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2 Plead Guilty to Charges of Botching Asbestos Removal

February 03, 1988|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

The chief executives of a firm hired to remove asbestos from the Long Beach Veterans Administration Hospital pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges involving a botched removal job that prosecutors said exposed workers to dangerous levels of asbestos.

Helen Garbett, president of American Combustion & Industrial Service Corp., and her husband, Thomas Garbett, vice president, pleaded guilty to charges of submitting false claims to the government.

The charges against the New City, N.Y., couple stemmed from their company's failure to train workers in asbestos removal and submission of false payroll invoices in an attempt to conceal the fact that workers were being paid far less than the wage required under federal law.

Thomas Garbett pleaded guilty to an additional charge of using misleading conduct to obstruct justice.

Paid Lower Wages

Assistant U.S. Atty. David Katz said Thomas Garbett, and the company, falsely represented that employees were paid the $25.12 an hour required for asbestos workers, while secretly paying them only $12 to $15 an hour. The vice president and the firm then attempted to convince the workers to assure government investigators they were earning more.

The Garbetts also entered guilty pleas on behalf of their company to charges of attempting to bribe a government official, rigging bids on an asbestos removal project in Florida and stealing a filter at the Long Beach hospital site to set up a makeshift fan in a futile attempt to screen dangerous asbestos fibers from the air.

"Some witnesses said there was a lot of asbestos dust flying around there," Katz said. "We'll never know exactly what the levels were, because they'd go out to the parking lot to take the air samples."

The Garbetts' firm was awarded the contract for removing asbestos insulation from portions of the Long Beach Veterans' Administration Medical Center in June, 1983, after entering a low bid of $159,000. But government prosecutors said the work was never done in compliance with federal regulations.

Falsified Certificates

Though federal law requires workers handling asbestos to receive special training and certification for dealing with the hazardous material, the Garbetts hired construction workers with no experience in the asbestos field to do the job, and falsified training certificates submitted to the government, Katz said.

"They treated it like chopped wood," Katz said of the asbestos insulation, a known carcinogen. "The workers didn't seem to have any appreciation for how dangerous it was--and it's logical, because they had no training."

The prosecutor said the workers would be screened for asbestos exposure.

No patients or hospital employees were believed to have been exposed, because the renovation was confined to a boiler room area, officials said.

The company's construction foreman on the Long Beach job, Curtis Mark Nelson, 26, of San Pedro, pleaded guilty in July to charges of submitting phony air samples to assure government officials that the work site was safe. He also pleaded guilty to poking out the eye of his brother-in-law, a fellow employee, during a fight over the asbestos contract.

New Contractor Hired

That confrontation prompted the investigation that eventually led to the indictments against the contracting firm. As a result, a new contractor was called in to complete the job at an additional cost of $213,000.

Thomas Garbett, 46, faces a potential penalty of 35 years in prison and a $300,000 fine. Helen Garbett, 44, faces 20 years and a $40,000 fine. In addition, the corporation could be liable for a $17,000 fine.

U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois Jr. will sentence the couple March 21. Nelson will be sentenced April 4.

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