In two rapid-fire developments in the MacArthur Airport scandal, Islip's town engineer pleaded guilty to criminal charges for allowing a restaurant to open in violation of state fire-safety codes and town officials ordered it closed.
In the Suffolk County district attorney's office's first arrest in its probe of construction and financial irregularities at the airport, Steven Rizzo, 52, of Islip Terrace, pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, official misconduct and offering a false instrument for filing - two misdemeanors and a felony.
Appearing before Acting State Supreme Court Justice Michael Mullen in Riverhead, Rizzo agreed to cooperate with the investigation. He faces a year in jail.
After Rizzo's plea, District Attorney Thomas Spota said, "Today, we witnessed a Town of Islip high-level official publicly acknowledge that important safeguards were deliberately circumvented to the detriment of taxpayers of Suffolk County and the traveling public. The Town of Islip knew that serious violations existed in portions of the airport, yet the town and its consultants allowed certain construction to go forward."
Rizzo, who had been town engineer since April 1998, resigned from the $96,448-a-year post before his court appearance.
The charges resulted from a certificate of occupancy he signed in November 2004 that allowed a T.G.I. Friday's to open - even though state fire officials warned him twice that the lack of sprinklers outside the restaurant failed to meet state code, records obtained by Newsday show. Sprinklers are required in the terminal so that patrons fleeing a fire would be protected.
In addition to being a licensed engineer, Rizzo is a state-certified code enforcement officer. Asked yesterday by Assistant District Attorney Christopher McPartland if the construction at the restaurant violates state code, Rizzo answered, "Yes."
The manager at T.G.I. Friday's declined comment yesterday after the town ordered the restaurant closed, and referred calls to Bethesda, Md.-based HMS Host International. The calls were not returned.
Rizzo declined to speak to reporters, but his attorney, Steven Wilutis, said Rizzo had a "spotless record."
"He was misled, given erroneous information by people who know better. He was deceived," he said.
Both Wilutis and Spota said Rizzo was pressured to sign the paperwork by another town official, whom they declined to name. They said Rizzo has agreed to cooperate with the airport investigation, which is continuing.
"Now word is out," Wilutis said. "There's going to be a lot of concerned people, a lot of phone calls back and forth tonight."
Newsday reported yesterday that state officials had raised concerns about the lack of sprinklers more than a year ago, but the town allowed the restaurant to open anyway.
Acting Town Supervisor Eric Hofmeister said in a statement that Rizzo had been a "dedicated" public servant. "Hopefully, Steve and his family will get the chance to move beyond this terrible misstep. However, the Town of Islip will continue to investigate and correct any issues arising from this matter."
The town-owned airport, a regional transportation hub in Ronkonkoma that had more than 1 million people pass through it last year, has been undergoing an $82-million expansion by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines. Four new gates have opened and four more were due to open last month.
Former Supervisor Pete McGowan, who recently was released from jail after serving a 60-day sentence for taking campaign kickbacks, declined comment. Former town attorney Vincent Messina, who worked closely with McGowan on the airport expansion, also did not return a call for comment.
Sentencing for Rizzo is scheduled for Sept. 25.
The town was warned more than two years ago, but Islip officials did not address the problems until they became public.
Because building approvals - such as certificates of occupancy - had been issued for parts of the airport, fire inspections must have been done, town officials believe.
The hazards at Long Island McArthur Airport could cause an explosion or allow natural gas to be drawn into the terminal.
Air traffic controllers at MacArthur say conditions at the building, and blind spots on taxiways, pose hazard.