Four accused of defrauding Build it Back

Four accused of defrauding Build it Back
By Patrick Donachie

The city’s Department of Investigation announced the arrest of four individuals accused of trying to bilk thousands from the city through the Build it Back program. The arrests came after a series of investigations into the efficacy of the city’s Hurricane Sandy reconstruction projects. The department said the study had saved the city more than $40 million.

The DOI partnered with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown in announcing the arrests. Brown credited DOI Commissioner Mark Peters for exposing the alleged fraud during the course of conducting investigations into Build it Back.

“The defendants are accused of using one of the worst natural disasters to ever strike New York in recent history to unjustly enrich themselves by applying for public funds to which they were not entitled,” Brown said about the arrests.

George Bontis, 67, of Brooklyn, as well as John Holl, 73, and John Phelan, 54, of Long Island were all accused of filing false applications with BIB, attempting to claim that secondary residencies located in Breezy Point were their primary residencies. Build it Back, which commenced in April 2013 to assist homeowners in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, pertained only to primary residencies.

Donata Rea, 58, of Rockaway Park, was accused of filing a false BIB application that was part of an attempt to bilk money from the estate of an older woman who died years prior. Brown said Rea tried to take control of the dead woman’s properties. Brown said she collected rent, stole from bank accounts and tried to sell one of the properties. Brown said the victim was buried in an unmarked grave on Hart’s Island because no next of kin could be found.

The New York Times reported Karen Mary Connors was the woman who owned the Rockaway Beach house, which was her family’s summer house. A bureaucratic mishap after her death in Nov. 2011 meant the county public administrator, who usually handles cases when a deceased person has no next of kin, was not notified of her death. No one knew she was the owner of the Rockaways residence as well as properties in Florida. The Times reported Connors will be disinterred from Hart’s Island and buried in a cemetery near the graveyard where her parents are buried.

The investigation covered practices utilized by BIB and the Rapid Repairs Program, which was a pilot program established in Nov. 2012 that supplied $500 million to homeowners lacking heat, hot water, or power in Sandy’s aftermath. The DOI found that construction work by contractors during RRP lacked accurate invoices, leading to a total of $22.9 million in savings.

In BIB, the DOI found more than $10 million in cost savings, and found millions more when it found that quantities of items on repairs to homes were often higher than what was actually needed.

“In addition to today’s arrests, DOI’s investigations are ongoing and aimed at ensuring aid rightfully goes to families who are still trying to rebuild almost five years after the devastating storm,” DOI Commissioner Peters said.

Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdonachie@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.