BALLSTON SPA — A rumpled man sat in the back row of the Saratoga County courthouse on Tuesday, waiting for his criminal case to be called. His was third on the docket, after the arraignment of a sex offender facing charges of child pornography and the sentencing of a drunken driver. The man, Paul J. Newman, thought back to his old life, one that ended April 17, with his arrest.
“It was good,” Newman, 49, said. “It was good.”
He was a respected figure in the Capital Region’s construction industry, a draftsman, graphic artist and architect on projects as small as renovations to a jeweler’s store and as large as a senior community. He lived with his wife and two sons in a custom-built home he designed in Troy. He coached Little League, football and baseball.
But nearly all of it was built on a lie.
He was not an architect. He did not carry the required state license. The rubber stamp he used that read “Registered Architect, State of New York” was a fake.
The stamp, forged signatures, false paperwork — they were like the scaffolding of a building of his own design, one with no firm foundation.
The obvious question: Why? Why didn’t he get the license? Why would a successful man risk everything, finally winding up in handcuffs, the butt of a “Seinfeld” joke from the state’s attorney general?
“Those who wish to game the system and take advantage of New Yorkers should take note: no license, no work for you,” the attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, said in a written statement.
There was no single and simple answer. Corners were cut, rules were bent. No one noticed. Life marched on: children, Little League, always looking for the next job. Old lies required new ones to keep them covered, more forgery and more deceit secretly coloring his life’s work.
Newman seemed to know what he wanted that work to be at an early age. Michael Szemansco, an architect in Schenectady, recalled meeting him at a firm in the 1980s. “He was a high school intern,” he said recently.
Mr. Szemansco founded Synthesis Architects in 1989 with another architect, John P. Senisi, and shortly after, they hired Newman as a draftsman.
“He’s very talented,” Senisi said. “Paul was a visionary. He was gifted.” He was known for his exceptional hand-drawn renderings of projects, a sought-after skill before computers largely took over that job. “Beautiful stuff,” Senisi said. His designs for the restaurant Waters Edge Lighthouse Restaurant in Glenville won the firm awards in 2005.
“He was learning to be an architect,” Senisi said. “I would say, ‘Why don’t you get your license and go on your own?’ I would mentor him a little bit. Paul was always independent.”
Larry DeClue, a retired construction superintendent, worked alongside Newman on a daily basis on a project several years ago, and assumed Newman had higher ambitions than remaining a draftsman. “I thought he took the test and he was an architect many years ago,” he said.
An architect’s license requires years of work experience, formal education and a lengthy examination — “a very hard test,” Senisi said, that lasts for days.
Newman married and started a family, designing the two-story, timber-sided house and deck on a wooded hill where he lived with his wife and sons. He stayed with Synthesis for more than 10 years as the company grew, leaving in 2005 to start a new company, Szemansco said. He had little contact with his first employers after that.
“Paul sort of fell off the face of the earth,” Szemansco said.
Senisi remembered seeing a new company’s name appear on projects: Cohesion Studios, based in Troy. “I didn’t know who it was,” Senisi said.
It was Newman. By 2010, he was getting jobs on building projects not as a draftsman, but as a licensed architect. Every registered architect has a license number, and he used one that he found online that belonged to another architect, according to prosecutors.
He made a fake rubber stamp and put it to use, over and over, on energy compliance certificates, inspections, field reports and other documents in at least three New York counties, Albany, Rensselaer and Saratoga, prosecutors said.
The work was steady. Between 2010 and 2015, Newman was hired as the architect on more than 70 townhouses identified as the Pastures Project in North Greenbush and was paid more than $50,000, prosecutors said. He worked on apartments in towns in Saratoga County — Malta, Clifton Park, Ballston — and collected more than $78,000. An Albany senior community earned him $40,000.
Colleagues praised his work.
“He did not design a vanilla box,” said George Whaling, president of the management company for the Ballston senior community. The two never worked together, but Whaling said he noticed flourishes in the property’s design.
“There’s an open staircase as you walk in the primary residential entrance that has a cathedral effect,” he said. “He was mindful of the people who were going to walk in and out of those doors.”
At some point in this busy period between 2010 and 2015, Newman apparently branched out. He traveled to Florida. There, he met Bishop Randall E. Holts, the senior pastor of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church of Miami, who wanted to add an executive center to the church. “Pleasant guy, very personable,” Bishop Holts recalled last month.
Newman presented designs for the project, but failed to complete it, Bishop Holts said.
“I lost about $30,000 or $40,000 because of Paul, and I lost the project,” he said. “It was supposed to be an easy deal, but it never got off the ground.”
Bishop Holts took action. He filed a complaint with the Florida Board of Architecture and Interior Design, which fined Newman $10,000 in 2015. The board noted Newman was “practicing architecture without a license,” according to minutes of the meeting. The decision concluded with a final sentence that would lead to Newman’s yearslong charade unraveling.
“The board requested that this disciplinary action be referred to the New York Board of Architecture,” the minutes state.
In 2016, the matter was referred to the state attorney general’s office, which obtained indictments in three counties. Newman was arrested April 17.
Prosecutors named the case “Operation Vandelay Industries,” a reference to a joke on “Seinfeld” about the character George Costanza pretending to be close to a nonexistent job as a latex salesman with the nonexistent Vandelay Industries. The joke took off, with many publications writing about the arrest.
By then, Newman’s life had already changed. He was going through a divorce and no longer living in the home he built. He was in a new relationship and was expecting a child.
On June 14, he pleaded guilty to grand larceny, forgery and related charges, six counts in all, and was released pending his sentencing. His son was born days later.
Last Tuesday, he sat in the rear of the courtroom, awaiting sentencing. He said the first times he broke the rules were “careless, dumb mistakes,” without elaborating.
Why, I asked, had he never taken the test to become an architect?
He spoke of Little League, of being Coach Newman. “I’d come home at night and try to study,” he said. “You’re just exhausted.”
Finally, his case was called, and he stood before Judge James A. Murphy III. “Heaven forbid something like this caused injury because someone fell off a balcony because it wasn’t designed properly,” the judge said. He sentenced Newman to two-and-a-third to seven years in prison. Sentencings in the other counties were soon to follow. Newman was led away.
A short time later, officers escorted the morning’s three defendants to a squad car — the drunken driver, the sex offender and the fake architect — and drove them to jail.