Embattled Tree Bros Hang on to City Pruning Contract With DOI Monitorship
When the sibling owners of Dragonetti Brothers Landscaping were indicted in an insurance scam last year, tree maintenance in Brooklyn and Queens was put on hold. But the city Department of Investigation is working with Parks officials to rev up the chainsaws again.
A top tree-trimming firm whose owners were charged last year with insurance fraud has been placed under the city Department of Investigation’s monitorship — a legal limbo so it can resume work pruning trees in the city’s two biggest boroughs as the case proceeds, officials said.
Brooklyn-based Dragonetti Brothers Landscaping is one of just a handful of private firms who work on trees maintained by the Parks Department, along with performing other city work. But last September, brothers Nicholas and Vito Dragonetti were indicted on accusations of evading more than $1 million in insurance premiums while repairing city roads and sidewalks, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Since their arrests, however, public tree trimming in Brooklyn and Queens has been nonexistent, Brooklyn Paper reported last week, even as branch work in other boroughs is just being reinstated after COVID cuts.
“Routine block pruning in Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island is ongoing,” Crystal Howard, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department, told THE CITY in a statement this week. “We expect pruning in Queens and Brooklyn to resume this fall and to reach the annual goal of 65,000 street trees pruned in Fiscal 2023.”
The Parks Department only recognizes a few landscaping companies as qualified to do the work, so officials went back to the scandal-tarred Dragonetti Brothers — awarding them an $8.39 million contract in August for “emergency tree services in The Bronx and Manhattan,” according to the city comptroller.
A more than $7 million contract for Queens tree pruning will kick in soon, while a more than $5 million contract for Brooklyn tree pruning is in the final review stages, the Parks Department told THE CITY.
The company also has secured at least $35 million worth of work across nine contracts with multiple other city agencies, including the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Design and Construction, according to the comptroller.
A Branching Investigation
In order to resume work with the city, Dragonetti Brothers has agreed to create/operate a blind trust for their company, according to documents filed with the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services and people familiar with the deal.
They’ve also entered monitorship with the city’s Department of Investigation, and that monitor reports to the commissioner, according to DOI’s spokesperson Diane Struzzi.
Nick Dragonetti is still listed in the city’s contract portal as an “officer” of the company in the city’s directory required for all contractors. Neither he nor Vito Dragonetti could be reached for comment.
Jonathan Flaxer, a partner at Manhattan-based law firm Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell and Peskoe who specializes in business bankruptcy practice, is also listed as the company’s trustee. Reached by phone, he declined to comment.
Between 2017 and 2019, Dragonetti Brothers allegedly misclassified multiple employees in their applications for workers’ compensation insurance so the firm wouldn’t have to pay the premiums, according to an indictment jointly announced last fall by then-Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett.
The company had labeled laborers, foremen, and heavy-equipment operators as florists, officer workers, or sales reps to avoid paying higher insurance rates for them, according to prosecutors.
Dragonetti Brothers has held hundreds of contracts with the city since 1998, focusing on parks landscaping, maintenance, and sidewalk and pedestrian crosswalk construction, according to the Manhattan DA.
The company’s website proclaims, “We have been creating and maintaining beautiful landscapes throughout New York City for over four decades.”
A Budget for Trimming
There are approximately 650,000 street trees in the city plus 2 million more in city parks, all maintained by the Parks Department, according to city data. Last fiscal year, the agency pruned 43,463 street trees — but only in The Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan.
The Parks Department currently works with eight companies, in addition to in-house crews, on tree planting and maintenance work, including pest maintenance and removing dead tree stumps.
Last year, The Nature Conservancy released a report on the city’s “urban forest,” highlighting the challenges to the city’s tree pruning schedule. Routine tree maintenance is done on a seven-year cycle, they noted, but the budget for the program can fluctuate.
All that work requires the city to contract out to other companies for necessary maintenance.
“Maintaining NYC Parks’ proactive, comprehensive approach to urban forestry would require the city to increase and baseline budgets for activities like programmed tree pruning,” the report found.
Nelson Villarrubia, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Trees New York, said it’s important to prune trees to increase their resiliency to everything from hurricanes to snow storms.
“Pruning helps a tree develop a strong habit, which is a growth pattern for the tree,” he told THE CITY.
His organization, launched in 1976, has an active pool of around 2,000 “citizen pruners” who work mostly on the younger street trees. Villarrubia said he hopes the city better streamlines its bidding process so the Parks Department can work with more organizations on tree pruning and other maintenance.
“I think we all need to recognize as a city and for city funding … tree maintenance is just as important as tree planting, and they both need to be valued in the same way,” he said.