By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A few years ago Michael Ouellette was selling electronics in a Radio Shack on Cape Cod. Now, as one of the last tenants living in the Malibu Hotel at 2688 Broadway, he's become one of owner Hank Freids biggest pests and a frequent target. When he sleeps, Ouellette now runs a video camera secretly hidden inside a pile of dirty laundry.
"Just for protection," the 40-year-old Korean American says. "This is the Malibuanything, I mean anything, can happen to you."
It happened to him. This summer, Ouellette, who's been living at the Malibu rent-free for nearly a year, began posting signs around the hotel in an effort to fill it with permanent SRO tenants. (Landlords with major code violations often prefer to let tenants live rent-free, advocates say, rather than facing a judge in housing court.)
Ouellette wanted to notify the public of the building's safety problems, he says, in hopes that the city HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) would end its arrangement with Freid's Branic International Realty. Under a court order, HASA's responsible for finding emergency shelter for homeless men and women infectedwith HIV. In April, they signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Freid to house over 100 clients in the Malibu for $80 a night, the highest rate the agency currently pays for emergency shelter. Shortly after, Ouellette began hand-delivering information packets filled with information on the buildings code violations to city agencies and local politicians like Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
"There was no response," says Ouellette. He did, however, manage to frustrate Freids staff.
In one incident this past May, Brandon Freid, Branic's young VP, and Rose Elajouz, the Malibu's manager, pressed criminal charges against Ouellette for trespassing in one of the hotels abandoned rooms. He was handcuffed and spent the night in the Tombs, the citys notorious downtown jail.
"It didnt make any sense," he says. "How could I be trespassing in a building I live in?" So far, Ouellette has had six court dates and the trial date has been postponed. "It's ridiculous," says Peggy Bennett, Ouellette's Legal Aid Society lawyer. "This is a typical case where a landlord is trying to use the criminal justice system for another purpose, like harassing tenants and trying to get them to move." The prosecuting attorney on the case, Assistant District Attorney Nicole Vikam, declined to comment.
Only two weeks later, Ouellette was approached by Democratic District Leader Carmen Quinones. On an afternoon in May, Ouellette remembers standing outside the Malibu when Quinones, clad in a leopard-print dress, introduced herself and offered to help deal with his problems in the building and his landlord.
The elected party official and the SRO tenant met four times, usually around 11 p.m., on a street corner outside her apartment building on 102nd Street, next to a school playground.
In one meeting, he says, she asked him if money could persuade him to leave. He told her he wanted $100,000 and smaller amounts for other tenants. Days later, he says, she called to say she'd discussed the matter with Freid, and the landlord was prepared to pay $75,000, provided he move out of the Malibu.
At first he accepted, but "something was fishy," he says. "I started hearing shed been saying things behind my backcalling me crazy. I heard she was working undercover for Hank, so I canceled the deal."
According to one of Freid's longtime employees, Quinones was paid $5000 for May, and has been getting $2500 a month since. "I asked Hank, 'What should I put down on the ledger?' He said, 'Public relations.'"
In an interview, Quinones denied ever taking money from Freid. "One thing about me is that I'm very clear," she said. "I don't hide anything from anybody."
Quinones said she did meet with Ouellette four times late at night on the street to "help him and the community with their problems." But she claims he was trying to find ways to "extort" money from Freid, and, in one meeting, she taped him, without his consent. "He's a little out there," she says. "Why would Hank want to buy him out? That doesn't make any sense."
Freid and Quinones seem not to have gotten their stories straight. In an interview, Freid claimed he recently sent Quinones "a couple of checks for her campaign." He did not know the amount or date. The next morning, Freid said he had looked into his files and that Quinones had only received one check, from Branic, for $2500. "She's working for Adam Clayton Powell," he said. "She said she needed money for posters, stuff like that."
Quinones, however, isn't working on any campaign. "I'm just taking a break right now, trying to take care of my family," she said. Another twist: Unlike Quinones, Freid claims he did offer Ouelette the $75,000 through the party official, and in yet another mysterious turn, Freid has a copy of Quinones's taped late-night meeting with Ouellette. He also said he hired a private investigator to look into Ouellette. Asked if he also hired Quinones to secretly tape his tenant, Freid seemed unsure. "I can't really recall," he said.
Quinones denied her role as undercover private eye. "[Ouellette] was saying bad things about Hank," she said. "I thought he would want to hear. That's all."