Announcing a settlement for immigrant workers, John Liu tells reporters his office is functioning correctly

John Liu. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Insisting that his office is “firing on all cylinders,” Comptroller John Liu this afternoon announced a $1.2 million settlement from a Queens-based company guilty of breaking prevailing wage laws and withholding pay from primarily undocumented immigrants.

Liu was joined by several council members and union leaders, who addressed cameras and reporters in the wood-paneled room at the comptroller's One Centre Street offices.

“We know that immigrants are often afraid to talk with government officials, but it is important that we get the word out,” Liu said. “In New York State, labor law applies to all workers, regardless of immigration status.”

Before the press conference, Liu’s recently named communications director, WPIX broadcast veteran Peter Thorne, told the press “it was a strictly focused press conference,” meaning no questions about Dan Garodnick’s recently promised "drama-free" run for comptroller, or the possibility of a third defendant in the case against Oliver Pan, accused of illegally funneling campaign contributions to Liu’s campaign.

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Instead, Liu declared victory against Mascon Restoration, which pled guilty to paying workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, wages much less than those required at sites paid through the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. In one example workers got $60-80 daily for structural and demolition work that city law mandates paying $225 to $700 daily.

One of the three workers in the room, a Mexican citizen in his mid-20’s, who only gave his nickname as “Renato,” spoke Spanish softly. A translator said he was initially very scared to speak against his employers, but hoped for more immigrants to come forward.

The comptroller's office launched the investigation in 2007 and referred the case to the Manhattan district attorney's office, which instigated the guilty plea last week. According to the comptroller’s Labor Law Bureau chief, Constantine Kokkoris, nearly $300,000 will be split among three workers who were in the room.

The remaining $788,000 will go other an estimated ten to 20 “ghost workers” whom the office urged to come forward, and just over $100,000 will go into New York City’s general fund. (Mascon Restoration is barred from bidding on city contracts, and will also pay restitution for investigation costs as well as unpaid unemployment insurance.)

Liu stressed that immigrants, who he said make up 46 percent of the city’s workers, shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for their rights.

 

“Speaking as an immigrant myself, we know well the contributions that immigrants have made to the city,” Liu said. “And the intimidation or exploitation of workers, immigrant or otherwise, will not be tolerated.”

 

Ana Maria Archila, an executive from immigrant rights group Make the Road New York, said employers steal $1 billion of wages from New York’s undocumented workers each year.

“I hope it reverberates to everyone who is hiring immigrant populations and think that they can exploit them without anything happening to them,” said Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn. “Let it be known that we are watching them. We are going to use whatever tools that we have under our belts to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He noted this happened every day.

“I don’t speak Spanish, but I know today is mucho bueno,” Williams said. 

Councilman Robert Jackson, whose Manhattan district contains two of the four buildings involved in the case against Mascon, loudly condemned the contractor and urged other bidders for city work to tell the truth.

“If not, you need to know that City Comptroller John Liu and every other elected official, along with the unions and along with the legislators, we’re coming after you," he said. "Don’t lie. Or you go to jail.”

Before Liu left, a WNYC reporter asked about Dan Garodnick, who yesterday called the comptroller’s office distracted.

“I’m very proud today that we’ve announced a $1.2 million settlement on behalf of cheated workers,” Liu said. ”Between that enforcement of prevailing wages, and completing audits, looking at contracts to prevent additional waste for taxpayers and investing our pensions, we’re firing on all cylinders.”

After another reporter asked about the Pan indictment, Liu said "thank you very much," and walked out of the conference room.