New York City officials have insisted that the firm they hired to clean up Ebola had "the requisite skills" to do the job, despite mounting evidence that the firm was run by a con man, Sal Pane, who made numerous false claims about his experience.
But documents uncovered by BuzzFeed News suggest that Bio-Recovery Corp. claimed to have training certification it did not have when it was hired by the city to decontaminate an infected man's apartment.
After the first confirmed case of Ebola arrived in the United States in October of last year, the city contacted Pane, who was identified as the "president" of Bio-Recovery. When Dr. Craig Spencer became New York's first confirmed Ebola patient, the city hired Bio-Recovery to clean up Spencer's apartment.
Pane's company told officials that Bio-Recovery employees had completed a training certification program through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA has a training standard for people to learn how to handle dangerous waste before actually doing so in the field.
OSHA training certificates sent to the city and obtained by BuzzFeed News via a public records request show that Bio-Recovery employees completed the training in November of last year — after they had already cleaned up Ebola, and after BuzzFeed News first reported on Pane's history as a scammer.
Pane made dozens of media appearances before and after the cleanup as a self-described expert in hazardous waste, referring to the Ebola scare as Bio-Recovery's "Michael Jordan moment." But an ongoing BuzzFeed News investigation found that Pane persuaded the grieving sister of the recently deceased man who ran Bio-Recovery for more than a decade to sell the name of the company. Pane then claimed the dead man's experience — including cleaning up after an anthrax scare in 2001 — as his own. BuzzFeed News also found that Pane owes the state of New York more than $12 million in civil penalties for a mortgage scam perpetrated during the financial crisis.
In response to these revelations, officials said the city would review "this situation," but stood by Bio-Recovery's expertise in handling Ebola. Now, asked about the OSHA certificates, the city has dropped that line of argument. In a short written statement, after days of requests for comment, the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that it "vigorously reviewed all of Bio-Recovery's cleanup work and determined it was successfully performed and that there were no public health risks. That said, as a result of recent revelations about Bio-Recovery, the Health Department will not retain the services of this company, and will seek out other cleanup firms if the need for this emergency work arises again."
In a brief phone call with BuzzFeed News, Pane defended his own qualifications. "I hold tons of licenses," he said. Asked if he had the OSHA certifications before the cleanup, he said, "I had certification for five years. Of course." He said that the company updates its certifications "every time."
He also lashed out against BuzzFeed News: "This is really ridiculous. You guys are wasting your time … You're trying to make a story of absolutely nothing right now, and it's just the way you guys do it."
"Just respect me," he added, "and don't call me anymore." He hung up before BuzzFeed News could ask more questions, and did not respond to an email about the certifications.
After months of epidemic in West Africa, Ebola reached American shores in late September, when officials in Dallas confirmed that Thomas Eric Duncan had come down with the disease. Soon thereafter, Pane began making frequent TV and radio appearances touting decades of experience.
He also appears to have begun telling people that Bio-Recovery had an Ebola gig. In an Oct. 7 email, WNYC reporter Caroline Lewis told the city that Bio-Recovery "says they have been contracted for Ebola cleanup," and asked whether such a contract was with the city. A city official replied that "we have not contacted any contractors."
Over the next two weeks — before Ebola reached New York — officials began planning for what would happen if the disease did arrive. The city's conversations with Bio-Recovery and Pane about the Ebola cleanup appear to have begun on Oct. 14. Over the following days, officials requested that the company provide them with references and a cost estimate for the scenario of an 800-square-foot, three-room apartment with moderate contamination, 150 pounds of waste, in "Disposal category A." Bio-Recovery did so, estimating that it would cost upwards of $11,000, depending on the protective equipment used.
In emails from this time, Pane spelled his last name "Pain" and documents refer to him as the "President" of Bio-Recovery. Pane would later deny in numerous interviews that he ran the company, saying he was merely an employee. In those interviews, he referred to himself as the "foreman" or "chief safety officer." A former employee who asked not to be named previously told BuzzFeed News that was not true, and that Pane wouldn't put his name on documents out of fear his sketchy past might catch up with him. The sister of the company's previous owner, Ron Gospodarski, said Pane "acted like the boss."
Officials also looked at a "vendor performance evaluation" from the medical examiner's office showing Bio-Recovery received "satisfactory" reviews for work removing and destroying several caskets. The evaluation also showed the city still had the company's old address on file, from when it was owned by Ron Gospodarski. Gospodarski founded Bio-Recovery and ran it until he died in 2013, and his sister told BuzzFeed News that Pane duped her into selling the company name to him. In many media interviews, Pane had taken credit for his work, saying he personally did much of the work done by Gospodarski, such as cleaning up anthrax in 2001.
"When the anthrax was, in 2001, there was a thousand companies that were eligible to do it," Pane told Newsradio WDRC in early-October. "The only one that was prepared for it was us, and we were able to do it. It was one of the hardest processes I've ever had to be a part of."
"I've been dealing with pathogens, bacterias, and terrorism types of anti-warfare for decades," he said in another radio interview.
In 2001, Pane would have been a teenager. Associates of Gospodarski from the time of the anthrax cleanup said had never heard of Pane.
In discussions with city officials, Bio-Recovery's credentials came up, including what is known as the "HAZWOPER" standard. HAZWOPER, short for Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response, is the OSHA-required training for employers dealing with hazardous materials. It was established in the wake of the 1984 disaster that killed thousands of people who were exposed to poisonous gas in Bhopal, India.
The training is meant to prepare people to deal with the dangers that might arise in a difficult cleanup situation, said Michael Ziskin, president and CEO of Field Safety Corp., who has been conducting HAZWOPER training since its inception.
"You don't want on-the-job training," Ziskin said.
Among other things, the training teaches employees how to properly remove personal protective equipment — which is particularly important when dealing with an infectious disease like Ebola, Ziskin said.
An OSHA official told BuzzFeed News that HAZWOPER training is not legally required for Ebola cleanup like it is for other substances. Yet emails show that Bio-Recovery pointed to HAZWOPER certification as a sign of their expertise: A representative of Bio-Recovery told city officials in an unsigned message that all of the company's "technicians, supervisors, and safety officers have 40 hours HAZWOPER training." And in a separate email, two days before the cleanup, one city official wrote to another that Bio-Recovery had "positively affirmed that they have >10 staff on board with 40 hr HAZWOPER."
On Oct. 23, Dr. Spencer was diagnosed as positive for the Ebola virus. Officials discussed who would clean up his Harlem apartment to make sure it was not infectious. One declared in an email that of the 16 firms the city had contacted, "only two firms with the required expertise submitted bids."
Those two were Total Environmental Restoration Solutions and Bio-Recovery. The Health Department requested permission to have contracts with both firms. The emergency purchases were approved. The city went with Bio-Recovery.
BuzzFeed News first raised questions about Pane and his recent past as a mortgage scammer and convicted felon on Oct. 31, days after he and his crew cleaned Dr. Spencer's apartment, and a bowling alley where Spencer had been while potentially still infectious. In response to the story, city officials said they would "review this situation."
The next day, documents show, seven Bio-Recovery employees began the 40-hour HAZWOPER course. They each finished the course on Nov. 5. On Nov. 6, Pane himself took an eight-hour refresher course, which someone is supposed to take every year to stay certified.
On Nov. 15, BuzzFeed News exposed Pane's con man past, numerous false claims, and Gospodarski's sister's allegation that Pane had duped her into selling the company name. Pane had arrived at Dr. Spencer's apartment with a truck bearing old, expired permit numbers that belonged to the Gospodarski, the previous owner. The city's review continued, though officials did not back down from their claim that Pane and his crew had the "requisite skills."
Somewhere along the way — it's not clear exactly when — the city received the HAZWOPER certificates for the seven Bio-Recovery Corp. employees. Officials also received documents showing Pane himself had completed a HAZWOPER course in 2012, and that one of the other seven employees had done an online course in 2012 as well.
Bio-Recovery's website had previously claimed "all workers have OSHA HAZWOPER worker course completion." A Nov. 21 BuzzFeed News article detailing how some of the certifications website were removed from the website after the expose of Pane also showed "all workers have" was removed and it only said "OSHA HAZWOPER work course completion."
Pane had also told city officials in an email prior to cleanup that a man named Dr. Joseph Monaco was routinely doing training for Bio-Recovery. This was a claim repeated online and in radio interviews, where Pane also said that Monaco "has a double Ph.D., four master's, and taught "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 in the fall that they had no indication Monaco had ever taught classes with their agencies.
One of the employees who received the OSHA training, Stephen Clarno, is listed on public documents as Bio-Recovery's CEO. He used to be a regional manager at Pane's mortgage scam company Amerimod before he joined Bio-Recovery.
Ties between Amerimod and Bio-Recovery are unclear, but there is at least one more apparent connection besides Clarno.
All of the hundred-plus crime scene cleanup-related web domains owned by Bio-Recovery (the domains previously forwarded to the company's website) were registered by an organization called "117 Harbor Corp, " which, according to the New York secretary of state's website was registered by man named Andrew Daniels. Daniels also registered Amerimod and is named in Department of Justice regional taskforce action against Amerimod as well as a 2009 Federal Trade Commission-coordinated effort, "Operation Loan Lies."
Daniels did not return a request for comment but in previous conversations declined to discuss Amerimod.
The domains were purchased from a California-based man named Eddie Evans who was getting out of the crime-scene industry. Pane contacted Evans through a mutual acquaintance, Evans said.
"He's a pathological liar," Evans said of Pane to BuzzFeed News. "He kind of makes it up as he goes along. I knew he didn't know Ron. He pretended that he cleaned with him and knew him."
Three of the employees listed with the November certifications, Nick Keyian, Roy Spitzer, and Patrick Borges, declined to comment. BuzzFeed News was unable to reach the other employees, including Clarno.
BuzzFeed News received the after-the-fact OSHA certificates as part of a freedom of information request for emails between city officials and Pane and Bio-Recovery. Many of the emails were redacted, so it's unclear exactly when the certificates were sent to the city; it is also unclear exactly how city officials reacted when they received the certificates and how much the city paid for the cleanup.
In the emails disclosed via the public records request, a city official offers a clue as to why Bio-Recovery was chosen: It was the "only company able to respond so quickly."
Yet in response to multiple questions about the certificates, including whether further action will be taken, the city has not responded. Instead, city officials released the written statement, declaring that "will not retain the services of this company" again.
Ilan Ben-Meir contributed reporting.
Andrew Kaczynski is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Andrew Kaczynski at email@example.com.
Alex Campbell is the deputy UK investigations editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. His secure PGP fingerprint is C99D 2577 74B1 8DF0 6E90 3CD7 DFF4 C0F2 2492
Contact Alex Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.