By Jill Colvin
MANHATTAN — Undercover investigations and online stings are tactics typically used by police and prosecutors, not building inspectors. But there's a new sheriff in town at the city's Department of Buildings — and he comes armed with three decades of law enforcement experience.
Eugene Corcoran, a former United States Marshal and 20-year veteran of the New York State Police took office in May as the buildings department's Deputy Commissioner of Enforcement — a first for the department, which has been plagued by corruption and a string of fraud-linked tragedies, including the Deutsche Bank building fire in 2007 and two deadly crane collapses in 2008.
Since his appointment, Corcoran has been taking the lessons he learned tracking down serial killers and reconstructing plane crashes and using them to crack down on absentee building owners and contractors who don't play by the rules.
"If there's an owner or a landlord or a licensed professional who is violating his oath of office… we'll be looking to hold them accountable," Corcoran said in a soft-spoken but steely tone as he sat in his office overlooking the Lower Manhattan skyline on a recent morning.
Part of his goal is finding new, more creative approaches to long-standing problems, he said.
In a recent investigation, inspectors went online to track down landlords renting illegally converted apartments on Craigslist. The conversions can pose serious fire risks, he said.
Inspectors then went undercover and passed themselves off as potential tenants to collect evidence against the landlords — the first time undercover agents had been used in an investigation of that scale in the department's history, Corcoran said.
"We collected evidence that was highly credible, including video footage," he said. "That was proactive, kind of outside-the-box thinking."
"We're constantly thinking in advance to try and solve problems before they occur," he said.
Corcoran is also pushing for new tools to help inspectors collect the type of evidence they need, not just to write violations but to secure convictions in court.
In the last fiscal year, for instance, the department obtained 63 court-ordered warrants to gain access to buildings that had been converted illegally — nearly double the number obtained during the previous three years combined, according to buildings department spokeswoman Jennifer Gilbert.
Corcoran is now pushing to grant inspectors full peace officer status so that when they knock on doors to collect evidence, people are more likely to let them in.
He's also looking to partner with the FDNY for co-training, and has requested to use their facilities.
"Obviously my background is in law enforcement, so I'll be looking at things, I think, from a little bit different perspective," he said. Still, he said the nature of most investigations remain essentially the same, regardless of the subject of the investigation.
"I've always believed that if you can investigate an automobile accident ... you can investigate a homicide," he said.
Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri praised Corcoran's extensive law enforcement background, calling him a "tremendous asset to the Department" who "will help us crack down on builders who ignore the law and put New Yorkers at risk."
After spending his first few months working on restructuring parts of the department, Corcoran said his next big push will be going after unlicensed contractors, including electricians and plumbers, and professional engineers and architects who fail to follow the rules.
"We’ve got a 1,000-person agency and it’s a big city, so those people who have taken on that responsibility as we have, anybody that has a license raises their right hand and takes an oath. With power, comes accountability and responsibility. So I'm going to be taking a good look at the professionals, at the license holders," he said.
In addition to revoking licenses and issuing criminal summonses, one tactic he said he wants to use more is seizing vehicles from unlicensed contractors.
He also plans to continue recently-created programs, including a scaffold safety team, a new concrete unit to monitor the industry, and the facade safety initiative.
The initiative, sparked by the death of a 24-year-old man who fell from his balcony in March 2010, prompted the inspection of almost every balcony in the city and was the largest effort of its kind.
So far, three of the 17 buildings where balconies were deemed too dangerous to be used have been fixed, Gilbert said.
"In some cases it’s a major, major project involving enormous expense or time to complete," Corcoran explained.
Still, he said that he is mindful of balancing tough enforcement techniques with the need to allow the city to grow following the recession.
"We want to build... we try to work with the industry as best we can, as long as safety is our primary concern," Corcoran said.
And while Corcoran knows the department has had its issues and its critics, he said he's optimistic about what he can do.
"When I drive down the FDR and I look at the city skyline, I say, 'This is the greatest city in the world.' So the Buildings Department did something right over the last hundred years, right?" he said with a smile.