Investigators Arrest Microb Phase President
July 22, 2004:
Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Santilli, chief of the allergy department at St. Vincent's Medical Center, diagnosed Samuel Staples Elementary School in Easton, Conn., as a sick school and recommended extensive work, including replacement of mold spore infested ceiling tiles. But the Board of Education decided to seek a second opinion—from "Dr." Schongar.
Four months after his arrest, Schongar—representing his company Microb Phase Laboratories—continued to apply applications of a mystery agent to kill mold. He was contracted by Staples from 2000 to 2003 and went on to spray other schools throughout the country, until a federal Environmental Protection Agency and Easton Police Department investigation stopped him in his tracks.
Schongar sat at a defense table inside the magistrate's court room at the federal courthouse in New Haven late Thursday afternoon. Assistant U.S. Public Defender Terry Ward sat beside him as Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Spears told the court Schongar, 58, was being charged with mail fraud, wire fraud and violations of the Federal Fungicide Insecticide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
If convicted of mail and wire fraud, Schongar could face up to five years in prison with a maximum fine of $250,000 on each count. The FIFRA charge carries up to one year in prison and a maximum $25,000 fine on each count.
Schongar was released on $50,000 bond. A probable cause hearing is tentatively scheduled for 1 p.m. on Aug. 4 at the federal courthouse in New Haven. As a condition of his release, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joan G. Margolis said Schongar may only travel to New York state and Connecticut, may not apply for a passport and can no longer continue his mold remediation business. Margolis also barred him from contacting school officials he had done business with.
Outside the courtroom, Easton Police Chief John Solomon said, "It sends a very good message with this case, that if someone commits environmental crimes, they are going to get caught. Especially when it comes to schools and children. Hopefully this sends a good message to our school systems, superintendents and boards of education."
Both Superintendent of Schools Allen Fossbender and Easton Board of Education Chairman Andrea Rowland said they would cooperate with the investigation as best they can.
"I hope that justice will be served," Rowland said of the investigation.
Ward said his client, Schongar, would not comment on his arrest.
Spears said Schongar has grand larceny convictions in New York and Delaware and is the subject of a federal customs investigation in the Syracuse, N.Y., area.
Ward said Schongar was not a flight risk and was "hardly a danger" to the community.
"He's 58 years-old, a lifelong resident of the Albany area, has had a heart condition for past 20 years, has been married for 22 years, and responded to a phone call to be here," Ward said of his client.
As the Minuteman reported in January and February, Schongar used Web sites—including microbphase.com and a site for "Mold Away"—to advertise his business under several names. The safety data sheet Schongar gave Easton school officials detailing what he said sprayed turned out to be Microbe Shield, a mold preventative manufactured by AEGIS Environmental, a Midland, Mich., firm. The company had said Schongar did not have permission to use its product, and two Staples' ceiling tiles tested negative for Microbe Shield.
That information was included in EPA Agent Leonard F. Borges' affidavit. Though Schongar had visited a number of schools in several states, he has only been charged for alleged crimes at Connecticut schools in Easton, Manchester and Bristol.
Borges said Schongar's company has gone under the names Microb Phase, L.L.C.; British American Environmental Company; Microb Phase, Inc.; Microb Phase Environmental; Microb Phase Laboratory, Inc.; Mold Away; Air Tech and Air Tech Services.
The affidavit accuses Schongar of defrauding schools dating back to at least 2000 in remediating air quality problems he identified, "falsely and fraudulently representing that the product that he applied was registered with the EPA and that his remediation program was approved by the EPA;" and producing fraudulent reports indicating his services and products had successfully solved the problems.
Schongar has said Microb Phase contains alcohol, which would classified it as a pesticide. Borges said Schongar violated FIFRA because he allegedly mislabeled his product and did not register it with the EPA.
In 2001, Schongar forwarded an inspection report and laboratory test to Easton School officials indicating he had sampled and tested air quality of certain rooms at Staples, according to the affidavit. The report stated it "represents the findings of certified environmental inspectors following the guidelines published by the American Society for Testing Materials. The report contains precise information concerning percentages (before treatment) of various microbial growth identified by Schongar, including 'cladosprium', 'aspergillum' [aspergillus] and 'penicillium'"
Schongars report sites laboratory analysis indicating "no growth" was detected after his treatment, according to the affidavit.
But Borges said search warrants executed at Schongar's home, which doubles as his principal place of business, and a self storage unit listed under the name "Air Tech Environmental" at Clifton Park Self Storage failed to turn up equipment that could be used in testing for the presence of microbial growth.
Among the items seized under the search warrants, were falsified documents stating Schongars education background, training and experience, Borges said.
Borges said Schongar had said he was a certified environmental inspector and had earned a PhD., which his investigation was unable to verify. Evidence collected at Clifton Park Self Storage included certificates, resumes and diplomas. On an alleged masters of engineering degree from American University in Heidelberg, Germany, Borges said Heidelberg was misspelled, adding investigators found another, unsigned, version of the degree.
"A review of various alleged certifications indicates they appear on the same card stock and are set out in similar format, not withstanding the fact that the certifications purport to have been issued by different organizations," the affidavit reads.
Other alleged instances of fraud include Schongar telling Manchester school officials in a letter that his company was awarded "a grant from the National Center for Environmental Research and Quality Assurance" and that he was involved with an "R&D study" with the EPA.
In a 2003 report to Green Hills Elementary School in Bristol, Schongar allegedly told school officials laboratory analysis was performed by "Analytical Laboratories, Inc. But Borges said Albany, N.Y. business was bought by Alpine Laboratories in 1999, which closed down Analytical Labs in 2000 because of a criminal EPA investigation of that company. Borges said Alpine Labs told him it did not perform testing services for Microb Phase.
Schongar had worked for Analytical Labs in the 1990s before being terminated for applying a questionable substance at State University in New York, according to Borges.
In an interview with Borges, Schongar allegedly admitted to forwarding customers a technical bulletin Microbe Shield, which he did not use. Borges said Schongar told him he mixes his own chemical substance in his garage, adding it "typically consists of isopropyl alcohol and some form of soap solution."
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