Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel sentenced to 3 months in prison for asbestos violations
photo by: Nick Krug
Story updated at 6:40 p.m. Thursday:
TOPEKA — After hearing an emotional apology from Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel, a U.S. District Court judge on Thursday sentenced him to three months in prison and a $55,000 fine for felony convictions related to illegal disposal of asbestos during a construction project.
Fritzel was found to have violated the federal Clean Air Act and federal regulations related to asbestos disposal at the former Alvamar Country Club, now known as the Jayhawk Club. On July 30, 2019, a jury took about two hours to find Fritzel guilty on three counts related to the disposal of material containing asbestos, a hazardous material that has been linked to cancer, during remodeling work at Alvamar in 2016. Fritzel was found guilty of knowingly failing to notify environmental agencies prior to removing asbestos material, knowingly failing to wet asbestos before removing it from the construction site and knowingly failing to dispose of asbestos waste in leak-tight containers.
Judge Holly Teeter sentenced Fritzel on Thursday to three months in prison for each count, with the sentences to be served concurrently. She also ordered him to pay a $55,000 fine and to undergo one year of supervised release once he completes his prison sentence.
Teeter said her assessment of sentencing guidelines found that the appropriate sentence for Fritzel’s crimes was 10 to 16 months in prison and a fine of $5,500 to $55,000. She said asbestos is absolutely a potentially hazardous material, but that other factors weighed in favor of a departure from the sentencing guidelines.
Teeter said she based her sentence in part on what she called a persuasive analysis conducted by a toxicologist at Fritzel’s request. She said the analysis indicated the improper handling of asbestos had presented “very little harm or risk” to those involved and the environment. She also noted comments Fritzel made Thursday expressing remorse.
Teeter said that she didn’t want to minimize what Fritzel had done and that his conduct was troubling; however, she said he had mitigated her concerns regarding whether he would repeat his offense. In addition, she noted her review of 21 letters of support from Fritzel’s friends, family and business associates, which she said characterized Fritzel as a committed family man and someone who has channeled his business efforts to better his community, including the Rock Chalk Park project, The Oread hotel and The Eldridge Hotel.
“I think you are a good man who fiercely loves his family and community,” Teeter said. “But you’ve been in the construction industry your whole life and you know the significance of asbestos.”
Fritzel’s attorneys had requested a sentence of probation, and federal prosecutors requested that the court sentence Fritzel to a prison term between 33 and 41 months and a fine between $15,000 and $150,000. Teeter said Thursday that she thought neither of those requests was appropriate. Fritzel could have faced a maximum of seven years in federal prison and a fine of up to $500,000 in relation to the three asbestos disposal charges, according to a previous news release from the U.S. attorney’s office.
• • •
Fritzel did not testify during the trial, but he did speak prior to Teeter’s sentencing decision Thursday. Addressing Teeter and reading partially from notes, Fritzel was visibly emotional and had to pause several times. Fritzel started by saying that his actions alone had put him there.
“The jury finding me guilty was based upon my actions and my actions alone, and I take responsibility,” Fritzel said.
Fritzel then paused as he became emotional, subsequently continuing to say that even before being found guilty, he had learned a hard lesson that he would never forget. Fritzel — who continued with a partial demolition of the Alvamar clubhouse roof after he was told it contained asbestos and state regulators requested him to stop — said that he thought he knew best about the roof at Alvamar, but that he was wrong.
Some of Fritzel’s family members, including his wife and parents, attended the sentencing, and Fritzel also apologized for disappointing them.
“I’m ashamed of what I’ve done,” Fritzel said. “I’m also ashamed of causing sadness upon my wife, children and grandchildren. I am humbled, I’m embarrassed and I know what I did was wrong. I won’t do this again, ever.”
Fritzel also said he now knows how to handle demolition and asbestos. He noted a recent apartment project on Missouri Street in Lawrence where he said he worked “hand-in-hand” with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and completed a successful demolition.
• • •
During the trial, federal prosecutors argued that Fritzel submitted false samples to environmental regulators, and evidence showed that after being ordered to cease work by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Fritzel continued demolition on a building he knew contained asbestos. Companies controlled by Fritzel subsequently delivered truckloads of debris to a local landfill without taking any of the required steps to protect his renovation crew, the public or the environment from asbestos exposure.
As part of his sentencing request, federal prosecutor Richard Hathaway argued in part that Fritzel exhibited a cavalier willingness to deceive regulatory inspectors and a callous disregard for the health and safety of his crew and the public.
Fritzel’s attorneys had requested a sentence of probation in part based on a report by Kim Anderson, of GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc. Anderson testified Thursday, saying he took samples from the portion of the Alvamar clubhouse roof that still exists today. He said that his analysis also found asbestos present in the roof, but he said the concentration was not enough to cause lung cancer and other diseases associated with asbestos, even assuming 30 days of exposure.
“As a toxicologist, in my world the dose determines the poison,” Anderson said. He said just the fact that asbestos is present doesn’t mean it’s toxic, as that assessment is based on the amount of asbestos and the duration of exposure.
In his cross-examination of Anderson, Hathaway asked Anderson how much he had charged Fritzel’s defense so far, to which Anderson said that he was salaried and did not know how much his firm had charged. Hathaway asked when Anderson’s samples were taken, and Anderson said his firm had been retained in 2019 and the samples were taken in 2019, or 2.5 years after the demolition. Hathaway concluded by asking Anderson why he wasn’t called to testify at the trial, and Anderson said he may have been notified of the reason but didn’t recall.
At the request of Edward Novak, one of Fritzel’s defense attorneys, Teeter agreed to suspend Fritzel’s prison sentence until after the May 4 sentencing date in a separate felony fraud case against Fritzel. Novak also requested that Fritzel serve his sentence in the federal prison in Yankton, S.D., and Teeter said she would recommend that placement but it would not be her decision. Yankton is a minimum-security federal prison camp, according to its website. A 2009 Forbes article included it on its list of the country’s “10 Cushiest Prisons.”
In the other felony case, related to the development of The Oread hotel, Fritzel was indicted on charges of scheming to collect more than $400,000 in fraudulent tax refunds from the City of Lawrence. That case was tentatively set to go to trial last month, but Fritzel pleaded guilty to the charges on Jan. 9. As part of the plea agreement, both parties agreed to recommend a sentence of 12 months and a day in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000, as the Journal-World reported.
Fritzel and his attorneys declined to comment further following the sentencing.