A contractor hired in a handshake deal with the city to do pre-demolition work at the former King’s Inn may have cost the city $143,000 in additional asbestos removal fees after he allegedly stole copper pipes there, releasing the deadly toxin into the air in the process. The total could climb higher as at least one worker on the job has filed notice that he intends to sue the contractor and the city for asbestos exposure.
The strange tale, which observers have dubbed “Coppergate,” began in July when Mayor James Sottile approached contractor Joseph McGowan with an offer — $4,000 in exchange for clearing out the rooms at the motel, which is slated to be demolished by personnel from an Army Reserve engineering unit later this month. The pre-demolition work would have to take place before another company, Classic Environmental, begin removing asbestos contained in the buildings’ roofs and in joints around the elbows on copper water pipes. Sottile said that he made the offer and put McGowan in touch with Fire Chief Rick Salzmann, who was overseeing the demolition as head of a steering committee charged with redeveloping the site. The undocumented agreement fell within city regulations, which do not require a bidding process for jobs under $20,000.
The deal, consummated without any written documentation or any kind of indemnification clause to protect the city from liability, allowed McGowan to take and sell salvaged fixtures including refrigerators, doorframes and other items. But Sottile and Salzmann both say that that the asbestos-encased copper was specifically excluded from the agreement.
“I made it very clear, he was supposed to empty the rooms out, but nothing attached,” said Sottile. “And I specifically mentioned the copper.”
Work proceeded during the last week of July and the first week of August. According to Kingston Police Chief Gerald Keller, city Building Inspector Jim Brunner was at the site during the cleanout (he later told police that he was there to look for traces of lead paint and was unaware of the terms of the salvage deal). So was recently retired KPD detective Gerald Schatzel, who drove a dump truck hired by McGowan to haul away items (but not, he told police, copper) from the site on July 30.
On Aug. 8, Salzmann called police to report that copper had been stolen from the site. Detective investigating the case asked McGowan for a roster of workers on the cleanout job, hoping to find a lead. According to Keller, McGowan refused to provide the list. Keller said that police were about to obtain a subpoena for the information when a Kingston man, Steve Augustine, came forward to report that he had cut and removed the copper between Aug. 2 and Aug. 4, on orders from McGowan.