Shopping for Gracie Mansion

John Catsimatidis wants to be the next billionaire mayor

The New York Post gleefully reported that Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman softened the tone of the offending series and moved it to an inside page following the protests. The News later published a four-page advertising supplement loaded with positive coverage of the supermarket industry.

"I wanted to make a point," Catsimatidis says. "It was not a point of showing my power. It was that the reporter was wrong, and they should have checked it out."

Even so, the Daily News didn't fire the reporter, nor did it acknowledge any deficiencies in the series. Catsimatidis still keeps one of the offending covers on a wall in the hallway outside his office.

(When asked if he would have any difficulty as mayor talking to the press despite unfavorable coverage, Catsimatidis responded: "I have no problem. I'm a nice guy.")

A couple of years ago, he also mounted a quixotic campaign to stop two Indian reservations from selling untaxed cigarettes to non-Indians. He sued the tribes, making the over-the-top claim that they were funding organized crime and international terrorism. He says the practice hurts the "poor innocent taxpayer."

Around the same time, then–Attorney General Eliot Spitzer—a man who has benefited from Big John's campaign generosity—moved to limit the practice.

But Catsimatidis says he's disappointed in Spitzer for not enforcing a state law banning the practice outright. "Spitzer promised he would enforce it," he says. "He has not. It's a sin."

He also battled the big-box stores, and threatened to fight the state's attempt to condemn one of his supermarkets to make way for the Second Avenue subway. And he's still irked by the Bloomberg administration's decision to give a huge supermarket site on 125th and Lexington to Pathmark rather than him. "They never went to the local supermarket chains," he says. "It was a no-bid process."

There was also his failed bid, seven years ago, to buy Getty Petroleum. Catsimatidis says he bid $6 a share for the company, but the Getty people sold it instead to the Russian oil giant Lukoil for $5 a share. He was so angry at the time that he wrote an unusual letter to the Getty CEO, railing against what he called the unfairness of the agreement. To this day, the dispute still rankles. "We were never able to get to the bottom of it," he says. "It's one of the things I still get sick about."

Catsimatidis says his firm has never been under criminal investigation, except for one murky case back in 1990 involving internal wiretaps at the headquarters of United Refining. Catsimatidis says he was unaware of the practice, which predated his purchase of the company. Catsimatidis manages his real-estate holdings via a web of limited-liability corporations that make it difficult to determine just what he owns. He admits that he doesn't have a list of all his holdings.

Here and there, he's had to pay several large fines in connection with his businesses. The Federal Trade Commission has investigated Red Apple a couple of times for violating anti-trust laws, because Catsimatidis owns so many stores in Manhattan. In 1993, following FTC scrutiny, he agreed to sell off six stores. But in 1997, the FTC fined Catsimatidis and two other supermarket companies $600,000 for failing to live up to the terms of the agreement.

In August 2003, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration hit Gristedes with 73 safety violations at eight locations after an employee at an East 96th Street store had an arm ripped off in a cardboard bailer. OSHA said the bailer wasn't equipped with a guard to prevent contact with the moving parts. OSHA also cited the company for having walk-in freezers that couldn't be opened from the inside. Catsimatidis denied that his company was at fault in the accident.

In a December 2003 pact with then–Attorney General Spitzer, Gristedes agreed to pay $3.25 million in back wages and fees to settle a lawsuit brought by 34 delivery men who claimed the supermarket chain paid them well below the minimum wage. Catsimatidis also agreed to hire the workers and give them health benefits. He says the workers were actually employed by a subcontractor, and that his company was targeted because of its deep pockets. And he charged that Spitzer strong-armed him into the settlement.

In 2006, two female cashiers sued Gristedes for failing to promote women. According to their lawsuit, men received the higher-paying full-time positions through an informal "tap-on-the-shoulder" promotion system. Most of the store managers are men, the lawsuit also claims. In response, the supermarket's lawyers insisted that the company complies with the law. "Throughout Gristedes, women occupy important and significant positions," they assert in court papers.

Recently, Catsimatidis has embarked on a campaign to build housing in the city. His most ambitious project is a complex with 660 mixed-income apartments and 290,000 square feet of commercial space on Myrtle Avenue between Prince and Ashland streets in Brooklyn. He's also talking about similar projects in Coney Island and Upper Manhattan.

He did the demolition on the Myrtle Avenue project and overcame neighborhood complaints about the loss of a supermarket. He also had to weather a stop-work order and a $2,500 city fine after his contractors failed to construct a proper safety fence.

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