Improperly “giving a holiday gift to Amtrak contractors overseeing the project” got Chicago based MARK 1 Restoration slapped on the wrist almost as soon as work started. The watchdog didn’t even sniff the real graft. The multi-million dollar renovation of Philadelphia’s historic 30th Street train station was a perfect opportunity for kickbacks and rakeoffs.
Amtrak approved kickbacks
All it took was “a fruit basket and some gift cards” to get MARK 1 in trouble with the inspector general overseeing Amtrak. He made the train officials return the ill-gotten goodies and accepted the contractor’s apology with “a promise it would never happen again.”
There were no more gift baskets. Instead, there were “far more lavish gifts.” The project won awards when it was completed in the summer of 2020.
For the next two years, “MARK 1 executives participated in a scheme to bribe the Amtrak official overseeing their $58 million contract with far more lavish gifts, including trips to India and the Galapagos Islands, meals at an expensive steakhouse, lavish parties at Atlantic City casinos, tickets to see Bruno Mars, and even a German shepherd puppy that the company later paid to have trained.”
All the grisly details are in the court records unsealed in a Chicago federal court.
The quid pro-quo was considerable. “Amtrak official Ajith Bhaskaran “allegedly approved tens of millions of dollars of extra payments for MARK 1 over the course of the project.” The city got a really nice facade on their train station. It only cost about twice what was originally budgeted. Bhaskaran is dead now.
He was separately charged in 2019 in a scheme to defraud “the Social Security program out of a quarter-million dollars.” They’re calling it “natural causes.” Arsenic and cyanide are “natural,” cynics note.
No charges yet
When you put Chicago, Philadelphia and Union in the same sentence, the only words missing are graft and corruption. In this case, there aren’t any charges yet. The FBI raided MARK 1′s headquarters in November 2019, seizing “cellphones and other items from the company’s executive vice president and two other employees” working on the Philadelphia Amtrak project.
It all started with an anonymous tip in March of 2018 which directly led to the firing of “a management official who was allegedly taken out for drinks and entertainment” at a strip club. Another, “an Amtrak contractor, was provided a furnace for his church, a suit, and a pair of shoes.” Uncle Sam pays nearly the whole operating budget because the “for-profit company” runs about $4 billion in the red.
In December 2015, MARK 1 signed the contract with Amtrak, asking “to be paid $58.5 million to restore and clean the almost 90-year-old building’s limestone facade and provide a “complete window restoration.”
The building is listed in the historic register. By 2018 they had racked up $109 million in charges. That was more than enough to kick back things like “Steak dinner, cigars and whiskey.” Bhaskaran allegedly liked “Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, a high-end chain restaurant located in a renovated bank near City Hall.”
The Ashton Cigar Bar is nearby. “That same month, records show [Lee] Maniatis used his American Express card to purchase three round-trip tickets to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador for Bhaskaran, his daughter, and Baskaran’s paramour, according to the affidavit. In addition to the airfare, which cost nearly $6,000, Maniatis spent another $13,500 to reserve cruise tickets and lodging at La Selva, a spa retreat in the Ecuadorian jungle, for the trio.”
After “Bhaskaran OK’d another $5.7 million invoice for MARK 1, Maniatis promptly purchased round-trip airfare from New York to Kochi, India, for Bhaskaran and his daughter, at a cost of nearly $10,000,” an affidavit states. The Amtrak official got a German Shepherd and had it privately and expensively trained for him too. The world also learned that “two tickets to the Bruno Mars concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia” cost the taxpayers $2,127.