Looks Great Services: the $70M cleanup company

Trucks with the Looks Great Services logo are

Trucks with the Looks Great Services logo are parked in a lot in Huntington. (April 1, 2013) (Credit: Ed Betz)

Less than a decade ago, Looks Great Services was known largely for stringing homeowners' Christmas lights.

Today, the firm has almost $70 million in contracts for superstorm Sandy cleanup work from Nassau County that have drawn scrutiny from the state attorney general, the U.S. Department of Labor, district attorneys in Nassau and Suffolk, and the Nassau comptroller.

Investigators are examining whether Looks Great subcontractors paid prevailing wages for work, how contracts were awarded, and whether the company unnecessarily removed trees after the storm, sources have told Newsday. The company says it has complied with all local, state and federal rules.


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Humble beginnings

Its president, Kristian Agoglia, grew the business steadily, from a landscaping provider started in his parents' Huntington garage in 1990 to a "storm chaser" operating nationwide. From 2004 to 2008, it aided cleanup after at least 15 different storms, including Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast and Midwest ice storms.

"There's only a few big firms that can do this work. They're one," said Mark Garvin, president of the Tree Care Industry Association, a Londonderry, N.H., trade group. "It's really a different breed of company."

But until Sandy, Looks Great had a low profile on Long Island, performing mainly routine tree-trimming for municipalities and cleanup work after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

"Nobody knew who they were" before Sandy, said Marc Herbst, executive director of the 150-member Long Island Contractors Association, many of whom were engaged in storm recovery efforts.

Looks Great Services incorporated in Delaware in 1999. The company -- named after what Agoglia has said was the most common response to his work -- first gained attention for installing holiday lights and decorations for Huntington-area homeowners, winning national awards for its work.

 

National reputation

By 2004, Looks Great was building a national reputation, joining the cleanup after Hurricane Charley in central Florida. When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast area a year later, Agoglia removed debris for localities including Marion County, Miss.

Jay Carney, president of T.L. Wallace Construction in Columbia, Miss., said Looks Great was one of many subcontractors that he hired for Katrina.

"They were a reputable, professional contractor, and did a great job for us here," said Carney, estimating he paid Looks Great "several million dollars."

In a 2009 debris removal application to Nassau County, Looks Great said it had 70 employees and access to 200 pieces of equipment. Company spokesman Dave Arnold noted that before Sandy made landfall, the company "mobilized 60 crews," allowing it to conduct cleanup for 16 public and private clients in the region.

It methodically built the local relationships that led to that work. Since 2007, Looks Great has won at least $34 million in tree-trimming and storm-related contracts from Long Island towns and villages, the Long Island Power Authority, Suffolk County Water Authority and the state, public records show. They include:

$4.2 million from the Village of Garden City for Sandy cleanup, following years of regular work with the village.

$7.9 million from the Long Island Power Authority, through National Grid, largely for storm-hardening, since 2007.

$6.8 million from the Town of Huntington for Sandy cleanup. The town also paid the firm $564,637 in regular landscape work between 2009 and 2012, and $1.2 million for Tropical Storm Irene recovery in 2011.

$6.8 million from Nassau County for Irene cleanup.

That doesn't include the Sandy work in Nassau, which awarded the company a total of $68.8 million for the storm.

Those contracts drew the attention of County Comptroller George Maragos, who sought records from all of the roughly 60 subcontractors that Looks Great used after the storm. Maragos said he wants to verify that the subcontractors paid prevailing wage and "in some cases, that they've actually done the work they represented."

 

Multiple investigations

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and the U.S. Department of Labor are probing the contract-awarding process post-Sandy -- including whether Looks Great and other companies used subcontractors that did not pay prevailing wages, sources told Newsday.

Rice has issued subpoenas related to prevailing wage or contractual complaints to Looks Great, A-H Construction and Renu Restoration and Contracting, two sources have said. A-H has not returned calls for comment and Renu says it has not done any work for Nassau.

Rice also is examining whether Looks Great needlessly removed trees, and if anyone benefitted financially, a law enforcement source said.

Agoglia declined to comment. Arnold said the company has complied with all the rules, "including those regarding wage and record-keeping, and has provided all the documentation requested by authorities."

"Most importantly," he added, "not one of its clients has indicated dissatisfaction with Looks Great's performance on Sandy-related work."

Arnold said the emergency contracts with Nassau don't require payment of prevailing wages. He cited a November 2011 email from a state Labor Department official to Agoglia saying that "tree trimming and tree removal along roadways & byways related to [Tropical Storm] Irene is not covered" by prevailing wage laws.

Officials in the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo confirmed the email from Matthew J. Myers, Long Island regional supervisor for the labor department's bureau of public work. Several months later, Myers made a follow-up call to Looks Great to clarify that "incidental" tree-trimming and clearing along roadways and byways related to Irene was not covered by prevailing wage law, state officials said.

Josh Zeitz, another Looks Great spokesman, replied that the company "can't speak to oral instructions that the state claims to have issued after the fact, as there is no documentation of that discussion."

 

Political donor

As the amount of municipal work that Looks Great has received on Long Island has grown, so have its political contributions. Campaign finance records show that since 2011, when it began receiving local storm cleanup work, the company and Agoglia have contributed to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican; Huntington Highway Superintendent William Naughton, a Democrat; and the Hicksville Republican Committee.

On Sept. 14, 2011, Looks Great gave $2,500 to the Hicksville Republican Committee, which is run by Nassau Chief Deputy County Executive Rob Walker. The contribution came about two weeks after Nassau awarded the company a contract for Irene cleanup.

On Sept. 17, 2011, Looks Great contributed $4,250 to Naughton's campaign, about two weeks after the firm submitted its first invoice for payment for Irene work awarded by the highway department. Town spokesman A.J. Carter said he had no information about the contract award date, and Naughton did not return several calls for comment.

Between March 2012 and January, Looks Great or Agoglia made five donations to Mangano's campaign totaling $27,245. Nassau made its $6.8 million payment to the company for Irene on Dec. 1, 2011, and awarded the initial $20 million Sandy contract last November, before increasing the total to nearly $70 million in February.

That came just after Agoglia's largest donation to Mangano -- $15,000 -- on Jan. 10.

Mangano's office says the donations didn't influence the county's selection of Looks Great as a Sandy contractor, and notes the firm's involvement with Nassau began in 2009, when Democrat Thomas Suozzi was county executive.

That year, Nassau gave Looks Great $621,500 in general tree-trimming work and also designated it as one of four firms eligible for future emergency debris removal work. Eight firms had responded to Nassau's request for qualifications, which said it would "not sign contracts . . . until there is work to be performed."

"Because we're on an island, one thing we looked for was people who could demonstrate that if we got cut off from the mainland, they could still perform services," said Ray Ribeiro, then county public works commissioner. He noted that the firm had access to numerous subcontractors.

The Suozzi administration qualified three other firms for emergency work, Ribeiro said, because "we didn't want to put all of our eggs in one basket."

Two of those other three firms named to Nassau's debris management plan -- New Rochelle-based Almstead Tree & Shrub and CrowderGulf of Theodore, Ala. -- told Newsday that Nassau did not call them for pricing after either Irene in 2011 or Sandy in 2012. The third, Ashbritt Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla., didn't return calls for comment.

 

Union issues

In Sandy's aftermath, labor unions and Nassau Democrats have sharply questioned Looks Great's performance, its use of out-of-state workers and the way contracts were awarded.

When county lawmakers in February increased the company's contract awards to almost $70 million, Phil Capobianco, of Operating Engineers, Local 138, shouted, "Very unhappy."

Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) has criticized the county and the firm for cutting 141 trees in Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove, saying many could have been saved. She has also asked Maragos for records to determine if Looks Great and its subcontractors paid prevailing wages.

"If they weren't paying prevailing wage, and we're paying them thinking that they are, that's more profit for the company," DeRiggi-Whitton said.

Arnold responded: "The only parties raising concerns are unions and their political allies, who are more focused on promoting their own agenda than looking out for taxpayers."

Some Nassau Democrats who are company critics, Arnold added, have received campaign contributions from organized labor: "Nearly every politician who has been criticizing Looks Great . . . has received thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars, from unions, so it's no surprise they're carrying their water on this issue."

But records show that labor unions representing Nassau County workers, including police officers and electricians, are major donors to candidates of both political parties. The union that's been the most vocal Looks Great critic, Local 138, has given more than $10,000 to Mangano and other Republicans since 2010, Mangano's first year in office, and about $6,000 the Nassau County Democratic Committee and Democratic county lawmakers.

 

Local support

Other Democrats, including some in the hardest-hit part of the county -- Long Beach -- support the firm. As part of its Nassau contract, Looks Great removed debris for Long Beach and other cities and towns.

"It's fine to audit their bills and make sure everything is on the up-and-up," said Long Beach Democratic Committee chairman Michael Zapson. "But they should think about what they're doing, because during the next disaster, people who can respond may think twice." With Celeste Hadrick

and Yancey Roy

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