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Commish Hired to Fix Troubled Build It Back Program Bullying Staff: Sources

By  James Fanelli and Katie Honan | October 31, 2016 7:08am 

 Luis Mendes is also a former assistant commissioner at the Department of Design and Construction.
Luis Mendes is also a former assistant commissioner at the Department of Design and Construction.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan/9/11 Memorial and Museum

BROAD CHANNEL — The new deputy commissioner at the Department of Design and Construction who was hired to get the city's troubled Build It Back program on track has been on the job for a few weeks but is already destroying staff morale with an abusive tone, agency sources said.

DDC insiders told DNAinfo New York about several instances of the new deputy commissioner, Luis Mendes, dressing them down and harassing them during meetings about the program's reconstruction and elevation of houses that Superstorm Sandy destroyed or damaged.

A DDC employee even sent an anonymous letter Oct. 24 to the agency's equal employment opportunity officer, stating that during the previous week, Mendes "attended several meetings at the DDC and [the Mayor's Office of Housing Recovery] and did not discriminate in bullying, intimidating, humiliating NYC staff and hired construction professionals in front of everyone."

The employee provided a copy of the letter because the employee fears that the foundering Build It Back program will fall further behind under Mendes' stewardship. 

"[Mendes] deliberately and intentionally set out to instill fear in everyone at all levels, and made it very clear it was his way or the highway," the letter said. "He was not interested in the facts, not interested in the law, not interested in the hard work dedicated city staff and consultants put into Build It Back over the last two years."

DNAinfo New York exclusively reported last month that Mendes, who had been an executive vice president at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, was hired to help Build It Back meet construction deadlines the program had blown. Mayor Bill de Blasio's office denied the hire at the time. But then last week it announced Mendes as the DDC's deputy commissioner for housing recovery.

Oct. 28 marked the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. De Blasio vowed on Sandy's third anniversary to have all the damaged homes repaired by the end of 2016.

However, he recently admitted in a report that the city would blow that deadline. The city also admitted recently that it will need an additional $500 million to repair all the Sandy-struck homes, bringing the program's total bill to $2.7 billion.

One Build It Back source described Mendes' manner as brusque and gruff. But the source said that's what the program — which is a joint effort between DDC and the Mayor's Office of Housing Recovery — needs. 

The source said Amy Peterson, the director of Housing Recovery, brought Mendes in to sidestep DDC's bureaucratic work culture.  

"He's no-nonsense," the source said. "Since [Mendes] started it's been a constant barrage of pushing and pushing them, which is what they need."

"[Mendes] couldn't wrap his head around why work isn't being done every day," the source said.

However, a DDC source said that Mendes had dressed down private contractors working on Build It Back — even when they brought up safety concerns and the need to follow OSHA protocols.

DNAinfo contacted five contractors who allegedly experienced Mendes wrath. They all either did not respond to a request for comment or declined to comment. 

The anonymous letter sent to the equal employment said de Blasio picked Mendes because the mayor's promises to Sandy homeowners have fallen short.

"We don't care if the mayor's back is against the wall," the letter said. "He established unreasonable expectations for Build It Back and now has to eat crow, that is his problem."

"He will not save face by bringing in a goon and trying to crush decent hard-working people," the letter said.

Build It Back spokesman Matt Viggiano defended Mendes, saying everyone wants to get the work done as soon as possible.

"The families whose projects will move forward will appreciate Lou’s efforts to get them back home," he said.