Tortilla Factory Owner Arrested Over Business Practices

The owner of a Brooklyn tortilla factory where a worker died after falling into a mixing machine has been arrested on charges of underpaying employees, falsifying business records and violating workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance laws, the authorities said on Wednesday.

The owner, Erasmo Ponce, faces 26 felony counts and 23 misdemeanor counts, according to a complaint filed in Brooklyn Criminal Court by Eric T. Schneiderman, the state’s attorney general. Mr. Ponce surrendered to the authorities on Tuesday and was arraigned and released without bail, his lawyer said.

Mr. Ponce, a Mexican immigrant, declined to comment on the charges, but his lawyer, Manuel Portela, said he did not think the case merited criminal prosecution.

“We’ve been trying to resolve this case on an administrative level,” Mr. Portela said, adding that his client “wants to resolve it and move forward in a way that is fair and equitable.”

Mr. Ponce’s company, Tortilleria Chinantla, has been operating under the investigative glare of state and federal officials since Jan. 24, 2011, when Juan Baten, a Guatemalan worker at his tortilla factory in Bushwick, died after falling into a large machine used to mix tortilla dough. Mr. Baten was crushed in the machine’s churning mechanism.

Several days later, state officials shut down the factory after discovering that the company had been operating without workers’ compensation insurance for nearly a year.

The state eventually allowed the factory to reopen, but in July 2011, the federal government cited the company for workplace safety violations carrying fines of more than $62,000. The most serious violation, deemed “willful,” involved the failure of the company to install a barrier on the mixer to prevent employees from coming into contact with its fast-moving machinery.

Ted Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which conducted that investigation, said Wednesday that the tortilla company had contested the citations and penalties and that the case was still pending.

Mr. Baten’s death and the ensuing investigations have darkened the reputation of Mr. Ponce, whose life had followed the classic trajectory of the striving, up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant.

Mr. Ponce was poor when he moved to the United States from Mexico in 1989 and, after a few years of doing manual labor and saving money, he started a small tortilla-making vending business in New York. Within a decade the company grew into a national enterprise with revenue of several million dollars a year.

His success made him one of the wealthiest and most influential members of the city’s growing Mexican diaspora, and he burnished his reputation by donating to various social and political causes in the New York region and in Mexico.

While he declined to speak on Wednesday about the new set of charges against him, Mr. Ponce chatted enthusiastically about a ceremony he was hosting on Saturday to christen a new mural on his factory’s facade. It depicts a workers laboring in a cornfield, he said, and has been popular with the neighbors.

“I am working well with the community,” he said.

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Council Bans Stickers of Shame, Overriding Mayor’s Veto

Neon colors may be back in fashion, but neon stickers are officially out — at least at the city’s Sanitation Department.

The 25-year-old effort to shame New Yorkers who violate alternate-side parking rules by plastering neon stickers on their vehicles officially ended on Wednesday afternoon, as the City Council unanimously voted to outlaw them, overriding a veto by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The sheer stickiness of the stickers has driven many New Yorkers to distraction over the years. David G. Greenfield, a councilman from Brooklyn who sponsored the bill, said some of his constituents had hired professional mechanics to remove them.

Since Mr. Greenfield introduced the bill, he said, constituents have continually approached him with their horror stories. One resident said he left his car in an alternate-side parking zone after he rushed to the hospital for a medical emergency, only to find a sticker on his vehicle, leaving it “permanently defaced.”

“Hands down,” Mr. Greenfield added, “this is the most popular piece of legislation I have introduced.”

In January, the Council first voted to outlaw the stickers, contending that they violated New Yorkers’ due process by assuming motorists’ guilt without allowing an opportunity to prove their innocence.

Sanitation officials objected, testifying at Council hearings that city streets over all were cleaner since the city introduced the stickers. And last month, Mr. Bloomberg vetoed the bill, even though it was clear that the Council had more then enough votes to override it.

In a letter dated Feb. 17, 2012, the mayor wrote that he had vetoed the legislation because the stickers helped preserve clean streets, an issue he called “an important quality-of-life concern for all New York City residents.”

Nonetheless, Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker, spoke more of the concerns raised by those who received the stickers, and admitted that when she had gotten one, it was a “multiday effort” to remove it. She disputed the administration’s claims that the stickers made New York City cleaner.

“There’s little evidence that these big, ugly, hard-to-remove stickers have improved street cleanliness,” she said. “Our law will put an end to these unnecessary scarlet letters, once and for all.”

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On ‘Mad Men,’ an Opening Scene Straight From Page 1

The opening scenes of Sunday’s season five premiere of “Mad Men,” set in 1966, depicted a sort of knucklehead-racism at work, when young men from the ad agency Young & Rubicam dropped bags filled with water on protesters picketing on the Madison Avenue sidewalk below. Wet and angry, several protesters came upstairs to demand to know who at the firm had dropped the water bombs.

One protester said in disgust, “And they call us savages.”

Some critics found the scene a bit too on-the-nose. “It’s a terrible line that should have been red-penciled,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz for New York magazine. Mike Hale of The New York Times called it “unfortunately ham-handed.”

But no writer is to blame.

Everything in the scene really happened, written almost verbatim from an article on Page 1 of The New York Times on May 28, 1966.

“Poverty Pickets Get Paper-Bag Dousing on Madison Avenue,” read the headline. The article described more than 300 people picketing the Office of Economic Opportunity, between East 40th and 41st Streets, the day before, chanting, “O-E-O, we’ve got the poverty, where’s the dough?” Executives upstairs at Young & Rubicam, half a block from the building, shouted at the protesters, and hung up signs saying “If you want money, get yourself a job.”

And then: “A container of water was pitched out of one of the windows of the building, splashing two spectators,” the article said. “Later, two demonstrators were hit by water-filled paper bags thrown from the building.”

A 9-year-old boy was struck. Several women in the protest, including the boy’s mother, hurried up to the advertising agency’s sixth-floor offices and confronted a secretary about the water throwing.

“This is the executive floor,” the secretary said. “That’s utterly ridiculous.”

“Don’t you call us ridiculous,” a protester shouted. “Is this what Madison Avenue represents?”

“And they call us savages,” a protester named Vivian Harris said.

Somewhere in the room was John Kifner, a cub reporter for The Times who had been hired as a copyboy three years earlier.

“Kif,” as he is still known in the newsroom, would go on to cover more or less every armed conflict on planet Earth in the decades that followed, but on this day in 1966, he was on Madison Avenue.

Forty-five years later, Allison Mann, head of research for the writers of “Mad Men,” came across Kif’s clip while scanning front pages from that time, and gave it to Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator.

“I was blown away,” Mr. Weiner said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I just loved the level of outrage from the participants in the protest. It was so eloquently said, and it struck to the heart of the conflict. They were being lampooned. This was a very serious issue for them and a joke to everyone else.”

He quickly decided to keep Mr. Kifner’s dialogue. “His story was such that I thought it inviolable,” Mr. Weiner said. “The way that quote-unquote ‘average person’ got to the heart of it was way better than any writer could have made up. If I had concocted the story, I would have never written that. It was a great capturing of the lack of respect, which is to me what a lot of the show is about.”

He toyed with the idea of having characters from his fictional firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce dropping the water, but chose to keep the action at Y&R. “It was not a slight at Y&R at all,” he said. “It’s something I thought our agency would be amused by.”

David Sable, the present-day chief executive of Y&R, was not amused.

“Part of that story is sad but true — a few idiots dropped water balloons on protesters some 50 years ago,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “What I don’t know was whether or not they were fired. I certainly hope they were. Needless to say, their behavior was completely repulsive and not in line with the values of our company.”

The critics, informed that the scene that seemed to them to be wooden was in fact born of flesh and blood, stood their ground.

Mr. Hale: “There is no connection between the fact that it actually happened and the scene was taken from a New York Times article and whether the scene was any good or not.”

Of the “savages” quote, he said, “When she said that, it just rings so false.”

Mr. Seitz: It’s good to know that all that actually happened, but it’s still a terrible line in context of the scene, because it’s an editorial summing-up that tells us all how to feel.”

Mr. Kifner, 70, has no recollection of that day.

“There was a lot of poverty and racial stuff,” he said. “I had the poverty beat. It’s so long ago, and so many stories. I can’t remember.”

Mr. Kifner does not watch “Mad Men” — “My sister watches it,” he said – but when told he basically wrote a key scene for the hit show, he said: “No kidding! That’s great.”

There is a reporter in the background of the “Mad Men” scene, scribbling notes, a fictional Kif. “He knew that he had stumbled into a way better story than what he had shown up for,” Mr. Weiner said. “He is the poster for why somebody would want to be a journalist when they grow up. The whole thing smacks of adventure and intellect.”


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Suit Accuses Police of Violating Rights of Residents in Private Buildings

Updated, 12:50 p.m. | A civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday accusing the New York Police Department of carrying out tens of thousands of unjustified stops in privately owned buildings in the city where the landlords have authorized officers to enter and given them keys.

The suit, which seeks class action status, mirrors a claim in a separate federal lawsuit against the Police Department involving stops inside public housing projects.

The Police Department has come under intense criticism for its stop-and-frisk practices, which detractors say unfairly and overwhelmingly targets blacks and Latinos. The Police Department argues that its tactics, including the patrolling of private buildings, have contributed to a sharp reduction in crime.

“By challenging uninvited individuals, police are providing a level of safety to tenants that residents of doormen buildings take for granted,” said Paul J Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman.

The suit, filed Wednesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, involves what is known as the “Clean Halls” program and includes 16,000 buildings throughout the city, many of them in the Bronx. Landlords who participate in the program register with the Police Department.

Civil rights lawyers say police officers view the invitation to enter — denoted by a metal sign outside a building — as a license to roam hallways, laundry rooms and stairwells questioning people and making arrests on charges of trespassing that are sometimes unjustified. Some residents feel compelled to carry identification when doing mundane tasks like retrieving mail or doing laundry for fear of being arrested for trespassing, the suit said.

Beyond that, officers have extended this practice to sidewalks around the buildings that participate in the program, according to lawyers for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Besides residents, visitors and people in the vicinity of the buildings are often stopped by the police.

As a result, the suit said, “Residents of some Clean Halls Buildings warn
their friends, family members, and others not to visit them for fear that they will be stopped, questioned, searched, and issued summonses or arrested for trespassing by NYPD officers. Consequently, residents of Clean Halls Buildings are restricted in their ability to maintain
familial ties, friendships, and other relationships with individuals of their choosing.”

At a news conference in Manhattan on Wednesday, several plaintiffs spoke of living under such conditions that too often feel like a police state.

The suit details the experiences of several residents of privately-owned buildings who claim to be stopped by the police even though they had committed any wrongdoing.

In one instance, a 17-year-old boy who lives in a building in the Bronx describes being stopped by the police and questioned after returning from buying ketchup for dinner. His mother, according to the suit, was asked by officers to come down to the lobby of the building and verify her son’s identify.


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