Your Landlord's Dick

Just before midnight on March 20, 1998, Richard Hughes answered a knock at the door of his Manhattan apartment. Outside were two men who claimed to work for Cigna Group Insurance. They told Hughes they were investigating a trip-and-fall that had occurred two flights below Hughes's third-floor apartment. Given the late hour, Hughes thought the visit odd.

Odder still were the investigators' questions, which quickly strayed off the accident and became increasingly personal. Did Hughes live alone? Did he have a home elsewhere, they wanted to know. The situation ended even more curiously, says Hughes, when one investigator handed him a card. It was from Beau Dietl & Associates, the detective agency owned by a flamboyant and headline-hungry former New York City police detective.

It was then that the situation began to make sense. Hughes, a rent-stabilized tenant paying $381.86 for his one-bedroom Inwood apartment, has a history as a tenant leader and overall pain in the backside of his landlord, A. Richard Parkoff. Hughes figured that Parkoff had hired a private dick in the hopes of finding the 56-year-old tenant engaged in some action that could get him evicted, like subletting without Parkoff's permission, or not using his rent-stabilized apartment as his primary residence. Indeed, this May, Parkoff's Apar Realty Co. made both those claims in an eviction suit it filed against Hughes.

"It's his dream that I don't live here, but the fact is, I do," says Hughes, who is preparing for an August deposition. "This is simply a retaliatory eviction." Parkoff did not return calls, and both his manager and attorney declined to comment on the pending case. Dietl says his agents may well have been working for Cigna, although Cigna told Hughes they were not.

A late-night visit from dubious insurance agents is just one example of a growing practice among New York City landlords: snooping on tenants. The hot market has sent landlords of rent-regulated buildings prying into tenants' paper trails, hiring private investigators to videotape their comings and goings, even making deals with neighbors to spy on each other.

"If an owner believes a tenant is not living in an apartment as their primary residence or is subletting, he might hire someone to do research on where a tenant votes, has insurance, or whatever," says Joe Strasburg, president of the powerful Rent Stabilization Association, the city's largest landlord lobby. "The stakes are much higher not only because of the market, but because of the vacancy allowance," a 1997 change in state laws that allows a minimum 20 percent hike on vacant apartments, and deregulation for empty apartments if rent reaches $2000. "If you can prove your case, there's value there."

Not since co-op and condo conversions swept the city in the 1980s have private detectives been in such demand, say investigators who work for landlords. "In the 1980s, I used to do 10,000 tenants in one year," says Vincent Parco who runs Intercontinental Investigations Inc., which handles about 500 landlord-tenant cases a year. "If Harry Macklowe or Donald Trump bought a building to co-op, every apartment they could deliver vacant was another $200,000 or $300,000 in their pocket."

Business slumped with the recession but is humming again. Angelita Anderson, whose Citywide Task Force on Housing Court assists tenants facing eviction, sees at least one case a week that relies on a private investigator. "People don't realize that yes, a landlord is entitled to use a private detective," says Anderson. "It's just part of his building a case."

Frank Pandolfi, a former NYPD detective who makes his living tailing tenants for landlords, owns Pan Associates, and handles about 25 landlord-tenant cases each month. He says an average case costs $500 and takes 10 says, and usually begins with a routine hike down the paper trail: car, insurance, and voter registrations; property deeds; and other records that are easily and legally available. Parco, who charges about $750 for a case, regularly installs hidden video cameras outside apartments to track tenants' comings and goings.

PIs also use ruses, which can be legally murky. State law prohibits PIs from practicing "fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation," but gives them wide berth (see "Some Rules"). PIs cannot get information by falsely claiming to represent an actual company, but Parco's firm, for instance, works around that by setting up fake companies, usually a delivery firm, complete with logos and stationery.

Parco, president of the Association of Legal­Medical Investigative Experts, says that phone bugging, obtaining tax returns, and getting credit histories are off-limits. So is impersonating government or law enforcement officials, or members of the clergy. "Anything after that is okay," says Parco, who made headlines because he sold Carolyn Warmus of "Fatal Attraction" fame the gun and silencer she used to kill her lover's wife.

Parco says most landlords play by the rules. A decade ago, he recalls, owners called "who more or less said they wanted somebody's leg broken. I joked that we charge by the leg and you couldn't afford us, but I got the feeling that if we set a certain price, they'd probably hire us." In 1992, Parco's firm was offered $11,000 by a Manhattan real estate executive and his lover to kill the exec's wife in a New Jersey mall. Parco reported the request to the Manhattan D.A.  

The leg-breaking days may be over, but the desire to evict tenants— especially those who abuse rent protections— remains strong. "There was a time when landlords would go all-out to harass tenants, stopping heat and hot water and even being violent," says one attorney who represents both landlords and tenants. "But you don't see that blatant thuggishness anymore. Landlords today are a lot more sophisticated in their methods."

Richard Hughes moved into 641 West 207th Street in March 1981 and wasted little time in irritating his landlord, A. Richard Parkoff. By 1984, Hughes, an actor, was one of four tenant leaders who organized a rent strike when Parkoff tried to win a huge rent hike. And while the bad blood between Hughes and Parkoff outlasted the rent strike— over the course of his tenancy, Parkoff has been ordered to pay Hughes more than $8000 in rent rollbacks— the landlord is relying on a detail from rent strike days to evict him.

In 1983, Hughes let Vietnamese refugee Nguyen The San move in with him temporar- ily. Hughes, a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War, ran an agency to shelter Saigon's street children from 1968 to 1976. When Nguyen, a friend from Saigon, came to live with Hughes, Hughes added the refugee's name to his mailbox, along with that of his own partner, Sherry Hall. Nguyen moved out after a year and now owns a home in Astoria; Hughes and Hall have split up and she has moved with their teenage daughter to a nearby apartment. But the three names— Hughes, Hall, and Nguyen— remain on Hughes's mailbox.

Citing that mailbox, Apar Realty is alleging that Hughes is subletting to Nguyen and perhaps others, and that he really lives either with Hall or at Nguyen's Astoria address. The case also apparently relies on credit information that Hughes thinks his landlord should not have.

In 1990, Vietnam jailed an economist and a lawyer who were colleagues of Hughes's when he worked in that country; he began a campaign here on their behalf. Hughes wrote a petition— signed by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Ted Koppel, and Paul Newman— that eventually ran as a full-page ad in The New York Times. But the campaign left Hughes broke, and in 1995, he declared bankruptcy. To help tide Hughes over, Nguyen named him as an authorized user on a credit card, creating a paper trail that Hughes believes gave Parkoff ammunition in the eviction suit. In January, Parkoff's attorneys obtained part of Hughes's credit report, which lists Nguyen's Astoria home as an address for Hughes. In March, detectives visited Nguyen's home, a call that Hughes says "spooked" Nguyen's Vietnamese wife.

"It intrigued me to find out how they linked me to Nguyen," says Hughes, since the only obvious tie to Nguyen— a common Vietnamese surname— would have come from the mailbox. "I know they got my credit report, and they did not bring a suit against me until they had it. Is that legal?" Parkoff's lawyers say they got only legally obtainable information, including addresses, social security number, and year of birth, but no credit history. It is illegal to obtain credit history and financial data without a person's permission.

Also included in the case against Hughes is an affidavit by PI Pandolfi, which says he visited Hall's building and was told by tenants that Hughes lives there and by a postal worker that he receives mail there. Hughes says he's been unable to find any tenants there who were interviewed by Pandolfi, and that his regular mail carrier said he was not contacted by the detective. Pandolfi would not comment on the pending case.

Not mentioned in the suit is the late-night visit from Beau Dietl's agents. Dietl— a tireless self-promoter, regular on the Don Imus show, failed Conservative congressional candidate, and partner of Woolworth Building owner and developer Steve Witkoff— says he does work for Parkoff, but is unfamiliar with Hughes's case. As for the detectives claiming they worked for Cigna, Dietl says, "As far as I'm concerned, they might have been there for them. And if he left his card saying he worked for us, he obviously wasn't trying to hide anything."

Hughes says Cigna told him it had hired no such investigators. Says Dietl, "It's true we do use a ruse sometimes, like a trip-and-fall case. You take that portion of the tool away, and that's the end of the investigative technique."  

Last week, Hughes got a list of 18 categories of documents Apar lawyers want for his upcoming deposition. "This is not a well- intentioned inquiry, this is a landlord looking for a pretext to get a tenant activist out of here," says Hughes, who notes that Parkoff's attorney has offered him money to move. "It's crazy that I should be evicted, but even beyond that is the question, Should this happen to other people? I can fight it, but what about people who can't, who are working two jobs or don't speak English well and just don't have time for this, don't have records going back for years?

Attorney James Fishman, who won a federal case prohibiting the use of credit reports to establish primary residence, says court costs can easily hit $10,000. "A lot of tenants faced with primary residency challenges would simply pack up and leave when they get the first letter," says Fishman. "And the landlord gets the apartment back for the cost of a postage stamp."

It was Halloween day in 1995 when Veronica Galati welcomed Michael Race into her East 70th Street apartment. But the 64-year-old artist and teacher was totally unprepared for the trickery that she says ensued, and never imagined that it would lead to her eviction. Galati says she opened her door to Race because her landlord, John Paravalos, told her that Race was an inspector for the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) who would accompany him to review Paravalos's repairs. But as the conversation went on, Galati had her doubts.

"Race kept asking me about my artwork, how I do it, where I do it," says Galati. "He'd say things like, 'If I wanted to buy this picture of Babe Ruth, how much would it be?' " referring to one of Galati's many baseball portraits. When he ignored her urgings to inspect a crack in the bedroom wall, Galati says she repeat- edly asked Race if he really was from the DHCR; she says he nodded.

Race, it turns out, was indeed an inspector, but not for the housing agency. He is a private investigator hired by Paravalos to suss out suspicions that Galati used the apartment solely as an art studio and business while really living in a family home she owns in Middletown. Race denies he presented himself as a DHCR inspector, but says perhaps Paravalos told Galati that he was. Paravalos could not be reached for comment, but "is not capable of that guile," says his attorney, Mitchell Kossoff.

"I never said anything about who I was; I just went along with John," says Race. "I did not go there and purposely deceive her; that's criminal impersonation. But it's also nothing like, 'Hi. My name is Michael Race and I'm a private investigator and I'm trying to get you evicted.' It didn't go like that. John did all the speaking, and I just made notes and observations."

Those observations were pivotal in getting Galati evicted from her home of 35 years. Race noted paintings and art supplies throughout the apartment, and said Galati had no food in the house. At a trial last July, representatives from Con Ed and Bell Atlantic testified that Galati's utility usage was minimal, and while tax records listed East 70th Street as her address, she had claimed the apartment as a business deduction.

Galati says eating meals at a senior center keeps food out of her house and that macular degeneration has so limited her vision, she uses few lights. She says a special lease, long ago misplaced, allowed her to use her rent-controlled apartment as an art studio. As for the Middletown house, Galati says an aunt willed it to her in 1992, and that her 92-year-old mother— whom she visits frequently— lives there. But she insists she did live primarily on East 70th, paying her monthly rent of $195.75, and has bank statements, social security forms, tax filings, and voter registration listing the address. Nonetheless, Galati was evicted on January 31, 1999, and now lives in Middletown.

"The documentary proof was in our favor, but what really put the judge over was the utilities being so low, and the investigator," says Steven Candela, an attorney who represented Galati. "The landlord really had nothing to lose. My client was a rent-controlled tenant who had lived there for a very long time paying low rent for an apartment that could easily get $2000 on the market now."

Galati, a figurative artist who taught at the High School of Art and Design, studied at Hunter College and New York University; losing her apartment has meant losing some of her identity. "I'm so angry!" she says, sitting in a diner a few blocks from her former home. "It's little things. Like this," she says, holding a letter from the New York City Board of Elections announcing that her voter registration had been canceled. "This really hurts me."  

In the war between landlords and tenants, Gordon Silva is a survivor. Even though the 40-year-old actor-by-day, bartender-by-night lives in one of the city's most heated battle zones— the Commander Hotel on West 73rd, where a new landlord has evicted dozens of tenants— Silva remains relatively confident that he won't be a casualty.

Not that the landlord, a company called PMG, hasn't tried. Since the firm took over the residential hotel in 1997, tenants in more than 70 of 219 apartments have moved out, says PMG, "as a result of identifying and terminating unlawful tenancies." For a time last year, PMG thought Silva was such a tenant. And Silva, who pays $525 for a one-bedroom, says someone who he believes was working on PMG's behalf impersonated UPS and Con Ed to try to prove that mistaken idea. PMG spokesman Ron Simoncini declined to comment on any specific case, saying only that PMG has used lawful methods to "recover" illegally occupied rooms.

Silva says the ruse occurred while he was engaged to a woman who lived a few blocks away, and with whom he occasionally stayed. One day, his fiancée got a call and was told it was UPS with a package for Silva— they said it looked like a script from Los Angeles— but that the address was torn. Where did Silva live?— they wanted to know so they could deliver it.

Silva, who was at the Commander at the time, learned of the call and phoned UPS to trace the package. No such mail existed for him, he was told."People in the building know I'm an actor and a screenwriter, and to say they have a script for me is very misleading," says Silva. "I'm not so against landlords; I understand that if anyone has an illegal sublet, the manager wants to get them out. But I am against being misled."

Minutes later, Silva's own phone rang. The caller said he was from Con Ed, and wanted to warn Silva that basement fuses were going to be shut off. "They asked me if I worked on a computer in my apartment because they would let me know when the fuse would be off so I wouldn't lose anything. I asked them how they got my number and he said Con Ed got it when I signed up. But we don't get electric bills here; it's part of our rent."

The next day, visiting his fiancée, Silva was stopped by her building manager, who said someone from PMG had called to ask if Silva had signed a lease there. When he learned he hadn't, the calls stopped.

Silva says he gets along with the building management now, but doesn't feel terribly secure. "PMG will push the envelope as far as they can," he says. "Every day when I look at my mail, I look for a blue dot. That's certified mail. That could be an eviction. I never know what's up with them."

Some Rules

Rent-Stabilized Tenants:

  • May own real estate, but must use their rent-regulated apartments as their primary residence.

  • May sublet their apartments for up to two years within a four-year period, but must get the landlord's approval and must intend to ultimately return to the apartment.

  • May not assign their apartment to another tenant and may only charge 10 percent more than the lease rent, and only if the apartment is fully furnished.

    Private Investigators:

  • May phone a person and claim to work for a fictitious company in order to get information.

  • May enter an apartment on a ruse, for instance, claiming to be a plumber's assistant, or may enter with a landlord.

  • May not gain unaccompanied access to an apartment by use of a ruse.

  • May videotape outside an apartment, and may tape a phone call, but may not bug a phone.

  • May not pretend to be clergy or from a government or law enforcement agency. — J.A.L.

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