and manager Wilfred Sanchez have pleaded not guilty to charges including enterprise corruption, New York state's version of racketeering.

Defense lawyers say the company and executives didn't set out to deceive anyone.

The case amounts to "criminalizing innocent behavior, often behavior that is designed to correct innocent mistakes," Barone's lawyer, Andrew Lankler, said in his opening statement.

Defense lawyers have said the botched steel test reports were simply errors that were corrected, and any changes to concrete sample test results were minor adjustments that smoothed out inconsistencies but didn't mean the concrete was unsafe. The mix designs were based on proven formulas, and customers knew what they were getting, the defense says.

"These men, the proof will show, are good men, hardworking men _ not criminals," Kancharla's lawyer, Paul Shechtman, told jurors.

The case involves 119 projects in and around the city, including schools, hospitals, hotels, museums and libraries. Prosecutors recently boosted the list from 102.

Authorities say more than 18 of the projects have been retested and found safe. They include the future Second Avenue subway line, a JetBlue terminal at Kennedy Airport and a 40-story Times Square office building.

The trial is expected to take months.

Two Testwell engineers, Edward Porter and Michael Sterlacci, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy, acknowledging they knew mix design reports were false. Neither is expected to get jail time. Porter paid $100,000 as a forfeiture; Sterlacci is expected to pay more than $138,000.

Several other officials and employees are to be tried separately on various charges.