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Four LI men among five ex-National Grid employees charged in kickback scheme

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney said in

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney said in a statement: "Crimes of this nature weaken the integrity of the bidding process and deny consumers the benefit of free and open competition in the marketplace." Credit: Sipa USA via AP/Photographer Lev Radin

Five former National Grid employees accepted bribes and kickbacks, including cash, international travel and an RV, from companies that received millions of dollars in contracts from the London-based energy giant, according to a criminal complaint filed in Brooklyn this week.

National Grid wasn’t named in the complaint, but the company confirmed to Newsday that the five men charged in the complaint previously worked for National Grid. The company said it "fully cooperated" with the FBI investigation.

Federal prosecutors charged the men — four of whom live on Long Island — with soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gifts and services between 2013 and 2020 from the unnamed contractor and affiliated companies, chiefly to be awarded facilities maintenance work for National Grid.

The federal complaint charges the men with conspiring to violate the Travel Act by accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to steer contracts to Long Island contractors. Charged were Patrick McCrann, 57, of Selden; Jevan Seepaul, 36, of Rockville Centre; Richard Zavada, 65, of Hicksville; Devraj Balbir, 33, of North Bellmore; and Ricardo Garcia, 48, of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

Three of the men had the authority to approve no-bid contracts valued at less than $50,000, the complaint says, but also had the ability to influence competitive bids in favor of the contractors for considerably more lucrative work, including a $50 million contract, prosecutors charged.

"Crimes of this nature weaken the integrity of the bidding process and deny consumers the benefit of free and open competition in the marketplace," FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney said in a statement.

The state Department of Public Service, meanwhile, announced Friday it would investigate National Grid's downstate gas business to "determine if the utility's customers were financially harmed by this scheme," DPS chief executive John B. Howard said.

In addition to tens of thousands of dollars cash payments, the alleged bribes and kickbacks included "more than one" recreational vehicle, hotel stays and international travel, home renovations and landscaping, even college tuition for one employee's relative, according to the complaint filed June 15.

Two owners of an unnamed Long Island contractor acted as cooperating witnesses in the probe and previously pleaded guilty to federal felony charges of bribing or directing others to pay bribes, court papers say. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who took National Grid to task over a gas moratorium two years ago, said the new probe "will thoroughly examine and determine if the company failed to have the appropriate safeguards in place to prevent criminal activities on the part of employees, and if not, the utility will be held accountable."

Each of the men surrendered Thursday morning and were released after initial appearances in federal court in Brooklyn, according to John Marzulli, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District, which brought the case. Zavada was released on a $75,000 bond; McCrann on a $250,000 bond; Seepaul on a $75,000 bond; Balbir on a $250,000 bond; and Garcia on a $75,000 bond.

Zavada’s internet profile lists him as a senior supervisor with 34 years of experience at National Grid. The complaint said he was responsible for managing the company's facilities on Long Island. McCrann, with 37 years at National Grid, was a facilities manager, responsible for facilities on Long Island and New York City. He recently retired, court papers said. Balbir had been a manager for the facilities department for five years; Garcia, a 28-year National Grid employee, was a facilities manager; and Seepaul worked at National Grid as a facilities manager between 2014 and 2017, court papers said.

"Each of the defendants was in a position to cause significant economic harm to company [National Grid] vendors … who failed to pay the kickbacks they demanded," the complaint states.

Jeffrey Lichtman, an attorney for Seepaul, said his client was "by far the most minor [alleged player] of all the people that were charged."

"There’s a culture that was already in existence at National Grid," when Seepaul joined the company, Lichtman said. "This isn’t something that he did on his own."

Jonathan Rosenberg, an attorney for Garcia, said, "The government, in this case, has acted entirely in good faith, and we will assert our position in court — not in the press."

Attorneys for the other men charged didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Balbir also is accused of attempting to obstruct the investigation by encouraging one of the cooperating witnesses "not to cooperate with law-enforcement agents" and to provide a "false explanation" about the source of money to renovate his home.

National Grid spokeswoman Karen Young, in a statement, said the company has "fully cooperated with and has supported the U.S. Attorney’s Office throughout its investigation and will take any steps necessary to enhance our existing controls to prevent future occurrence."

National Grid operates the natural gas distribution infrastructure and owns and operates the largest power plants on Long Island, including at Northport, Island Park and Port Jefferson. National Grid also operates electric utilities throughout the Northeast.

Young said National Grid has "zero tolerance for unethical and illegal behavior," adding the company’s employees are "committed to our values and professionalism as they carry out their responsibility serving customers every day. The alleged misconduct, of a handful of former employees, contradicts that commitment."

Mark J. Lesko, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, in a statement, said his office is "committed to protecting the integrity of the bidding process and ensuring that businesses compete on a level, honest playing field."

"As alleged, the defendants made corrupt demands for bribes and kickbacks to line their own pockets and upgrade their lifestyles, while putting the contractors at risk of losing business if they did not comply," Lesko said.

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