It seemed incredible when a New York company proposed to take on a massive asbestos-removing project at the Veterans Administration hospital in Long Beach for just $155,000, a little more than half of what most other firms proposed for the potentially deadly job.
But American Combustion and Industrial Service Corp. had all the credentials. The company resume listed an impressive record of industrial projects, most of them on the East Coast, many for similar asbestos-removal jobs.
Then began what one VA official called an "unbelievable" four months, a series of contracting blunders a federal prosecutor likened to a "black comedy" that left the contract foreman's brother-in-law blind in one eye and the federal government holding a $257,000 bag.
A federal grand jury indictment unsealed Friday charges that company officials brought in untrained laborers to remove cancer-causing asbestos fibers from the hospital, forging credentials, falsifying air test samples and offering bribes in an effort to conceal the fact that dangerous levels of asbestos had been released all over the job site.
The 43-count indictment also alleges that Curtis Mark Nelson, the San Pedro man who served as job foreman on the 1984 contract, blinded his brother-in-law in one eye when the man complained about working conditions and threatened to go to authorities.
Now, VA officials say they are still trying to collect the $257,000 it cost to clean up the work site after the bond company that guaranteed ACIS Corp.'s performance on the contract declared bankruptcy.
"Everything that indictment says actually happened," David Ganoe, engineering services chief at the hospital, said Friday. "We remember it vividly, to say the least."
Nelson, 26, who is also charged with the other defendants with rigging bids on another government contract in Florida, was arrested Friday morning in Pennsylvania, where he was employed on a contract at a U.S. Army depot.
The New York couple identified as the owners of ACIS Corp., Thomas K. and Helen Garbett, were still at large late Friday.
The contract was part of a massive federal effort in the early 1980s to clear dangerous asbestos from federal facilities and involved the clean-up of exposed asbestos in the hospital boiler room and "mechanical" areas of the facility, Ganoe said.
"They treated this asbestos as if you and I were in there chopping wood," said Assistant U.S. Atty. David Katz, who is prosecuting the case. "They may not themselves have realized just how dangerous asbestos is--or they just didn't give a damn."
According to Katz, the company was able to make the $155,000 bid by only paying its workers about a third of the $25 an hour required under federal law for asbestos workers, because the work is considered so dangerous.
None of the six workers on the job had the several weeks of training required by law to work with asbestos, Katz said. "These guys hired unskilled, untrained laborers who were maybe digging ditches one day and removing asbestos the next day."
One worker told Katz he approached Nelson when he learned he was supposed to have been trained for the work. Nelson, Katz said, "says to him, wear a suit and be careful. Now you've had your training course."
Falsified Reports Alleged
Government inspectors required regular air samples to ensure that asbestos fibers were not being released into the air, but the indictment alleges that company officials falsified both air and dirt samples in order to make the work site appear safe.
"When you went in there, you could see where they'd just strewn asbestos all over the place. There were just piles of white dust back in the corners," Katz said. "All those people (working at the site) are probably going to have complications down the line."
In the meantime, Ganoe said, the company was accumulating nearly $50,000 in additional change orders while falling further and further behind in the work it had originally contracted for.
Late in December, according to the indictment, Nelson approached a government inspector and offered him a $1,000 to $2,000 "Christmas present" to allow it to back out of the original contract while keeping the $47,000 the company had earned in change orders. The inspector refused the offer and government officials declared the contract in default.
'Flies Into a Fury'
But the matter did not come to a head until about four months after work began, when Nelson's brother-in-law, Donald Davis, 28, also of San Pedro, approached Nelson about problems at the work site.
"Nelson just flies into a fury, throws a caulking gun at Davis, Davis ducks," Katz said. "Then he jumps on him and presses his finger into his eye, he's holding it there for about 10 to 15 seconds while Davis is screaming, and then when Davis gets up, he can't see out of his eye, and he says, 'Look what you've done, you've blinded me.'
"He (Nelson) says, 'You're lucky I didn't blind you in both eyes.' "
Davis went to authorities and the government launched its investigation.
Nelson was ordered detained by a federal magistrate in Pennsylvania and was scheduled for arraignment in Los Angeles sometime next week.