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Judge Acquits Last Construction Supervisor In NYC Bank Fire Trial

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The trial judge cleared the remaining defendant of charges July 6 in the Deutsche Bank fire trial in New York City.

Criminal Court Judge Rena K. Uviller acquitted Mitchel Alvo, 58, a site manager for the subcontractor at the former Deutsche Bank building, which was undergoing asbestos abatement and demolition at the time of the fire in 2007. The jury cleared two other former managers, Jeffrey Melofchik and Salvatore DePaolo, on June 29.

Uviller also tossed out the major charges against the subcontractor, The John Galt Corp., convicting the company only of a misdemeanor count of reckless endangerment. Alvo and the firm had opted for a bench trial by Uviller, whose deliberations took longer than those by the jurors.

Prosecutors failed to convince the jurors or the judge that the defendants caused the deaths of firefighters Robert Beddia 53, and Joseph Graffagnino, 33, who died trying to fight the blaze. Charges had included multiple counts of negligent homicide, manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

Defense attorneys convinced the judge and jury that the actual causes were more complicated. They claimed throughout the trial that the New York City Fire Dept. did not abide by the 15-day rule of inspections. The defense attorneys also pointed to errors by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and said that a negative air system used in the abatement caused rising smoke to descend and block the firefighters vision.

Although the case did not end favorably for prosecutors, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said that the trial led to positive changes in fire safety. For more than three years since the indictment was filed in late 2008, the case has raised consciousness and awareness about fire and building safety, Vance said. The investigation and resulting agreements contributed to important reforms at city agencies, including the FDNY changes that have undoubtedly saved lives.

Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Al Hagan acknowledged some of those changes in a phone interview. I think that as a result of this trial, there were beneficial changes made in the fire department, [including] inspections of buildings under construction or demolitions, he said. And I credit a proactive and forward-looking administration of the Fire Department with making these changes. I still think that fire officers need additional training.

Hagan has been vocal that the defendants in this trial were wrongly accused, and that more powerful players were responsible for creating an unsafe site. We feel that the wrong people were charged, and the jury knew that the defendants were scapegoats, he asserted. They were brought before the judicial system to save the real decisionmakers from the shame and punishment that seemed to be deserved.

Throughout the trial, defense attorneys used the words scapegoat to describe their clients, and emphasized that they were hourly workers with no financial incentive to cut corners on the job. Yet prosecutors said that the financial pressures from the higher-ups weighed down on them from above. In 2004, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. purchased the Deutsche Bank building for $90 million in order to raze it, freeing up the valuable land to develop a component of the new World Trade Center complex.

Bovis Lend-Lease was awarded an $80-million contract for the job, and paid John Galt Corp. $58.5 million to oversee the project, prosecutors said. The contract had a drop-dead date of June 9, 2007, after which Bovis and by extension, John Galt would incur a maximum $2 million penalty.

Hagan, the fire union chief, said that blame starts at the top of that chain, not with the salaried workers managing their project. In particular, were talking about the leadership of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, he said. And we feel that they were shielded from the consequences of their reckless decision.

The fire officers group released a statement urging Vance to heed his self-described duty is to do what is right in every case without fear or favor, wherever that may lead by re-opening an investigation into the Deutsche Bank fire. In fact, we are demanding that the District Attorney conducts an investigation into the LMDC.

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Hagan pointed out that Vance inherited the case from his predecessor, Robert Morgenthau. If [Vance] decides that the investigation is done, the case is finished. Then, thats it. But we will always feel in our hearts of hearts that the people who should have been examined were never examined.

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