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MAN PLEADS GUILTY IN VA KICKBACK SCHEME

A subcontractor pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to paying a $63,000 kickback to win a contract during a construction project at the VA hospital in Tampa.

Peter Castelli, 62, entered his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo. Castelli has said he did nothing wrong, but that he wanted to avoid the cost of a trial.

Because of a tight schedule, Pizzo accepted Castelli's plea while taking the pleas of three other defendants, all foreign nationals who spoke only Spanish. Two of the men were charged with drug smuggling; the third with entering the country illegally.

At one point, the judge bounced from defendant to defendant so frequently he mistakenly asked Castelli whether he understood the drug charges against him. It was the only time that anybody cracked a smile.

Castelli faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Hoping for a lenient sentence, he agreed to cooperate with the government "in the investigation and prosecution of other persons."

Federal prosecutor Robert Mosakowski declined comment after the hearing.

But in previous interviews with the St. Petersburg Times, Castelli has said the authorities have indicated that others will be indicted, too.

"He entered his plea to take his portion of the responsibility in that transaction," said William Tully, Castelli's attorney. "He will be cooperating with the government as they see fit."

According to Castelli, the scheme unfolded five years ago during construction of the 70-bed, $21.7-million Spinal Cord Injury Center at James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

The Department of Veterans Affairs picked Dawson Building Contractors Inc. to build the facility.

Dawson selected Liko Inc. to install overhead lifts _ or slings _ used to move patients in the specialty unit, which has treated scores of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Castelli was vice president of overhead lifts for Liko in the United States and Canada. He said that shortly after the project began, Joel Velasco, Dawson's project manager, asked Liko to provide the company with a new pickup truck for the job site.

Castelli said he discussed Velasco's request with Hans Sigvardsson, Liko president, and that Sigvardsson authorized him to buy the vehicle.

Castelli said Velasco then changed his request to two trucks _ and finally cash.

On Jan. 25, 2001, Castelli gave Velasco a Bank of America cashier's check for $63,000. (The Times has obtained a copy of the check.)

According to the plea agreement, Castelli agreed to pay the kickback to guarantee that Liko landed the Dawson contract. The government said the cost was passed on to the VA.

Velasco repeatedly has denied Castelli's allegations. He said Castelli paid him the money for work he did for Liko during the project at Haley.

Velasco declined comment Wednesday. Sigvardsson did not respond to a message seeking comment.

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