Feds: Chicago-area company bribed Amtrak official with Bruno Mars tickets, trips, steaks and cigars in $100 million Philadelphia train station renovation

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·13 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Shortly after starting work on the multimillion dollar renovation of the historic Philadelphia train station, Chicago-area company MARK 1 Restoration was reprimanded for improperly giving a holiday gift to Amtrak contractors overseeing the project.

It was a small gesture, really, just a fruit basket and some gift cards to the Cheesecake Factory and Buffalo Wild Wings. Still, following a brief investigation by Amtrak’s inspector general, the gifts were returned with an apology from MARK 1 and a promise it would never happen again.

But that allegedly was just an appetizer.

For two years after the fruit basket incident, 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, according to federal court records unsealed in Chicago.

In return, the Amtrak official, Ajith Bhaskaran, allegedly approved tens of millions of dollars of extra payments for MARK 1 over the course of the project to restore the facade of Philadelphia’s 30th Street train station, nearly doubling the amount promised in the original contract, FBI search warrant affidavits filed in Chicago as part of a sweeping bribery investigation show.

FBI agents raided MARK 1′s headquarters on Maryland Avenue in Dolton in November 2019, and also seized cellphones and other items from the company’s executive vice president and two other employees involved in the Philadelphia project, the records show.

No one has been charged so far in the ongoing investigation, which is being headed by the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the company, Dennis Culloton, emailed a statement saying MARK 1 “has been providing extensive and extraordinary cooperation to the government investigation related to the 30th Street Station since November 2019.”

Culloton said MARK 1 successfully completed the award-winning restoration of the station in late summer of 2020, and “will continue to serve its clients by restoring prestigious buildings with its unmatched craftsmanship and quality.”

“Out of respect for the investigation, it is not appropriate to discuss the matter further,” Culloton said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia declined to comment.

Bhaskaran, meanwhile, was charged in Pennsylvania in 2019 with a separate scheme alleging he bilked the Social Security program out of a quarter-million dollars. He was awaiting trial in that case when he died at his home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in October. Officials there said the death was believed to be from natural causes.

The probe, which began when an anonymous letter was sent to Amtrak’s inspector general in March 2018, has also led to the firing earlier this year of two other Amtrak employees who allegedly took gifts from MARK 1, according to Amtrak inspector general reports and sources.

One of those fired was a management official who was allegedly taken out for drinks and entertainment at a gentleman’s club, according to an inspector general report published in March. The other, an Amtrak contractor, was provided a furnace for his church, a suit, and a pair of shoes, stated the report, which does not identify either employee.

The bribery scandal is one of the biggest to ever hit Amtrak, a private, for-profit company that is heavily subsidized by the U.S. government, with nearly $4 billion in taxpayer funds going to the agency in 2018 and 2019 alone.

Amtrak did not respond to multiple phone messages and emails from the Tribune seeking comment.

Restoration resume

Founded in the early 1990s, MARK 1 Restoration bills itself as one of the largest union masonry-restoration contractors in the country, with about $65 million in annual sales.

Among the historic buildings in Chicago the company has helped refurbish: the old main post office in the South Loop, the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, and the Museum of Science and Industry, which received a thorough water-soak cleaning of its limestone in 2013.

The company has also been integral in the restoration of historic public buildings around the country, including state capitols in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Kansas, according to MARK 1′s website.

The company’s website says its “commitment to continually conduct ourselves with honesty and integrity” is a key component to its success.

The contract to restore Philadelphia’s 30th Street train station was inked in December 2015 and originally called on MARK 1 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,” records show.

Completed in 1933, the 30th Street station is on the national registry of historic buildings and is one of the busiest train depots in the country, with more than 4 million Amtrak customers passing through each year as well as millions more commuter rail, subway and bus riders. Plans to refurnish the building began as far back as the 1990s but were repeatedly held up by funding issues.

To do the job, MARK 1 had to replace nearly 950 limestone panels, which were made from stone mined in Alabama and then fabricated in Chicago before being shipped back to Philadelphia for installation. The company also replaced or restored more than 2,000 window panes from the old Art Deco windows, outsourcing some of the work to an Oregon glass manufacturer to match the originals.

As a program manager for Amtrak’s major capital construction division, Bhaskaran oversaw work on the project and had control over the purse strings, approving payments to MARK 1 as well as any applications for additional funds due to cost overruns, according to the affidavit.

When Amtrak gave the media in Philadelphia a sneak peek of the nearly finished project in 2018, Bhaskaran defended the cost overruns, which by then had ballooned the budget to nearly $109 million.

“During the course of the project, we did add additional scope,” Bhaskaran told Philadelphia’s public television station WHYY-TV. “So it was actually a business decision taken, because we added a lot of additional work, in terms of blast-film and additional limestone replacement, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this work. And these decisions were taken at the highest level.”

In March 2016, just three months after the contract was granted, MARK 1 project manager Thomas McLaughlin — the same employee who’d later give the fruit basket gift — emailed company Vice President Lee Maniatis saying he had been given inside information by Bhaskaran and that they had plans to take him out to dinner, the affidavit stated.

“Keep it tight between us,” the email quoted in the document stated. “When r u coming into Philly? ... Steak dinner, cigars and whiskey. Let me know.”

Maniatis replied with a smiley face emoticon and wrote, “Plan on steak Tuesday night baby.”

That summer, MARK 1′s executive vice president, Donald Seefeldt, wrote to company founder and President MARK Snedden that he’d been with Bhaskaran “all night” and had concerns about how additional payments were going to be approved, according to the filing.

“He really must have change order pricing as soon as possible for ALL items,” Seefeldt wrote, saying that Bhaskaran had indicated it would be best to process “as much as possible in one change order,” the affidavit alleged.

From 2016 to 2018, Bhaskaran approved all 47 invoices submitted by MARK 1, including two orders greenlighting additional payments that brought the company’s total payments to $80.7 million, the affidavit alleged.

Another $23 million change order was approved by Bhaskaran in 2019, but by then he was under investigation and the amount was apparently never signed off on by his superiors, according to the affidavit.

Bhaskaran’s nonstop approval of MARK 1 invoices stood “in stark contrast” to the treatment of an architectural firm working on the same project, which the FBI said paid no bribes and had every bill it submitted reject by Bhaskaran because they were above what was outlined in the original contract, the affidavit stated.

The FBI said in the affidavit it “does not believe this is a coincidence.”

Wining and dining

One of the favorite Philly haunts for MARK 1 executives to wine and dine Bhaskaran allegedly was Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, a high-end chain restaurant located in a renovated bank near City Hall. A mural on the wall of the main dining room is emblazoned with a quote often attributed to Gen. George S. Patton: “Do right and fear no man.”

They would also head to the nearby Ashton Cigar Bar on Walnut Street, where Maniatis — a main connection between the company and Bhaskaran — also spent lavishly. Over one two-day period in June 2017, Maniatis spent more than $2,000 at the two establishments, according to the affidavit.

That same month, records show 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, the affidavit stated.

The meals, cigars, and vacation were purchased soon after Bhaskaran approved a $13.4 million increase in payments to MARK 1 from Amtrak — a pattern that would repeat itself over the next two years, according to the affidavit.

Six months later, 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, the affidavit stated.

At about the same time, Maniatis was also working to find a German shepherd puppy for Bhaskaran, sending him links to a well-known dog breeders in Chicago’s far north and west suburbs, the affidavit alleged.

On Nov. 11, 2017, Maniatis used his personal checking account to pay $4,775 to Mittelwest breeders in Wonder Lake for a purebred puppy, which Bhaskaran named “Matcha,” according to the affidavit.

But it didn’t stop there. Early the next year, Bhaskaran emailed Maniatis a $1,475 invoice from a dog-training school with instructions to “Please call and discuss this with me.”

Credit card records show Maniatis paid for that invoice as well as an additional charge from the training school for $3,875 in March 2018, the affidavit alleged.

FBI agents later were watching Bhaskaran at his home and took photos of him with the dog.

“Your affiant is aware, based on FBI surveillance, that Bhaskaran is the present owner of a German shepherd,” the affidavit stated.

Anonymous letter

Bhaskaran’s allegedly blatant corruption first came onto Amtrak’s radar in mid-March 2018 in the form of an anonymous letter to the inspector general detailing unethical “and possible criminal behavior” regarding the 30th Street station project.

The writer, who self-identified as a worker on the project, said Bhaskaran had been frequently “requesting or in some cases demanding expensive dinners from contractors” and “instructing contractors to disregard Amtrak rules,” according to a copy of the letter included in the FBI search warrant affidavit.

“His rules are the only rules that matter,” the letter read.

The inspector general started pulling Bhaskaran’s emails later that month, eventually bringing in the FBI, according to the affidavit.

Meanwhile, more big payments were rolling in for MARK 1. In May 2018, less than two months after the investigation began, the company asked Bhaskaran to approve a change order for $9 million, according to the affidavit. Bhaskaran recommended to his superiors that the additional funds be released, writing on the order that “acquiring a timely approval for these change order items are vital in keeping the project on schedule.”

The request for additional funds was approved by Amtrak on Aug. 31, 2018. The next week, Maniatis used his American Express to charge two tickets to the Bruno Mars concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia at a cost of $2,127, according to the affidavit.

Bhaskaran printed the StubHub tickets using his Amtrak computer, and Google location data — presumably culled from his cellphone — later showed he was “at or near” the venue on the date of the concert, the affidavit stated.

The document outlines an increase in the alleged fraud as the project neared completion in 2019. The last big request for payment for MARK 1 came that April, when Bhaskaran put in for a whopping $23.1 million increase, according to the affidavit.

As that request was still under review, MARK 1 paid for two elaborate parties on Bhaskaran’s behalf. The first, in August 2019, was a college graduation dinner for Bhaskaran’s daughter at Buddakan, a high-end Asian restaurant in Philadelphia, according to the affidavit. The dinner, which included 20 guests, cost $3,160, with the bill picked up by then-MARK 1 Vice President Khaled “Kelly” Dallo.

The second party was to celebrate Bhaskaran’s “fake” birthday on Sept. 25, which, according to the affidavit, was the birth date listed on a fraudulent passport that Bhaskaran used.

On that date, FBI agents tailed Bhaskaran and at least one MARK 1 executive as they traveled in a leased white Hummer Limousine from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, the affidavit alleged. The $2,900 bill for the limo was paid for by Dallo.

The group checked into the Ocean Casino Resort and later dined at the Palm Restaurant, where Maniatis rang up a bill of nearly $3,600, according to the affidavit. He also paid for another $1,500 meal at the Robert Steakhouse at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel.

The FBI also believed MARK 1 paid for similar “fake birthday” parties for Bhaskaran in New York City in 2017 and 2018, the affidavit stated.

Bhaskaran was arrested Nov. 14, 2019 — the day agents raided MARK 1′s offices in south suburban Dolton — on federal wire fraud charges alleging he used his deceased former mother-in-law’s information to fraudulently collect $250,000 in Social Security benefits, court records show.

At the time of his arrest, Bhaskaran had an “armada” of fancy cars in the driveway, including a Mercedes and two BMWs, according to a filing by prosecutors. He also had a number of fraudulent passports and other government-issued IDs and more than $7,000 in cash that he could not explain, the filing stated.

In a post-arrest statement to investigators, Bhaskaran “admitted to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from contractors performing significant contract work for Amtrak,” according to prosecutors.

He was negotiating a plea deal with the government when his body was found at his home in Cherry Hill on Oct. 16, 2020, according to court records.

The cause of death was listed as heart disease, according to officials in Camden County, New Jersey. It was not clear if an autopsy was performed.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting