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Shafted: NYCHA Elevator Chief Suspended

The elevator banks at Boston Road Plaza in The Bronx.
The elevator banks at Boston Road Plaza in The Bronx. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The New York City Housing Authority has suspended the head of its elevator division amid an ongoing investigation into inspectors falsely claiming to have performed preventive maintenance, THE CITY has learned.

Early last week, NYCHA moved to fire Ivo Nikolic, the $148,000-a-year director of the unit that’s responsible for keeping the authority’s 3,277 elevators up and running. By Thursday, posters went up barring him from NYCHA properties, stating “DENY ACCESS” above his photo.

Underneath the picture of Nikolic is written: “Terminated 2/5/19.”
Nikolic’s removal last Tuesday followed the city’s January 31 agreement to the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee NYCHA, landlord to some 400,000 New Yorkers.

The deal, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson, resolves an investigation by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney that documented a disturbing edit and persistent failure to address deteriorating conditions — including busted elevators — at NYCHA’s 325 aging housing complexesacross the city.

Ivo Nikolic was removed from his position overseeing NYCHA’s elevator safety. Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

Nikolic began working at NYCHA in 2014 and was tapped in April 2016 to replace the head of the long troubled elevator unit after an elderly tenant was killed in a horrific Christmas Eve elevator accident at Boston Road Plaza, a Bronx housing development for seniors.

During his tenure, three mid-level supervisors in Nikolic’s unit allegedly filed reports falsely certifying that specific elevator maintenance was performed at several developments, a city Department of Investigation probe revealed. The three were arrested after being charged by the Manhattan district attorney in November, and the investigation is ongoing.

For years, the authority’s elevators have broken down on a fairly regular basis. The average time to restore a broken elevator got worse during Nikolic’s tenure, rising from 8.7 hours in the 2016 fiscal year to 10.3 hours in the 2018 fiscal year. On average, every single NYCHA elevator broke down at least once per month every year since his arrival.

The number of alleged injuries spiked his first year at 20, but has since dropped to seven in the current fiscal year.

Boston Road Plaza.
Boston Road Plaza. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On Thursday, NYCHA confirmed to THE CITY that Nikolic had been suspended and that the authority is moving to fire him.

Jasmine Blake, a NYCHA spokeswoman, said, “Nikolic was suspended based on allegations of workplace misconduct unrelated to the safety or operation of elevators.”

Nikolic’s attorney, Marcel Florestal, told THE CITY on Monday that his client has not been told why he was suspended.

Three Busted for Alleged False Filings

“My client is cooperating with the NYCHA investigation,” said Florestal. “My client has not been told why he is being targeted by NYCHA. We are prepared to establish by a preponderance of evidence that we have done nothing wrong.”

The three elevator administrators busted in November by the Manhattan DA all reported directly to Nikolic. Prosecutors say the trio made the false filings to meet benchmarks set by the elevator unit Nikolic ran to perform preventive maintenance on a set number of elevators each month.

The three have pleaded not guilty. A judge rejected their lawyers’ motions to dismiss the charges.

Memorial photo of Olegario Pabon.
Memorial photo of Olegario Pabon. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Nikolic began running the elevator unit about five months after the December 24, 2015, death of 84-year-old Olegario Pabon, who was killed while stepping out of an elevator that jerked upward.

NYCHA managers had been warned about the dysfunctional elevator shortly before Pabon stepped inside, but did nothing, the city Department of Investigation found. DOI also discovered a brake monitor had been disabled in the lift, and found more monitors unplugged in 80 other elevators system-wide.

NYCHA took disciplinary action against five employees, demoted the then-head of the elevator unit and made Nikolic head of the unit. As a result, his salary went from $106,000 to $130,000 in 2016, then jumped to $148,000 in 2017.

Shortly after Nikolic took over, the false filings began, prosecutors said. Between June 2016 and December 2017, the three mid-level supervisors handed in 33 reports falsely reporting preventive maintenance that never happened, according to prosecutors.

The three supervisors submitted bogus records “to help NYCHA meet certain elevator preventive maintenance benchmarks,” court filings state. Nikolic was responsible for enforcing those benchmarks.

Last week at the Boston Road Plaza development where Pabon died three years ago, tenants complained that elevators there often break down, particularly in the summer. For senior citizen tenants like Ray Orta who live on the upper floors, that can be a nightmare.

“This place is pathetic,” said Orta, 76. “I’ve had to walk to the 18th floor.”

This story was originally published in Intelligencer at nymag.com.