Two days after Christmas 2021 and days before he would become the mayor of New York City, Eric Adams broke bread at Aldo’s Ozone Park, a Queens pizzeria he favored. Across the white linen-covered table sat some local businessmen who’d raised more than $140,000 for his campaign for City Hall.
One of those present was Michael Mazzio, co-owner and operator of Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing, a Brooklyn company that had for years been assigned by the City of New York to tow disabled vehicles from local highways, a highly lucrative designation for Mazzio.
As he sat down with Adams that winter’s day, Mazzio, 54, had many reasons to get the incoming mayor in his corner.
His tow truck company’s license had been revoked the previous year by the city consumer affairs agency, which had charged him with routinely gouging vehicle owners with illegal fees and obstructing the agency’s efforts to investigate his company.
Mazzio had a pending lawsuit against the city to get that license back, accusing the consumer agency under Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio, of unfairly punishing him for doing the same things another competitor had done who wasn’t punished.
And most seriously, he was facing felony false filing and bid rigging conspiracy charges filed by the Manhattan District Attorney that could put him in jail for up to four years.
But Mazzio had reason for hope: other attendees of the post-Christmas pizza sit-down were Aldo’s owners, Anthony and Joseph Livreri, who’d co-sponsored a big-ticket fundraiser for Adams with Mazzio the previous August that had netted the then-candidate one of his biggest donation hauls of the entire campaign.
Also present was Eric Ulrich, a Republican City Council member from Queens who’d endorsed Adams early on in the Democratic primary and was now expected to win a high-ranking slot in the incoming Adams administration.
One week ago the attendees of that fateful meeting — minus Adams — came together again, indicted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in a wide-ranging bribery scheme that accused Mazzio, the Livreris and three others of regularly paying off Ulrich — appointed by Adams as a senior advisor and then building commissioner — to do favors for them.
On Thursday Adams’ spokesperson Charles Lutvak declined to respond to THE CITY’s questions about what Adams knew about Mazzio’s pending criminal case at the time of the Aldo’s sit-down, and whether Adams discussed any of Mazzio’s pending licensing issues.
Laundry List of Favors
Ulrich, the Livreris and three other co-defendants were arraigned last week on a host of charges, but Mazzio claimed he’d been potentially exposed to COVID and did not appear in court. All the others pleaded not guilty. Mazzio’s lawyer, Joseph Froccaro, said his client intends to plead not guilty when he’s arraigned on the new bribery charges Friday.
The indictments filed by Bragg describe bribe payments made to obtain a wide variety of favors, most of which involved Ulrich smoothing out bureaucratic speedbumps. The Livreris, for example, sought Ulrich’s assistance to get rid of health code violations at Aldo’s and building department shutdown of the Fortunato bakery in Brooklyn.
In Mazzio’s case, the laundry list of favors from City Hall prosecutors say he sought by bribing Ulrich was wider and deeper.
Mazzio’s problems with the City of New York began in February 2018, when then-Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance charged him and his brothers, Angelo and Salvatore, with participating in a scheme to game New York City’s system of regulating which towing companies get to haul away disabled vehicles on city highways.
The city screens and licenses tow companies, then assigns them specific segments of highways where they’re allowed to haul away vehicles. Responding to a collision, the NYPD summons only tow companies assigned to designated sections of highway. Those companies can’t subcontract the work to other firms, in part to make sure the city is aware of who is actually doing this work on city streets.
Prosecutors allege from 2015 through 2017, Mazzio and his brothers — who controlled the permits for several highway segments — secretly subcontracted the work out to other tow companies with a propensity for violence. The subcontracted firms, controlled by a man named Daniel Steininger, paid the Mazzios a $20,000 quarterly fee and a percentage of the proceeds from resulting insurance claims, prosecutors say.
Steininger — who was indicted alongside the Mazzios — allegedly encouraged his drivers to “show some force” and “cause a ruckus” with competitors if they showed up in areas they considered to be their turf. In one case, a Steininger driver allegedly assaulted a bystander following an altercation with a competitor. In other cases, Steininger drivers damaged the trucks of competitors in a process they called “blasting,” prosecutors alleged.
In 2017, the NYPD opened up bidding to tow companies seeking to service several highway segments. Prosecutors say Mazzio and the Steiningers “manipulated the application and bidding process to establish a monopoly on arterial towing jobs involving city highways.”
“The defendants worked in concert to maintain a violent monopoly on the city’s towing business, the kind of industry wide racket that harkens back to an earlier era,” Vance declared.
Heavy Duty Charges
Mazzio was charged with three counts each of first-degree filing false documents, conspiracy fifth degree and business fraud and pleaded not guilty. The indictment triggered the city Department of Consumer Affairs (now called the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, or DCWP) to investigate Mazzio’s company, Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing, when his license came up for renewal.
First DCWP discovered that the day before the DA’s indictment, Mazzio transferred his 24% ownership of Mike’s Heavy Duty to his mother, Margaret. When the DCWP sent over subpoenas requesting a raft of documents, Mazzio claimed they were unavailable because they’d been seized by the DA.
Then the consumer agency started looking at what Mike’s was charging car owners involved in collisions. Under the arterial program, city code mandates tow companies can’t charge more than $125 for towing a disabled passenger vehicle for the first 10 miles towed, plus storage fees of no more than $25 per day for the first three days.
The agency found Mike’s regularly added on vague and illegal fees dubbed “admin,” “labor,” “yard” and “misc.” Mike’s hit vehicle owners with charges ranging from $150 to $541. In some cases, DCWP cited vehicle owners who said Mike’s wouldn’t allow them access to their vehicles for days, which allowed Mike’s to run up storage fees. One owner was charged more than $6,000.
By 2020, DCWP officials said they had documented 387 examples where Mike’s charged fees “not permitted by law or rules.” That April they denied Mazzio’s license renewal, citing rampant price gouging and alleging that Mazzio obstructed their investigation by denying the existence of certain records they’d subpoenaed, including the towing company’s bank accounts.
That July Mazzio responded, filing suit against DCWP denying the allegations. The law firm handling the suit was Abrams Fensterman, the firm that at the time employed power broker attorney Frank Carone as a partner. In January 2022, Adams named Carone his chief of staff.
Melanie Wiener, the Abrams Fensterman lawyer handling Mazzio’s lawsuit, did not respond to THE CITY’s request for comment.
The DCWP revocation of the license was put on hold while the lawsuit unfolded, so Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing was allowed to continue towing disabled vehicles with the city’s permission until a settlement is reached. The case remains pending.
Bribes on a Wire?
According to Bragg, Mazzio’s efforts to lobby the top levels of the Adams administration began almost immediately after Adams arrived at City Hall.
Though he was still facing felony bid-rigging and enterprise corruption charges — and the city had already moved to revoke his license — Mazzio apparently felt the new regime at City Hall would treat him differently. And his key to opening the right doors was Ulrich, the Republican City Council member set to become a senior advisor to the new mayor.
Unbeknownst to Mazzio and Ulrich, Bragg had obtained permission from a judge to wiretap Ulrich’s phone. The secret recording began Nov. 4, just two days after Adams was elected, and continued for a year until Ulrich resigned his position in the Adams administration when word of the bribery investigation surfaced.
Prosecutors charge that over the past two years, Mazzio bribed Ulrich with cash and Mets season tickets worth nearly $10,000. In exchange, Ulrich promised Mazzio help with multiple issues, including “resolving licensing issues with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.”
That was just the start. Two weeks into the Adams administration, Joseph Livreri spoke with another individual identified as John Doe 1 that Ulrich had “recommended a candidate for ‘consumers,’” and John Doe 1 responded “that’s a big deal for Mike.” The DA alleged Ulrich tried to influence Adams’ choice to run the DCWP — the agency that pulled Mazzio’s license.
Two weeks later Ulrich set up talks between the Livreris, Mazzio and Adams’ chief advisor, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, to try and win approval for Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing to tow from the city’s highways during snowstorms. Mazzio also tried to convince Lewis-Martin and other high ranking city officials “to remove a competing tow truck company from its arterial towing contract,” the indictment alleges.
Prosecutors did not name the company, and the NYPD, which oversees the tow truck assignments, declined to answer THE CITY’s questions about whether the scope of Mike’s tow assignments grew in the last two years, citing the ongoing litigation.
Then, in February 2022, prosecutors allege, Mazzio asked Ulrich to get his daughter, a city Department of Correction employee, a better paying job within that agency. After Ulrich made some calls, Ulrich told Mazzio the department commissioner had offered the daughter a job as a $52,000-a-year policy analyst — a $20,000 jump in her salary.
About two weeks later, Mazzio paid for a 20-game premium Mets season ticket package worth $9,400 he’d arranged to get for Ulrich, using a Mike’s Heavy Duty credit card.
Then the dynamic shifted. Ulrich would later tell prosecutors that Adams had advised him to “watch your phone” during a conversation they had in early May 2022. A few days later Ulrich, Mazzio and an unidentified individual dubbed John Doe #1 met at the Cross Bay Diner in Howard Beach. “They all placed their cellphones on a windowsill approximately 10 feet away from where they were seated,” the indictment alleges.
The indictment describes one last meeting between Ulrich, Mazzio and Lewis-Martin. That allegedly took place on June 27, 2022 at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant called Philippe Chow.
By then Adams had promoted Ulrich from senior advisor to commissioner of the Department of Buildings, a position he held until November 1, 2022, when he suddenly resigned as word leaked out about the Manhattan DA’s investigation.
That day, the mayor’s press secretary, Fabien Levy, stated that Ulrich “was open about the challenges he had overcome, had gone through a standard background investigation, and was building a strong record of success at the Buildings Department. We have no reason to believe the investigation is focusing on his time at City Hall.”
Mayoral spokesperson Charles Lutvak said earlier this week that Levy was referring to an in-house background check performed by the mayor’s office — not the mandated background vetting performed by the independent Department of Investigation. Because Ulrich took nine months to turn in the required documents, questionnaires and waivers for DOI to begin its due diligence, his DOI investigation had not yet been finished by the time he stepped down.