By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"Here we have people smoking marijuana on the landing, and I ask them to move because it comes into our apartment," says a tenant in a Gazivoda building at 559 West 188th Street. "They're tough kids and they tell me to mind my own business, that it's not a big deal, but it worries me because I have two young kids living here."
For his sentence, Gazivoda paid a $1000 fineless than half of the amount he paid "inspectors." At that rate, bribery could be calculated as just the cost of doing business.
A Newly Forged Friendship?
Toma Dushevic and Nicoletta DiBari were divorced on December 22, 1997. But the Queens pair apparently thought that even though their marriage had failed, their business partnership would soar. It seems they were wrong. From October 1998 until July 1999, prosecutors say, the pair went on a swindling spree, stealing no fewer than eight city-owned buildings and bribing an undercover agent to clear hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes on the properties. Along the way, they made such ridiculous mistakes that they got caught. They now face charges from both the Brooklyn D.A. and the city's law department.
"The thought that these people would dare to be criminals and be so stupid is beyond me," says Ken Knuckles, a former city commissioner whose name was used in Dushevic and DiBari's scheme. "Their ineptitude is laughable."
Dushevic and DiBari's plan to take over the city properties was intricate, involving not only an unwitting former commissioner but also a relative who says he was duped and a corporation that officials say was dissolved in 1982. According to a felony complaint from the Brooklyn D.A., Dushevic filed fake deeds that put him or his business, Malsia Corporation, in charge of the buildings. In fact, the buildings are the property of HPD because their original owners long ago abandoned them. Together, the propertiesall residential, mostly boarded up and dilapidated and scattered through Williamsburgare worth more than half a million dollars and carry a back-tax bill of more than $200,000. That's where Knuckles comes in.
Dushevic is charged with submitting at least four letters with Knuckles's forged signatures within seven days to the city finance department requesting that the taxes on the properties be removed. But an on-the-ball finance official noticed a few oddities. The writing was remarkably bad, including the indecipherable sentence "Although, Malsia Corporation is a Non-Profitable company where they were hired as an construction company . . . " and the closing line "If there is any assistance I can be, please write to me." And the stationery was wrong: Some letters were written in April 1999 on letterhead from the Department of General Services (DGS), an agency that Knuckles once headed, but that was renamed in 1996. Others were on stationery from HPD, where Knuckles had never been commissioner. In fact, Knuckles has not been commissioner of anything since December 31, 1993.
"How they were able to graft my name into this very cockeyed scheme is amazing," says Knuckles, who is now vice president of support services at Columbia University.
The bribery allegedly took place during several 1999 meetings in a Cadman Plaza coffee shop with a DOI undercover agent posing as a finance official. Dushevic met the agent first, in June, and allegedly paid him $2000 to have him remove the tax bill on five properties; DiBari met with him twice in July, saying Dushevic had referred her to him. She paid a total of $3420 to have taxes on three properties erased.
The pair was arrested on September 29, and in November, the D.A. charged Dushevic in a 42-count felony complaint, including charges of bribery, grand larceny, and criminal possession of false instruments. DiBari was charged with bribery and grand larceny. Those cases have been dismissed without prejudice pending action by a grand jury. Law enforcement sources say they "absolutely" intend to pursue the charges. Neither Dushevic nor DiBari nor their attorneys would comment on the cases.
Meanwhile, the city's corporation counsel has brought a civil suit against the pair and Malsia Corporation, charging that they forged a deed for one of the properties, a boarded-up four-story building at 224 Broadway in Williamsburg. Citing a pattern similar to the one in the criminal case, the city says the deed is allegedly signed by a deputy commissioner of DGS, noting the agency is long gone and that the person whose name was used was never a city employee. The case includes a fourth defendant, Doda Vucinic, who allegedly filed a fraudulent deed.
"It's very complicated, and I already told my lawyer I had nothing to do with that property," a frustrated Vucinic told the Voice. "Toma Dushevic is my wife's cousin, and they put my name on that thing and I didn't even know it myself. I've got nothing to do with it. Toma has done too many crazy things."
Public Housing, Private Deals?
An annual salary of $66,223 isn't bad for a 44-year-old man living with his wife and kids in New Jersey. But $75,623 is better$9400 betterand that's how much DOI and federal prosecutors say Emmanuel Lawrence shook down from a contractor he oversaw at the massive New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where Lawrence was chief of mechanical field operations for Manhattan and the Bronx. In what prosecutors suggest was a particularly touching moment, Lawrence allegedly leaned on a contractor, saying he needed the money to send his kids to summer camp.