Looks Great Services Inc., the Huntington tree trimming firm that collected more than $90 million from Long Island governments for its Sandy cleanup work, pleaded guilty in Suffolk County Criminal Court Friday to underpaying workers in violation of state prevailing wage laws.
In all, 53 workers will share more than $256,000 in unpaid wages in an agreement worked out with prosecutors. The criminal conviction stems from underpaying workers on four public works contracts the company was awarded before superstorm Sandy struck in late October 2012.
Prosecutors said the contracts -- two with the Town of Huntington and one each with the Suffolk County Water Authority and the Long Island Rail Road -- were for tree-trimming work prior to Sandy, although one worker's wage underpayment involved the week Sandy hit. All four contracts required the firm to pay state prevailing wages, as laid out in state labor law.
Court records show Looks Great earlier faced a D-class felony charge for "willful failure to pay prevailing wage" in violation of state labor law, which carries a maximum penalty of up to 7 years in prison and would have led to the firm being debarred from public contracts for five years. Instead, the firm pleaded to an A-class misdemeanor and one-year conditional discharge in which it cannot violate prevailing wage law.
The workers will be sent letters informing them of their amounts in coming weeks, Robert Clifford, a spokesman for District Attorney Thomas Spota, said. The largest amount for a single worker is $18,844.64 -- another 17 of the workers will receive checks in excess of $5,000.
One of the men who will receive money, a Huntington Station resident and immigrant from Honduras, said he had been praying his wages would be fully paid. The man said he worked many overtime hours after storms working for Looks Great, climbing trees and worried for his safety, but he needed the money.
"Thank God that justice was done," the father of three, 32, said in Spanish. "For me this is an example, because I think we would work with more joy knowing that the law is going to support us."
The firm's president, Kristian Agoglia, was not in court Friday as the agreement was officially signed by Looks Great attorney Stephen Scaring and entered into the court record before Judge Fernando Camacho in Central Islip. The agreement also includes another $50,000 toward the cost of the investigation.
In July last year, detectives with the Suffolk district attorney's office executed a search warrant at Looks Great's corporate offices in Huntington, seizing business records detailing wages and the company's work for the years 2010 through 2013.
Prosecutors, assisted by forensic auditors, compared certified payrolls the company filed with each of the public entities for which it worked with Looks Great's own payroll records and found workers were paid rates below those set by state law.
"There's a lot of confusion about prevailing wages," Scaring said outside the courtroom. "What my client did was pay union contract rates instead of prevailing wages."
Assistant District Attorney Leslie Stevens rejected that, saying the audit showed some workers were paid as little as $11 or $12 an hour. The workers should have received at least $54.50 an hour.
"He paid workers all different rates," she said.
One of the cases involved an employee who worked 117 hours in Freeport doing tree work in the first week after Sandy. The man had worked for Looks Great for several years and usually had his check deposited directly into a bank account. Once he raised the issue of wage rates during that first week after Sandy, his check was stopped, Stevens said. The man subsequently decided to leave.
"They never paid his wages after he left," Stevens said. "I just found that absolutely appalling."
The firm's guilty plea is the latest of several prevailing wage cases it has resolved this year. The company in February agreed to pay 16 workers a total of $137,000 after the state Department of Labor found that out-of-state workers who cleared Long Island Rail Road tracks of trees after Sandy were underpaid.
In that case, Agoglia had argued emergency storm tree cleanup didn't qualify as "public work" under state law, and therefore didn't require paying workers state prevailing wages.
A Looks Great Services attorney said at the time that the firm settled the case to avoid further litigation.
Also in February, the Nassau County district attorney's office reached a settlement with Looks Great, securing $25,924.87 for 23 workers the firm failed to pay the Nassau County living wage during Sandy.
The living wage violation -- not a crime -- brought the workers up to a rate of a little less than $15 an hour. Invoices show Nassau County alone paid Looks Great Services about $70 million for Sandy cleanup work.
In relation to the LIRR contract for pre-Sandy prevailing wage work, the Nassau district attorney's office secured $23,500.53 for 38 Looks Great workers as part of the conclusion of its investigation into the company. Looks Great agreed to pay another $7,000 toward the cost of the Nassau investigation. -- With Victor Ramos
and Randi Marshall