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The Con Artist Hired To Clean Ebola

The wild story of how a mortgage scammer persuaded a dead man's sister to turn over his business, his truck, and his resume — and got a government contract to clean up Ebola. A BuzzFeed News investigation into a con artist's second act.

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When New York City officials needed someone to disinfect the apartment of its first Ebola patient, they found someone who seemed to be made for the job. Sal Pane boasted decades of experience cleaning up extremely dangerous materials, including anthrax in 2001. Ebola was his time to shine. “This is our Michael Jordan moment. The fourth quarter,” he told USA Today. “When everyone else says no, we show up.”

But when Pane and his Bio-Recovery crew showed up at Dr. Craig Spencer’s home, they brought a truck bearing permit numbers that belonged to a dead man. Pane had duped the dead man’s grieving sister into selling that truck, she said, as well as the company name. Pane then claimed the dead man’s years cleaning up anthrax sites and other danger zones as his own — despite the fact that the dead man’s family, friends, and former co-workers said they had never known him to work with Pane.

Soon after Spencer’s apartment was first cleaned, BuzzFeed News reported that Pane — who has referred to himself as the “chief safety officer” of the firm New York City hired to clean up a lethal pathogen— is a convicted felon and former mortgage scammer.

But now, further investigation has revealed that Pane has a long and colorful history of telling falsehoods. An examination of his past legal troubles and his current operation has found that he has a playbook: He uses fake names and makes false claims to inflate his credentials, gains credibility from media interviews in which he speaks of lofty ideals and glittering successes, and along the way accumulates a trail of people who feel he exploited them when they were vulnerable.

His story illuminates how, with enough audacity, a scammer can even land a job that’s critical to public safety.

Pane and Bio-Recovery have claimed to have certifications from the EPA and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. But BuzzFeed News could not find any evidence of this. Bio-Recovery’s state permit to haul medical waste expired in 2012, before Pane was associated with the company.

Some of Pane’s claims border on the ludicrous, such as his supposed decades of experience. “Twenty-seven years,” he told one radio station. “Not my first rodeo.”

Twenty-seven years ago, Pane would have been four years old. Bio-Recovery did not exist.

The city says it is reviewing “this situation,” but officials have defended Bio-Recovery’s work cleaning Dr. Spencer’s apartment. The company was hired because “they had the requisite skills in blood and body fluid assessment and cleanup,” said Sam Miller, a city health department spokesman. The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene checked on Bio-Recovery’s work after it was done, the spokesman said, “and found the cleanup was successfully performed and executed.”

But New York may have been saved by Ebola itself. Deadly though it is, Ebola does not live for long on dry surfaces such as door handles and countertops. If an unqualified company had botched the cleanup of a hardier pathogen, then those viruses might have survived, infected other people, and sparked an outbreak.

“The risks are high if you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “You could become infected and set up a whole new chain of transmission that extends into the community.”

Lipkin gave the SARS outbreak as an example. "You have thousands of people that become infected from a single individual," he said.

In a brief phone interview, Pane said he did not run Bio-Recovery but hung up before BuzzFeed News could ask about most of the points in this article. He did not respond to a detailed letter emailed to two addresses associated with him. The letter was also emailed to Bio-Recovery and an intermediary.

Before he ended the phone call, Pane bristled at questions about his past. “There’s real news out there,” he said. “Grow up.” He insisted that this article would not deter him. “It’s not going to change the fact I’m going to keep going to work every day and helping families,” Pane said. “Enjoy your smear campaign.”

Salvatore Pane Jr. first made his name during a different crisis. In 2008, during the height of the economic meltdown, Pane began giving interviews — to all three major U.S. television networks, to Telemundo, and to Wall Street Journal podcasts — as a self-proclaimed mortgage expert. He also appeared in local media and wrote a commentary in the Long Island Business News. One 2008 article said Pane had been a mortgage broker for 10 years. He was 25 years old.

He did have an impressive-sounding title: president of Amerimod, a company that promised loan modifications to families having trouble paying their mortgages. In an infomercial, he declared that company’s mission was to help those in need: “When someone calls us, they are in trouble.”

The company grew quickly, and Pane apparently encouraged a light-hearted atmosphere. A Crain’s New York story describes Pane “riding around the office on a Segway scooter drinking Red Bull and exhorting agents to bring in customers.” A former employee told Crain’s that every time someone hit certain targets, “we’d go out on the floor and hit a gigantic brass gong hanging from the ceiling.”

Pane and Amerimod also deployed a number of different misleading or illegal tactics to acquire customers. They advertised a success rate of between 90% and 100%, even though by Pane’s own accounting the rate was about only 43%. They devoted much of their advertising budget to Spanish-speaking customers, then provided loan contracts that were only in English. And they took in up-front fees, then ducked their customers once those fees were collected.

The New York attorney general’s office took notice, and filed a civil suit. In August 2009, a judge issued an injunction against Amerimod, ordering the company to stop its illegal practices immediately. Later, Pane was found “personally liable for engaging in fraudulent and illegal acts.”

When BuzzFeed News first asked Pane in October about the lawsuit, he claimed that it had been filed against his father, who has the same name. When BuzzFeed News noted that a New York Times article from the time had given an age that matched his and not his father’s, he corrected his statement to say the suit had been brought “against my father and me.” Court documents identify the junior Pane as the “President, CEO, sole principal and shareholder” of Amerimod. The documents do not mention Pane’s father.

Though the judge had issued an injunction, Pane still had a court battle to fight, on whether Amerimod would be forced to pay restitution, and whether Pane himself would be on the hook for that money.

But by then, Sal Pane was in a different kind of trouble.

On an early Wednesday morning in March 2009, a police officer in the Long Island town of East Garden City pulled over a gray Toyota four-door that was speeding and didn’t signal a lane change. When he walked up to the driver’s window, the officer saw bloodshot eyes, heard slurred speech, and smelled alcohol.

The driver told him his name was Mikal Sachana. He claimed to be a district attorney in Suffolk County, with a date of birth of Nov. 17, 1978. But he was unable to produce a driver’s license. The officer told the driver that giving false information to an officer was against the law, and put him under arrest for driving under the influence.

“Don’t do this,” the driver said. “I’m married and have a kid and owe a hundred thousand dollars out in law school and my father died in 9-11-2001.” (Pane told BuzzFeed News he had been speaking about an ex-girlfriend’s father: “Yes, he died on 9/11,” Pane said.)

The driver also claimed to know two of Long Island’s more prominent politicians, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. “I have both their numbers in my phone,” he said. The officer did not budge, and put him in the back of his police car.

After the arrest, officers went through the man’s wallet, and found a New York State driver’s license: On it was the name “Salvatore Pane 2nd.” The license had been suspended following two previous drunk-driving convictions.

Pane took the case to trial. He was re-arrested when he drove to court, because his license was still suspended.

The jury found Pane guilty of false personation, driving while impaired, and felony aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle. He was sentenced to between one and three years in prison.

Pane was released in March 2011, having spent a total of nine months behind bars. At some time after that, by Pane’s own account, he began to turn his life around. He also changed his name, from Sal Pane to Sal Pain — to get away from a stalker, he said. BuzzFeed News could find no record that he changed his legal name, and Pane did not respond to a letter that asked him for details of his name change.

He still fought his mortgage scam case, though in February 2012 a judge approved a request from his own attorneys to withdraw from the case. Those attorneys, the judge noted, said Pane had intentionally given them incorrect contact information.

In February 2013, it came time to hammer out how much Pane and Amerimod owed their nearly 3,000 customers. The attorney general asked for $5.26 million in restitution payments. Now representing himself, Pane declared that he believed that restitution should be between $300,000 and $500,000. He still claimed a 90% success rate.

The judge hired a “special referee” who granted the attorney general’s amount. She also levied an additional $7.25 million in civil penalties, for a total of more than $12.5 million. The referee also found Pane personally liable for the restitution and penalties.

It’s not clear when Sal Pane got into the business of cleaning up dangerous chemicals.

In an interview for BuzzFeed News’ first story, Pane said he had worked for a company called All Island Bio-Recovery going back to 2001. When contacted for this article, he hung up before he could be asked about his experience in the industry, and he didn’t respond to subsequent questions sent by email.

State records show that an All Island Bio-Recovery Inc. was founded in April 2010, but it’s not clear who that company belongs to — it’s registered to Corporation Service Company, a company based in Albany that does processing for other companies. Messages left at the company were not immediately returned.

Ron Gospodarski’s trajectory is much easier to trace. He founded Bio-Recovery in 1998, in Queens, after working for years as a paramedic. Having witnessed many gruesome scenes, he had figured out that there was a need for somebody with some specific expertise to clean it up.

It was a small company — Ron and a handful of employees, according to former employees including his right-hand man, Manny Sosa. Ron was known to go out on every call, usually with Sosa. In videos on the Discovery Channel and elsewhere Gospodarski and Sosa are seen driving out to calls, including one where an overweight man had died on his couch.

In late 2001, soon after 9/11, people in the offices of several politicians and major media companies opened mail that contained traces of anthrax. Gospodarski was called on to help decontaminate the offices of ABC Studios. He collaborated with the owner of a similar company based in Ohio, run by a man named Fred Schutt. Contacted by BuzzFeed News, Schutt said he could not remember a man by the name of Sal Pane who worked on anthrax — nor did he recognize a picture of him.

Gospodarski was president of a national trade group, the American BioRecovery Association, for several years in the mid-2000s, said Dale Cillian, who became president after him. Cillian spoke with Gospodarski at least once a week, and they were close friends. “Ron told me everything,” he said. Cillian knew about Gospodarski’s co-worker, Manny Sosa, but never heard of anyone by the name of Sal Pane. Gospodarski “would just be livid if he knew what was going on,” Cillian said.

Cillian described Gospodarski as an honest man in an industry where integrity is sometimes in short supply. “Ron did things right, you know,” he said. “He didn’t overcharge.”

In a video from 2011, the camera follows Gospodarski and Sosa as they enter the homes of people in Queens and Long Island who had died of natural causes. He talks of how strange it feels to be a “voyeur” into the final moments of a person’s life. In one apartment, he starts doing the dirty dishes in the sink. He tells the camera that there was one thing about his job that affected him more than any other: “It’s very, very sad when someone dies by themself.”

Gospodarski got sick around 2011 and started looking frail. In April 2013, he died at the age of 51. He left behind two brothers and two sisters, and his dog, Skippy. Instead of flowers, his family asked that memorials be made in his name to a firefighter crew in the Buffalo area, where he was from, and the Ridgewood Volunteer Ambulance Corps, in Queens. He left everything in his will to his sister, Fran Gospodarski Senko.

About a month or two later, Fran got a call from Sal Pane.

First, Fran said, Pane asked her about her brother’s unfinished business.

He claimed he was good friends with Ron, Fran told BuzzFeed News, and that though he worked for a different company on Long Island, the two often passed along calls to each other. Ron probably had some insurance claims that weren’t completed, she remembered him saying. Did she have the password to his work account, she said he asked, and would she mind passing the claims along?

Fran said she did so and then told Pane she had to go because someone was coming to look at the ambulance that her brother used to own. Pane stopped her right there. “You didn’t sell it, did you?” she says he asked her. Pane, she recalled, told her he could really use an ambulance, and he’d pay her a good price. Sure, Fran said, why not?

Pane drove up to the Buffalo area, where Fran lives, to pick up the ambulance. She remembered him telling her that he and his crew would paint a mural on the side of it, in honor of Ron. At the time, Fran told BuzzFeed News, “my heart’s just melting.”

Pane, she said, now had his eyes set on Ron’s old box truck too. Pane claimed that one of the permit numbers on the truck was just one digit different from his, she recalled. “It’ll be perfect,” she remembered him telling her. He paid her cash, she said.

That was the last Fran heard from Pane for a few months. When he called again, she said, he asked a favor of her. He told her that it would cost him between $15,000 and $25,000 to get a new permit number, she recalled. “If you just sign the corporation over,” Fran said Pane told her, “it’ll save me money.” Fran decided she would.

Pane came by on New Year’s Eve. In front of a notary, Fran said, she signed a document he handed her, and then he gave her a check for $5,000. The check, she said, was from a company called Vinmar Associates, which was also named in the document. She said she cannot find the document and does not recall exactly what it said.

An EPA registry lists Vinmar Associates doing business as All Island Bio-Recovery, the company Pane told BuzzFeed News he worked for since 2001. The registry lists Pane as the operator and a Vincent Santella as the regulatory contact. The state DEC told BuzzFeed News that medical waste permits for two different companies by the name Vinmar Associates — one naming Santella as vice president, the other naming a Frank R. Aliazzo as president — had both expired.

Aliazzo has other ties to companies Pane is associated with. Bio-Recovery, Gospodarski’s old firm, is currently registered to an address in Patchogue, New York. That address is a residential property owned by a company called Globex Realty, LLC. Globex, in turn, is registered to an address belonging to Aliazzo.

Aliazzo spoke briefly with BuzzFeed News before his links to Vinmar Associates had been found. In that call, he said he was busy and referred questions to Pane. Aliazzo didn’t respond to subsequent voicemail messages about Vinmar Associates.

Santella declined to comment.

Pane told BuzzFeed News he never bought Bio-Recovery, saying that “the company will have tons of documentation showing I never bought it.”

When Ebola first hit the United States in late September of this year, Pane sprang into action. By early October he was making frequent appearances on talk radio to discuss Ebola, a process he continued throughout the entire month.

On Oct. 1, he appeared on Inside Edition showing how to decontaminate an ambulance. He was also on Fox News talking about the process of removing Ebola. The show introduced him as someone who “owns a hazardous waste removal company.”

As a Bio-Recovery staffer donned a hazmat suit, Pane told Fox News that insurance companies had, for the first time, balked at covering Bio-Recovery for cleaning up hazardous waste. “For the past 27 years the company’s been around we’ve never had an issue,” he said. Gospodarski founded Bio-Recovery 16 years ago — not 27.

During several media appearances, Pane referred to the company’s anthrax experience, sometimes in intimate detail. In one, he described the cleanup as “one of the hardest processes I’ve ever had to be a part of.” He also described himself as an experienced industry hand. “I've been dealing with pathogens, bacterias, and terrorism types of anti-warfare for decades.”

With Ebola in the news, Pane became a star in demand. He gave a flurry of interviews on CNBC, Fox Business, Al Jazeera America, radio programs, and local news.

Somewhere along the way, Pane claimed that his company had put together proposals for Texas authorities to do cleanup in Dallas, after the initial U.S. patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, died from the virus. But he didn’t get the contract. “The fact of the matter is it went to a local company with far less experience that was only open for two or three years,” Pane said. Pane also claimed the company that did that job was “unethical” and “off-protocol,” and that he had “critiqued” the company “many times with government officials, state officials, and media.” State and local agencies said they had no record of any proposal from Bio-Recovery.

But Bio-Recovery had better luck with New York City. On Oct. 23, news broke that Dr. Craig Spencer had become the city’s first Ebola patient. He lived in Harlem and had gone bowling in Williamsburg in the days before he came down with the deadly virus.

Timothy A. Clary /AFP / Getty Images

A newspaper vendor holds up a copy of the NY Post in New York the morning after it was confirmed that Dr. Craig Spencer tested positive for Ebola.

City officials told BuzzFeed News they had to “move swiftly” to make sure neither location was contaminated. They made an emergency purchase, meaning that they did not go through the normal bidding process where multiple companies compete for the work. They settled on Bio-Recovery.

On the morning of Oct. 24, as Spencer recuperated in the hospital, reporters gathered across the street from Spencer’s apartment. Pane was seen in a baseball cap, wearing all black like the rest of the crew, with canisters and a gas mask slung over his shoulder. Bio-Recovery trucks parked on the curb, in front of the cameras, and one of the trucks showed the company’s name — and its old address, from when Ron Gospodarski was still alive and ran it. It also prominently displayed a state “Regulated Medical Waste” permit number, 2A-545, and an EPA number of NYD986985414.

Both of those numbers were once registered to Gospodarski, and are now inactive. A state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the 2A-545 number is for a permit to haul medical waste, and Bio-Recovery did not do any actual hauling and so was not operating under that permit.

At any rate, the day appeared to be a glowing success. “It was definitely a cleanup job that needed to be done and we’re happy that the city, ya know, used us again after doing the anthrax in 2001. We appreciate that the city allows us to keep doing it,” Pane told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo.

Then, a week later, Pane’s real name — and his past — became public.

When BuzzFeed News exposed details of Pane’s past, he continued to stick to his account that he had “worked under” Ron Gospodarski. “Ron died, we all worked there,” he told BuzzFeed News.

That is a claim that people close to Ron — family, friends, and colleagues — all describe as untrue. “They are not the company we were, and they were not the ones who did the anthrax cleanup,” said Manny Sosa, Ron’s former right-hand man. “I have no idea who they are.”

Ricky Deow, who was close to Ron and owned a company next door to his, had also never heard of Pane. “I’m sad they are taking the credit for something they never did,” he said.

Pane also denied to BuzzFeed News that he runs the company, but a former employee who asked to not to be named told BuzzFeed News that was not true. Pane avoided putting his name on company documents because his past might catch up with him, this person said, but he was very clearly in charge. That seemed clear to Ron Gospodarski’s sister Fran too. “He acted like the boss,” she said. The city health department told BuzzFeed News that Pane was its point of contact at Bio-Recovery.

Incorporation documents list Bio-Recovery’s current CEO as Stephen Clarno. Clarno used to be a regional manager at Amerimod, according to news accounts. Clarno’s Facebook account lists him as living in northeast Ohio, far from Bio-Recovery’s Long Island address. Clarno did not respond to multiple requests to comment left on his Facebook page. A telephone number listed for him in public records was no longer in service, and BuzzFeed News could not find an email address for him.

Bio-Recovery is only one of several companies and nonprofits that are connected to each other, with similar websites, which all link back to Bio-Recovery. Some list addresses in areas other than New York, although they claim Ron Gospodarski’s client list. One, the Crime Scene Clean Up Association, claims to be a nonprofit. But the company is not listed as tax-exempt according to state records and a searchable federal database of nonprofits.

On the association’s webpage taken down last week, Pane is listed as one of the founders. The page also claimed that Bio-Recovery had a “chief medical officer” named Joe Monaco. Pane said in a radio interview that Monaco “has a double Ph.D., four masters’, and teaches for the — courses for the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency.” Spokespeople for both the federal EPA and the New York State DEC told BuzzFeed News that they have no indication Monaco ever taught classes with their agencies. BuzzFeed News could not find contact information for a Joe Monaco who fit the age range and other identifying details Bio-Recovery provided.

On the company’s “About” page, there is a picture of Schutt, who worked with Gospodarski on the anthrax cleanup, shaking hands with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The picture identifies Schutt as Bio-Recovery’s “owner.”

Schutt told BuzzFeed News that he used to run a different company with a similar name in Ohio. He said he remembers helping on the anthrax cleanup but doesn’t remember Pane. “It looks like he just copied and pasted my press releases,” Schutt told BuzzFeed News. “Tell this Sal guy to take my stuff off his website.” (Update: After this story was published, mentions of Schutt were removed from Bio-Recovery's web site.)

Fran hadn’t heard from Sal Pane for months when, she said, she got a call from him in late October. A reporter was on the other line, she remembered him saying. She said he asked her: Can we do a three-way call where you tell him I’m a good guy?

She refused, and soon after that call, BuzzFeed News’ first report on his past was published. Fran began to hear from some of Ron’s friends, and she read the article.

Fran said she began to feel like she had let her brother down. “I was stupid,” she told BuzzFeed News.

“I can’t even grieve for my brother,” she said, “and he’s out there pulling my corporation from underneath my nose.”

Fran said she had no idea Pane planned to use her brother’s name the way that he has. Nor did she realize that Pane had little association with him before his death. She’s also angry that she never got to see a mural of her brother painted on the ambulance he used to own, as she said Pane had promised. “When you get scammed like this, I mean — I can’t believe it,” Fran said.

Fran shared with BuzzFeed News some texts that she said Pane had sent her after Fran started asking some questions. They come from the same cell number that BuzzFeed News has used to reach Pane. In one of the texts, he told Fran that he thinks about Ron every day. “If there’s anything I can do just say it and it will be done,” he said.

In subsequent texts, he claimed that there are other owners of the company and that he was the “only one not scared to go in front of the media.” He said that several people in the company had “between 10-30 years experience.”

But he also said he was tired of “all the bs,” and “2 seconds away” from quitting.

“No matter what I say,” he texted Fran, “it’s not going to make you happy.”

Ilan Ben-Meir contributed reporting.

Contact the authors of this story at alex.campbell@buzzfeed.com and andrew@buzzfeed.com.

Alex Campbell is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. His secure PGP fingerprint is 0712 96AD 2FED CEF9 AFA7 9280 0397 E646 0A39 2C8A

Contact Alex Campbell at alex.campbell@buzzfeed.com.

Andrew Kaczynski is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Andrew Kaczynski at andrew.kaczynski@buzzfeed.com.

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