Owner of Construction Firm Pleads Guilty in Fatal Wall Collapse

A New Jersey construction company executive has pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating safety rules at a Hudson Valley work site where a worker was killed when a concrete wall collapsed in 2017, officials said.

The executive, Finbar O’Neill, the principal owner of Onekey, LLC, endangered workers’ safety at the site by taking shortcuts and sidestepping safety regulations, prosecutors said. The negligence led to the death of Maximiliano Saban, an employee of a subcontractor on the job, prosecutors said. A second worker was injured.

The guilty plea, entered on Thursday, “should serve as a reminder to all businesses that failure to comply with safety regulations endangers their workers and unfairly disadvantages business that are following the rules,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.

Mr. O’Neill, whose company was the general contractor on the project, pleaded guilty toa misdemeanor count of willful violation of regulations resulting in a death, prosecutors said. He faces up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 when he is sentenced in May. The company pleaded to the same charge and faces a fine of up to $500,000.

Mr. O’Neill’s lawyer, Scott A. Resnik, said that his client and the company hoped that the plea “can help bring closure to this incident, for not only themselves, but also for the family of the construction worker who passed away as a result of the accident in 2017.”

The charges against Mr. O’Neill, which were filed in July, nearly five years after Mr. Saban’s death, were not the first criminal accusations he has faced in New York.

About 20 years ago, he pleaded guilty to helping Manuel Gonzalez, a Bronx parking lot manager, launder money for a former state senator who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to take bribes.

In 2009, he was indicted on corruption charges in a scheme that prosecutors said involved contractors working with leaders of a carpenter’s union to steal millions of dollars from the union and its benefits funds. Prosecutors said that those charged in the case had paid members cash wages below union scale without benefits; had hired undocumented workers and nonunion workers and had skipped making contributions to the benefits funds.

After pleading guilty, Mr. O’Neill said he would “spend the rest of my life living with the consequences of my actions and working to repair the damage I had caused to others and to myself and to my family,” according to a transcript of the proceeding.

In the case that led to his guilty plea this week, prosecutors said Mr. O’Neill was told that the wall, which was holding back a large pile of dirt, was unsafe and could collapse and kill someone and that he “responded that he did not care.”

The piles of dirt, placed where buildings were to be constructed and called “surcharge piles,” were initially designed by engineers to slope at 45 degree angles, and the plans did not include a wall, prosecutors said.

Mr. O’Neill, without consulting engineers, decided that workers would begin building next to one of the piles, which was about 15 feet high, and ordered that a concrete wall be built to contain the dirt. Even as the dirt pressed against the wall, prosecutors said, Mr. O’Neill continued to pile on more.

People working at the site, including the superintendent, advised Mr. O’Neill several times that the wall was a hazard, prosecutors said, but he was indifferent. He was warned on the day of Mr. Saban’s death as well, prosecutors said. When the wall fell, Mr. Saban ran but could not get clear before being killed, prosecutors said.

“They knew the wall was a hazard, but they failed to correct it,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

Mr. Saban’s widow filed a wrongful-death suit against Mr. O’Neill’s companies and the subcontractors her husband worked for. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2020.

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