By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
At the hearing, HPD presented affidavits about squalid conditions in the building and alleged threats and exploitation by Hersh. In one of them, tenant Carolyn Bradley said, "I witnessed Mark threaten tenants with a bat many times . . . especially on 'check day,' when many [welfare] recipients receive their money. Mark would lend people money if they were short. On check day, he would demand they pay him morea kind of interest. He would get the bat out and raise it, threatening to hit people if they did not pay."
But Hersh's bat wasn't always wielded to demand money. Another tenant, Alan Wexler, said in an affidavit, "On several occasions I was threatened with a baseball bat when I tried to bring in a visitor. In 1992, Mark actually beat me with a bat. His workers [held] me down while he hit me." Wexler recently confirmed the details from his affidavit in a Voice interview, but he expresses fear of reprisals from Hersh though he has been out of the Colonial for five years. Giddings too confirms what he said in his affidavit and refuses to add anything because he's worried that this story might provoke his landlord's wrath.
Hersh refused at the hearing to identify other buildings he owned except to say that five were in Manhattan, all "within a 20-block radius" of the Colonial, and two in Queens. According to city records, Hersh also owns the Frant Hotelanother SRO, with 101 rooms. Hersh also has an apartment building with 36 units at 227 West 109 Street. Between the Colonial, the Frant, and the building on 109th Street, Hersh has more than 200 outstanding code violations.
Denying the harassment allegations, Hersh portrayed himself during his testimony as a victim and says he was afraid of Rand. He blamed his tenants for the horrid conditions, saying they caused the problems to "extract a larger amount of money from me." He says tenants denied him access to their rooms when he tried to make repairs. He also says the 114 tenants who had recently left the Colonial either moved of their own volition or were legally evicted.
But Judge Spooner didn't buy that, saying, "A more plausible explanation is that the campaign of harassment was successful, and most of the tenants left due to the conditions and repeated threatening actions by the owner."
When contacted by the Voice, Hersh granted a brief interview. "You and I have a lot to talk about," he said at the time. "We'll set up a meeting in the next couple of days." He never called back. Instead, Hersh's attorney Adam Bailey called, explaining that he had ordered Hersh not to speak to the Voice again. Bailey met with the Voice for two hours and provided more than a dozen folders of documents, and said, "I have never seen so much government corruption." He denied all the allegations in the affidavits, including the use of violence and harassment to run off tenants.
Bailey said Rand was "a governmental bully, who deserves to be arrested." And Rand isn't the only "corrupt" player, said Bailey. At the hearing, Hersh said the conspiracy was citywide. Bailey noted that HPD had been interfering with Hersh's plans for the building since before Rand took the job at HPD.
Bailey explained that as soon as the city got wind that Hersh was seeking a certificate, the Colonial was swarming with HPD inspectors. Records indicate that regular inspections occurred in 2000 and 2001, before the application, and that they did occur more often after the filing.
Bailey also pointed out that HPD tried to get the courts to take the Colonial away from Hersh and assign an administrator to run the building in 2001. He said HPD, prodded by the West Side SRO Law Project, was unfairly trying to preempt Hersh from getting the certificate.
Bailey noted that other HPD officials supported the granting of a certificate after a settlement offer was made with Coalition for the Homeless. In an October 18, 2004, memo to Rand, Elizabeth Bolden, the assistant commissioner of HPD's housing litigation division, supported the certificate. Bolden made her recommendation based on a memo written by HPD's attorney in charge of the SRO Anti-Harassment Unit, Philliss Simpson, and "other sources." Simpson's memo noted the settlement and added that the state's Department of Housing and Community Renewal and HPD's own SRO Compliance Unit "had no information regarding harassment at the premises."
Bolden no longer works for HPD, but a letter from State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman indicates that she should have known about some of the problems at the Colonial in 2001. Schneiderman wrote her in August that year to urge her to take legal action to appoint someone else to run the building. Obviously, a judge later found that the memos from Bolden and Simpson did not tell the whole story.