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Unusable Drone and Fancy Ribbon Among City Agency's 'Frivolous' Purchases

By James Fanelli | February 3, 2016 8:55am
 The Department of Design and Construction spent at least $3,000 on a drone that they can't use because of federal restrictions, sources said. The DDC's commissioner, Feniosky Pena-Mora, also spent $1,000 on ceremonial ribbon rolls for unveilings of completed projects.
The Department of Design and Construction spent at least $3,000 on a drone that they can't use because of federal restrictions, sources said. The DDC's commissioner, Feniosky Pena-Mora, also spent $1,000 on ceremonial ribbon rolls for unveilings of completed projects.
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Bruce Bennett/Getty Images and the city Department of Design and Construction

LONG ISLAND CITY — A Department of Design and Construction deputy commissioner had her agency buy a drone last year for high school interns to operate, but it can't be used because her plan didn't fly with City Hall and the feds, DNAinfo New York has learned.

The deputy commissioner, Lillian Llambelis, ordered the purchase of the drone — which cost $4,000 — without speaking to the agency's counsel about the legality of operating the remote-controlled aircraft within city limits, DDC sources said.

When the drone arrived, DDC consulted with City Hall and was told the aircraft had to stay grounded because of current Federal Aviation Administration restrictions, which require government agencies to get an OK from the FAA to use drones, according to the sources. It now sits in a box on the fifth floor of DDC's Long Island City headquarters.

The drone was among several frivolous purchases totaling tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money that have been made under Commissioner Feniosky Pena-Mora, sources said.

They include a $50,000 3-D printer that sits largely unused and $1,000 worth of custom-designed ceremonial ribbon rolls that have the agency's name and colors, blue and orange, according to sources.

The sources said Pena-Mora allows his hires to make the purchases, but added he's also been leading the charge in the spending spree — largely to boost his image and ego.

"It's all about self-gratification and puffing himself up," one DDC insider said.

The commissioner wanted the ribbon after feeling upstaged by city Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver's regalia at unveilings of new city parks facilities, according to DDC sources.

Under Pena-Mora, DDC staff have been forced to be cheerleaders for the agency. At ribbon-cutting ceremonies, the commissioner makes employees chant, "We bleed orange and blue," DDC sources said.

Pena-Mora, whom Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed to the position in April 2014 after he was ousted as a dean at Columbia University, also redesigned the logo of DDC when he landed at the agency. Then Pena-Mora had the DDC buy six flags with the new logo that cost roughly $800 each.

Sources said the DDC commissioner also tricked out his office with plasma screen TVs and had more TVs placed throughout the agency entrances to run photos of DDC projects.

But multiple agency employees told DNAinfo that the constant slideshows on the TV feel like propaganda.

"It's like being in North Korea, except we can go out to lunch and get our own food," one DDC worker said of the agency's headquarters in Long Island City.

Llambelis, whose role as deputy commissioner is to lead a new education initiative that helps city students learn about engineering and science, bought the drone last spring.

Originally, she intended it for high school students to use. But when she got pushback from other executive staff at the agency, she justified the drone purchase by saying it would also be used to take aerial shots of DDC projects, sources said.

Llambelis also got the agency to buy the 3-D printer for high school interns, sources said. But the printer, which can make models, has barely been used because most workers at the DDC don't know how to operate it and the main person who did left the agency, sources said.

The DDC did not dispute the costs of the drone, ribbons, flags and 3-D printer, but would not provide DNAinfo New York with purchase orders for the items, stating they would have to be obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.

DDC spokeswoman Shavone Williams said the drone was bought before the FAA issued new rules that cover both commercial and non-commercial uses, but hopes to get the aircraft airborne in the future.

"The agency is working with its lawyers to ensure compliance with the new rules and regulations," Williams said.

She added that industry experts have said the drones and 3-D printers will have a great impact on design and construction. The printer has been used and is a resource tool, she said.

She added that part of DDC's mission "is to not only stay current on all developments in the design and construction industry, but to also be able to test and analyze different technologies as the industry evolves."

However, DDC sources said the 3-D printer and drone were not necessary for DDC's work. While the agency oversees the design and construction of city facilities, it outsources the actual work to architects and contractors, sources said.

Williams said the purchase of 200 yards of ceremonial ribbon was necessary because DDC routinely completes capital construction projects and holds one to two unveiling ceremonies a month. The DDC also said that the ribbon rolls will last for years to come. 

Williams said the new flags were also an important purchase.

"The new flags are in lieu of the former flags that did not represent the agency's new identity aligning with the city's identity, which started under the former administration and are displayed in the appropriate agency spaces since they were procured," she said.