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3News Exclusive: Project to preserve Star-Spangled Banner sparks lawsuit between family-run Northeast Ohio company and America's largest contractor

Tomco Metal Fabricating says Turner Construction misled it during work on display case that now holds flag at Smithsonian Museum

CLEVELAND — Its handiwork is all around Cleveland.

The gleaming spire that sits atop Key Tower. The railings that guide guests inside the Cleveland Clinic Intercontinental Hotel. The canopy that welcomes theatergoers at Connor Palace. The geodesic dome that houses orangutans at the Cleveland Metroparks’ RainForest.

Tomco Metal Fabricating’s decorative metal touches and hard-to-make structures earned it a national reputation.

Founded in 1976 by Ivo Tombazzi, who learned to shape metal in Italy before immigrating to the U.S., the company took great pride in the hard jobs, such as the restoration of the leaf-and-lamp sculpture that clings to the red sandstone walls of Society Bank that anchors the 57-story Key Tower on Public Square.

“It gives you a great sense of pride every time you can look up and point out to friends and family and say, ‘Hey look, our family made that,’” said Frank Tombazzi, who, along with brother Lou, took over their father’s company and nurtured its legacy.

The company, which once supported 41 employees, was shuttered in 2012. Today, it appears frozen in time, its paperwork and designs still visible on desks and workspaces. Plaques and faded memorabilia adorn the walls. Drill presses and cutting tools collect dust on the shop floor.

Lou, who was the company’s president, and Frank, the company’s vice president, said in a recent interview that Tomco’s end started in 2007.

That’s when the company took on its most important job: Building a display case -- larger than a billboard -- to protect the Star-Spangled Banner, the garrison flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired Frances Scott Key to write our national anthem.

Hired by Turner Construction, America’s largest contractor, Tomco put all its time and resources into the project commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The Tombazzis and their crew would have to build an aluminum and stainless-steel table that could hold the 30-by-34-foot flag. The case also needed a gantry to allow preservationists to lay or kneel over the flag to clean and repair it. And the case needed to tilt -- by hand cranks -- to show off the flag to museum-goers.

Lou and Frank Tombazzi told 3News the original plans given to them by Turner were flawed and the changes they had to make cost more than their $1.3 million contract.

“So, when we had gotten the drawings, I reviewed them and I see a lot of problems with them,” Lou Tombazzi said. “And I kept asking questions and I can’t get any answers.”

The Tombazzis said, for instance, the original design called for a one-piece case that was too large to fit into the museum’s special space, a climate-controlled room that helps preserve the cotton flag. So, they redesigned the case as a modular table that could be assembled on site.

“It was always teamwork,” Frank Tombazzi said. “We all did this together and that made everybody feel special.”

The Tombazzis said Turner  – which was managing a larger renovation of the museum -- told them to make the display work and keep track of the needed changes.

“We weren’t about making excuses,” Frank Tombazzi said. “We were one of the few fabricators in the country that never failed on a project. We always completed our work on time.”

Tomco delivered, completing in 2009 a display case weighing 10,000 pounds that included 600,000 holes on the top to secure the flag. It holds the flag today.

Frank Tombazzi said he expects the display table will outlast the flag.

But the Tombazzis said the nearly 30 project changes cost them $700,000 in time and materials for which they were never reimbursed.

“We drew money from other jobs that we’re doing for other companies,” Lou Tombazzi said. “And that really hurt us."

The Tombazzis closed the company in 2012, a decision they insist is tied to the losses from the Smithsonian project.

“It was very difficult to watch people you became close friends with,” Frank Tombazzi said. “They trusted you. You trusted them. And all of sudden it’s the last day of work and we stretched that out as long as we possibly could.”

Frank and Lou Tombazzi personally took financial hits, too.

“There were times it was difficult to buy groceries, pay the utilities,” Frank Tombazzi said. “It became very challenging, stress to our marriages, and to our families that were kids were growing, still growing up, not out of the house yet. How do you answer to them when it is challenging to buy them a pair of shoes? Sometimes it was very embarrassing.”

Lou and Frank said their parents’ health declined after the company closed.

“I think that it put my mother into the state of dementia because she saw what was happening and it really upset her,” Frank Tombazzi said. “And so, it caused a great decline for her emotionally and physically. My dad didn’t’ show it but I knew it affected him.”

Ivo and Veronica Tombazzi died in 2020, 45 days apart.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Lou and Frank Tombazzi accuse Turner of misleading them and the Smithsonian.

The suit says Turner “threatened” Tomco by saying that if it wanted to get paid, the company had to manipulate its paperwork to reflect that change orders on the were driven by the Smithsonian, not Turner.

“[Turner] intended to pursue litigation against the Smithsonian for additional monies and needed Tomco to change the paperwork to help [Turner] with the litigation,” the suit says. “[Turner], the largest general contractor in America, used its leverage to take advantage of Tomco, a small local company that was placed in a precarious financial position solely due to [Turner’s] wrongful conduct.”

Turner told 3News that the claims in the Tombazzis’ lawsuit are “baseless and without merit.” And that the issues raised in the story were resolved years ago when the two parties signed a settlement agreement in 2014.

The suit says that Tomco indeed agreed to a settlement with Turner in 2014 worth $90,000.

“It was under duress,” Frank Tombazzi said about why he signed the settlement that would not cover Tomco's cost overruns. “They knew we were in survival mode.”

The Tombazzis said that the 2014 settlement was portrayed at the time as a temporary one. They said Turner promised more money down the road.

“So, in our eyes, we thought, well, someday, when the settlement is made between Turner and the Smithsonian, Turner would come back to the table and help us out and give us what we asked for,” Frank Tombazzi said.

In 2017, Turner went after the Smithsonian for cost overruns. The Tombazzis’ lawsuit says Turner won -- through the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals – $7 million to cover cost overruns.

Turner never notified the Tombazzis, who learned of the settlement in 2019.  They said they can’t get past it, so they sued.

“I think it haunted us to think that we lost basically a family legacy because of what we felt was foul play,” Frank Tombazzi said. “So that was haunting to my father and my brother and me. How can we come back to the table and try to recoup what was rightfully ours?”

You can read the Tombazzis’ lawsuit below. And the post will be updated with Turner’s legal response when that is filed. 

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