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Dozens have been arrested on bribery charges involving NYC Housing Authority


Dozens of people have been arrested and charged in what federal prosecutors say was a massive cash-for-contract scam involving the New York City Housing Authority. That is the biggest public housing authority in the country. Reporter David Brand of member station WNYC is here with details. Hi, David.


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PFEIFFER: What do federal prosecutors say happened here?

BRAND: So this morning, federal prosecutors in Manhattan announced bribery charges against 70 current and former employees of the New York City Housing Authority, which people here in New York know as NYCHA. They say it's the largest single-day bribery takedown in Justice Department history. And at a press conference in Manhattan, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams says investigators found a systemic kickback scheme. So basically, contractors would hand over cash for contracts at about a hundred developments across the city. And this practice was going on for years, he said.


DAMIAN WILLIAMS: As the charges show, superintendents accepting and extorting bribes from contractors had become business as usual.

BRAND: Williams said these employees shook down contractors for small sums, but it all added up to about $2 million in bribes.

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WILLIAMS: That's classic pay to play, and this culture of corruption at NYCHA ends today.

BRAND: He said 66 people were arrested today across several states, and all 70 are facing charges of bribery and extortion.

PFEIFFER: Tell us a little about the New York City Housing Authority and whether it's had a history of problems.

BRAND: Well, as you mentioned, it's the biggest public housing authority in the country by far. It houses about 335,000 people, and that's roughly the population of Cleveland. But for many years, it's been affected by decades of disinvestment, especially on the federal level, and that's really made worse by mismanagement. So conditions can get pretty bad. There's mold, chronic heat and elevator outages, lead paint in thousands of units with kids. In fact, those problems led to a federal monitor agreement five years ago.

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But, you know, all that being said, the housing authority is still a crucial source of affordable housing in New York City. And there had been a sense that it was really turning a corner after getting commitments from city and state leaders to make improvements for tenants and some new strategies for raising money. Of course, that was all before today's news.

PFEIFFER: You said this involved housing authority employees shaking down contractors. I assume this mean they were being shaked (ph) down to pay bribes to get contracting jobs?

BRAND: Right. So Williams, the U.S. attorney, said these were pretty small jobs like plumbing, window repair, minor construction projects that - they all paid less than $10,000 per contract. So that meant they weren't subject to the competitive bidding process, so building superintendents had a lot of power here. They could issue the contracts. And then what prosecutors say is that they would make contractors pay them up front or when they were done with the job and needed someone from the housing authority to sign off on the work. And that's when the staff would get their cut. You know, to be clear here, this was, you know, very low-level. New York State Housing Authority administrators are not implicated.

PFEIFFER: And what about the residents of these buildings? Did you get a chance to talk to any of them and hear their reaction to this news?

BRAND: I talked to Manuel Martinez. He's tenant association president at the South Jamaica Houses in Queens. He says tenants aren't happy, but they're not surprised. He said this kind of corruption just makes it even harder for tenants to trust the agency.

MANUEL MARTINEZ: This opportunistic workplace culture at the expense of the residents where people already feel that we are leveraged and so it doesn't matter and, you know, by extension, the residents don't matter. Our trust level has been very low. This just confirms.

BRAND: Martinez says it compounds that long list of problems that we talked about earlier.

PFEIFFER: That is David Brand of member station WNYC. Thank you.

BRAND: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David Brand