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Head of New York City’s Private Trash Industry Regulator Is Stepping Down

Daniel Brownell, appointed to lead the Business Integrity Commission by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, endured months of embarrassing news coverage and complaints from lawmakers that his agency was too lax.

Daniel Brownell, who is resigning as head of the Business Integrity Commission, at a public comment hearing for a plan to reform the private trash industry on Dec. 11, 2018. (Johnny Milano for ProPublica)

The head of the agency that regulates New York City’s private trash collection is resigning, a move that comes after months of embarrassing news coverage and calls for the agency to step up its oversight of the industry.

Daniel Brownell, appointed to lead the Business Integrity Commission, or BIC, by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, is expected to join a private security and corporate compliance firm. He will leave office in roughly the next month.

In a statement, de Blasio said Brownell’s resignation was voluntary, and he credited him with having played “a big role in crafting legislation to protect the most vulnerable workers in the trade waste industry.”

Brownell did not respond to requests for comment.

This year, after a rash of fatal accidents and a series of reports by ProPublica raising questions about the BIC’s record of oversight, the New York City Council announced it was launching an investigation of the agency’s performance. The council sent the BIC pages of questions concerning its work and demanded a vast assortment of records.

“I suspect there are systemic failures, but I want to be careful not to pre-judge an investigation,” Ritchie Torres, chairman of the council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, said at the time.

Brownell, a former prosecutor, defended the agency’s work in the face of the investigation and ProPublica’s articles exposing the often dangerous underside of an industry that was supposed to have been reformed after decades under the control of organized crime. ProPublica found haulers with poor safety records, unions alleged to be working with owners in exploiting workers, and an oversight agency, the BIC, that maintained it lacked the statutory authority to more aggressively police the industry.

Antonio Reynoso, chairman of the council’s Sanitation Committee, had complained for months that the BIC was ignoring its responsibility to act against companies on safety issues.

“The BIC didn’t see safety as part of its mandate,” Reynoso said. “That’s where we butted heads.”

Torres said Brownell’s departure would not affect the City Council’s investigation of the BIC.

“The challenges facing the BIC are far deeper than one person,” Torres said. He said he expected the investigation’s findings would be made public in the near future.

Much of ProPublica’s reporting focused on one of the city’s largest haulers, a Bronx company named Sanitation Salvage. The company’s trucks had been involved in two fatal accidents, and it had been accused of denying overtime and other wages to workers. It also was accused of violating labor regulations by pushing workers to join a union run by a man later convicted as a mobster. The company maintained its operations were safe and on the level, but nonetheless surrendered its license in late 2018 and ceased operations.

The reporting on Sanitation Salvage showed the BIC had been warned by workers about the company for years, and while the agency did an audit that resulted in thousands of dollars in fines, many workers felt it had let the company off the hook. Two of the company’s workers lied to the police about the circumstances surrounding the death of an off-the-books colleague, but the BIC took no action against the workers or the company. Soon after, one of those workers, a driver, was behind the wheel for a second fatal accident but again was not immediately sanctioned. The BIC ultimately barred the driver from the industry.

Brownell said at the time that the agency had acted as best it could, but was limited in its ability to crack down on safety violations. Indeed, over the years, he described the trash industry as much improved from years past.

“As I have said many times now, the city’s trade waste industry has made real strides over the past 20 years,” Brownell told the City Council in a 2017 hearing. “With BIC oversight in place, the trade waste industry has become largely a vibrant, competitive and fair one. Much of the credit for this must go to those in the industry itself who have worked hard for these improvements.”

Still, over the last several years, the de Blasio administration has worked to develop a plan it says will reform an industry afflicted by safety and environmental concerns, and one that is needlessly expensive to the hundreds of thousands of businesses in the city that depend on it to handle their waste.

The plan developed by the administration calls for dividing the city into 20 waste collection zones, with three to five companies per zone. Proponents of the plan argue that it would allow the city to hold companies to higher labor, safety and environmental standards.

Many private trash haulers have fought against the zoning plan, arguing it will stifle competition and prove more costly. They have insisted that increased enforcement by the BIC can achieve the safety and environmental reforms envisioned under the proposed zoning legislation.

Zoning legislation could be introduced as early as this spring.

The BIC was created in the 1990s with the express aim of ridding the industry of mob influence and unsavory actors. But ProPublica’s reporting over the last year showed at least two companies had ties to people who had been barred from the business because of their troubled pasts. As well, one of the largest unions operating in the industry had officers convicted of a variety of crimes and business dealings with a convicted felon who had been ousted from the industry years ago.

Just weeks ago, the City Council adopted legislation mandating that the BIC take action against union officials who have certain criminal convictions or dealings with members or associates of organized crime or anyone convicted of a racketeering activity. It allows the BIC to bar union officials from representing workers in the industry if they are found to be lacking “good character, honesty and integrity.”

Kiera Feldman contributed reporting.

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