Universal Engineering Services PC, a Rye Brook consultant hired by former Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas to oversee the building and public works departments, has sued the city’s Industrial Development Agency for nearly $650,000.
Universal, headed by Michael Gianatasio, accused the IDA of breach of contract and unjust enrichment in a complaint filed Nov. 22 in Westchester Supreme Court.
The IDA hired Universal in 2016 to perform consulting services for $150 per hour, under the direction of the mayor’s office and supervised by the commissioners of buildings and public works.
The complaint depicts Universal’s role as “oversight and development of quality management systems to meet the city of Mount Vernon’s goals for economic growth and opportunity.”
The actual Nov. 7, 2016, agreement describes the consultant’s role in broad and comprehensive terms: directing inspections, supervising code enforcement, issuing summons and assisting at hearings; recommending staff hiring, training, discipline and promotions; conducting staff meetings; formulating polices and rules; preparing reports for the mayor and helping with the annual budget.
Three weeks later, the agreement was amended to include drawings and plan review services for the IDA, also at $150 per hour.
Universal claims that the IDA never disputed the monthly invoices and reports, yet the agency has refused to pay $642,484 for services performed.
The complaint does not itemize the costs. At $150 per hour, the bill works out to 4,283 hours, or the equivalent of two people working for more than a year.
Gianatasio reportedly has business connections with Joseph Spiezio III, a carting company owner who backed Thomas in his 2015 mayoral election campaign and who Thomas named as deputy police commissioner, at $1 a year. He was fired in February.
Real estate developer Peter Fine accused Gianatasio in a 2017 federal lawsuit of carrying out a harassment campaign for Thomas, in a dispute over code enforcement at the La Porte Apartments construction project. Fine and his Blue Rio LLC alleged that Thomas used Universal to retaliate against the developer for not hiring a particular consultant and for speaking out about their dispute in the Westchester County Business Journal.
Thomas and Gianatasio denied the charges and filed a counterclaim alleging defamation. A judge dismissed a conspiracy claim against Thomas and Gianatasio in 2017, and last year everyone agreed to dismiss the remaining claims.
Thomas was removed from office in July, after he pleaded guilty to campaign finance-related misdemeanors. City Council President Andre Wallace became the acting mayor and serves as head of the IDA.
Wallace did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment on the Universal lawsuit.
Thomas said in a telephone interview and email message that it was necessary to outsource the work of the building department. There was a massive backlog in building permit applications when he became mayor in 2016, he said, city council was not funding new positions, fees were not being collected and inspections were not being done.
In 2016, before he became mayor, the building department had revenue of $846,000, expenses of $835,000 and a surplus of $11,000. New Rochelle’s building department, in contrast, had more than twice as much revenue and a surplus after expenses of $485,000. White Plains had nearly four times as much revenue and a surplus of more than $1 million.
As to Universal’s $650,000 in fees, he said, “they earned it” by collecting $881,000 in fees that “more than covered” the building department’s half of the consultant’s bill.”
Thomas attributed the difference in fee revenues before and after he became mayor to “systemic corruption in plain sight.”
“In the past,” he said, “the only way to get a permit was to make a political contribution. I introduced a dynamic that totally ignored politics and focused on policy.”
Universal is represented by Kevin O’Connor of Peckar & Abramson PC of Manhattan.