Whistleblower, Mary Ellen Belding, is an interview subject you come to reluctantly. Read through some of her Twitter posts, and you’ll have a sense of the overwhelming number of loose strands she can leave in even a few minutes’ time. By her own account, she has been made a wreck by the abuses she suffered. Belding was a notable innocent caught up in the muck that is impropriety in the New York State construction industry. She waded waist-deep in the New York State corruption everyone has a negative opinion of, but few can describe in the specific terms Belding can.
Abused by whom? It might be easier to name those in New York State who haven’t taken a swing: sharks in the construction industry, state agencies, creative partners that offered to help get her story out, neighborhood cops, and lawyers, mobs of lawyers. Condensing Belding’s experiences into something as compact as a People Magazine profile was my well-intentioned but perhaps impossible goal. Belding is a New York State whistleblower, which may mean something less glory-clad than being a whistleblower elsewhere.
If I had to choose an image to describe Belding’s mental state, the one that comes to mind is featured on an album cover by a locally famous musician and entrepreneur. I’m sure Belding, having lived her life in the area of Rochester, New York as I have, is aware of musician Armand Schaubroeck. The album is titled A Lot of People Would Like to See Armand Schaubroeck… Dead. The album cover features a smiling Schaubroeck, blood running down his face from a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. Belding may be smiling, may even be indomitable, but shots delivered by thugs are a defining aspect of her mind’s landscape.
To describe the scam that Belding initially found herself on the wrong side of—and there would be many more scams and court cases to follow—the gist of her origin story is this:
Belding worked for close to thirty years in construction in Rochester, New York, with her specialty being safety and labor management. She didn’t run jobs but knew the process intimately well to perform her responsibilities. She believed herself to be on good terms with her employer Dan Hogan, and she welcomed a new opportunity when he offered. The proposal was that Belding starts her own masonry and concrete company to subcontract work from the highly successful Crane-Hogan firm. Belding was open to the suggestion, and though she was as plugged-in as a woman would have to be not to be overwhelmed in such a male-dominated field, in some ways, she was naïve. She missed that she was being set up for participation in an illegal enterprise, a type of con known as a “pass-through.”
Belding—who comes off more like an average “mom” than you might expect of a whistleblower—had this to say about phone calls she received at her fledgling business, where she was asked if she handled pass-throughs:
“If I told you how many times it happened to me, you wouldn’t believe it. And, as a matter of fact, I’ll tell you one quick story. I was investigated by the Department of Defense Criminal Investigative Division, and this was an interrogation. We’re talking guns and eight hours. And I was very proud afterward, you know, once my knees stopped knocking, that this investigator told me he’d worked for the Department of Defense thirty years and I was the first contractor that was truly legitimate. He said because most of the time these small contractors, what they do is they’re involved in the fraud.”
A quick definition of a “pass-through” before we get further into Belding’s story:
Federal and state projects are awarded to contractors with the requirement to award a percentage of work to minority-owned or women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) to perform as subcontractors. A contractor, however, may illegally delegate work to non-MWBE subcontractors and attempt to hide the fact. For example, the contractor may pay an MWBE to act as a front, for which the MWBE will receive a small cut of what the actual subcontractor is paid.
Belding had this to say about MWBEs that accept and that illicit two—or higher—percent cut:
“Let’s say their contract was three million. Two percent is two percent. And they don’t have to do anything but sign some papers. They have no overhead, they have no engineers, they have no office. It’s a pass-through, and this is how I ended up getting involved is people would call me up and say, ‘Will you do a pass-through?’ I didn’t even know what they were talking about. And then, as I began to unravel it, I realized that that’s what my former boss had set me up for.”
Belding’s realization of her place in the scam meant next-to-nothing to those people who had maneuvered her to be there. It is at this point that a cascade of bullshit of historic proportions avalanched and decimated Belding’s life. Since that time, Belding has made various attempts to call out nefarious conduct, first Hogan’s but then others. She’s worked her way through nearly every agency you can name in an effort to come to some resolution, but that would prove to be an impossibility. She said:
“I was in quicksand and not knowing, to me coming from small-town Rochester, you know, going to Washington DC was like the epitome of government validity, right? They were gonna take care of everything and, you know, thinking that the corruption went from the bottom up and quite frankly what I had to find, it was from the top down. This was the playbook.”
When I interviewed Belding, the names of state and federal agencies tumbled from her, almost too many to keep track of. However, her stories of interactions with various agencies would often fall into a pattern repeat: An agency would show great initial interest, mine her for information about construction fraud and how to recognize it, and then leave her off with nothing. She said:
“I want to clarify that I was a whistleblower for the New York State Attorney General, I was an informant for the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice on two cases, and the EPA, as well as gave information to the U.S. Criminal Investigation Unit of the Department of Defense. All of these involved people that were illegally using me or had attempted to engage me in their corruption.”
“And, believing that these agencies that I had supported and worked with to identify the corruption and bid-rigging, and everything that was going on, only to find out that they used my information to cover up the crimes, I was devastated.”
While Belding continued to hope some new agency, the next one up the totem pole, would step in and set things right, she was bombarded on the home front by lawsuit after lawsuit. She wound up sued by her former employer Hogan on multiple bases. She also became the target of lawsuits from unexpected, sometimes previously-unknown corners in what might be described as a concentrated and deliberate mobbing. The cases seemed designed to bankrupt her or drive her over the edge. Belding recalled:
“I got an anonymous call; a good man, I mean a good person, was just trying to help me. He said, ‘Mary Ellen, you’re marked. Live the life you have left, you’re never going to get any help’, but that happened a lot.”
The battles she fought seemed to come from all sides: besides the courtroom troubles, and governmental agencies that benefitted more from her than she from them, contractors refused to pay bills owed to her firm, others bid fraudulently in her name to secure work with diversity stipulations; Belding’s employees embezzled and sabotaged her operations; Equipment was stolen from her job sites. In a moment, we’ll make an educated guess as to whether any of these were coordinated attacks. First, it’s worth noting her former employer’s reaction when she confronted him:
“I said to him one time, ‘Dan, you know me. What would ever make you think I would do something like this?’, and he said, ‘I will beat you until you break,’ and he meant it.”
Belding began to run her new business out from under Hogan’s wing and initially did well. But, in time, as covered, her life instead became dedicated to fighting fires. She said:
“He (Hogan) had fraudulently induced me under the scheme of rewarding me for all my hard work, dedication, and success, to support me in what he knew was a long-time life goal, which was to have my own company and to prove that it could be done.
“And he used that to manipulate me and fraudulently induce me into crime. When I refused to do it and stood up to him, things really began to fall apart.”
Now, before continuing with Belding’s story, I need to go on a slight tangent. After that, it will be a natural thing to make an educated guess as to how attacks against Belding could have been coordinated.
The first two articles of mine published by UncoverDC were easy. I was writing about subjects I was intimately familiar with. After that, I experimented with topics new to me, and it wasn’t until the article Target Your Neighbors that the trial and error process provided me with a solid strategy. Unfortunately, one of those early experiments, The Other Solyndra, left me a bit dissatisfied. I didn’t love the subject of illegal shenanigans in the construction industry and felt there was more to understand. However, I didn’t care to spend more time with the topic than was necessary.
I was introduced to Belding after that article while listening to a local podcast. Her story seemed to cover similar terrain to the Solyndra article. Why I thought that I’d have to attempt to contact Belding, though financial impropriety in the construction industry still wasn’t an interest, was something she’d said in an almost offhand way. She tossed out an opinion that there weren’t two political parties in Monroe County, New York; it was all one big uni-party. That’s a kind of corruption many suspect, but most of us haven’t had a look inside the envelope, as Belding has, to know how such a thing could work.
In the article The Other Solyndra, I tried to unravel tweets from an area town supervisor critical of Andrew Cuomo and bid-rigging in New York State. I insinuated in that article that Cuomo had engaged in mafia-like tactics. My allusion to Cuomo and mafia tactics wasn’t about holding the mob’s feet to the fire; It was about Cuomo’s character. Belding’s story, however, would bring the mob insinuation back again.
During our pre-interview, I asked Belding if some of the people who’d had it in for her were mafia. That wasn’t an angle suggested on the podcast. She told me she didn’t know when she initially dealt with them, but yes.
That’s a loaded contention. Belding didn’t attempt to guess who exactly in her travails may have been mob. About as explicit as she would get during our interview sessions was this comment:
“… And I was so desperate thinking that the government was gonna protect me, that, you know, it was the mob. A good portion of it. How much was the mob, how much was the government, how much was Hogan or other people, I don’t know.”