Federal charges for bridge workers who disturbed falcon nest

A mother peregrine falcon at her nest in City Hall, where she is caring for four baby falcons hatched in late April. (File photo: Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
A mother peregrine falcon at her nest in City Hall, where she is caring for four baby falcons hatched in late April. (File photo: Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 23, 2014

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Mikhail Zubialevich, a federal defendant accused of making a false statement to investigators, had pleaded guilty. He entered a not guilty plea at a court hearing Wednesday.

The disturbance of a peregrine falcon nest under the Girard Point Bridge has led to criminal charges against three members of a bridge repair crew accused of covering up harm they inflicted on the threatened animals, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The men, who worked for the Philadelphia company Liberty Maintenance and the Maryland firm Alpha Painting, are charged with conspiracy, witness tampering, and harboring an alien in connection with the 2011 project to refurbish the bridge.

Prosecutors say Nikolaos Frangos, part-owner of Liberty, and George Capuzello, the project foreman, ordered their employees to ignore restrictions on the work site meant to protect the falcon nest.

As a result, workers with heavy construction equipment scared off the birds, which abandoned their unhatched eggs, investigators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Once the damage was done, authorities say, Frangos and Capuzello lied to investigators about the unauthorized work in an attempt to cover up the fact that they had several undocumented immigrants working on the site.

One of those men - Mikhail Zubialevich, known on the work crew as "Russian Mike" - was charged along with his bosses with making false statements to investigators. He pleaded not guilty during an initial appearance in federal court Wednesday.

Another worker, Walter Morgan, pleaded guilty in February to taking or destroying a migratory bird egg.

Frangos' lawyer, William DeStefano, said Wednesday he did not understand why prosecutors had targeted his client. "These guys paint bridges," he said. "It's not the case of the century."

The Liberty-Alpha joint venture won a $70 million contract from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to repair the bridge in 2009.

As part of the deal, the firm was required to work around the falcon nesting season and employ a dedicated environmental expert to ensure the birds' safety.

Peregrine falcons were removed from the federal list of endangered species in 1999.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

Inquirer staff writer Sandy Bauers contributed to this article.

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