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Tsob Tsobe! at Coney Island Avenue

Tsob Tsobe! at 2817 Coney Island Avenue

It was with great dismay that we noticed Back to USSR pulling down its signs over the summer, after two years in business. The kitschy, Soviet-themed restaurant at 2817 Coney Island Avenue was a great place to bring people from outside of Sheepshead Bay, pulling back the curtain a bit on the area’s Russian-speaking cultures with a tongue planted firmly in-cheek.

But the storefront didn’t stay empty long. Some time in the past few weeks Tsob-Tsobe! took its place, declaring itself a”cafe lounge bar.” They redid the entire storefront, interior and exterior. Unlike its predecessor, which elevated the atmosphere with a large statue of Vladimir Lenin with kielbasa in hand, Tsob-Tsobe! is tastefully decorated and is earning kudos from Yelpers.

The online directory says it’s serving Mediterranean, Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, but we’ve learned that with local restaurants, that could mean Turkish, or it could mean the menu is a smorgasbord of Turkish, Uzbeki and Russian foodstuffs. With their website not yet built and no menu available online, we’ll just have to wait to visit to find out.

As for the name? We’re having trouble tracking down its provenance. Some Googling suggests it’s something Cossack cowboys yelled at their cattle, or farmers upon receiving a good harvest – but we can’t say for sure. Anybody able to fill us in?

Michael Levitis Marina Levitis Rasputin Brighton Beach Show

Michael and Marina Levitis (Source: James Edstrom)

Michael Levitis, who owned Rasputin restaurant until it was seized by authorities, and who was also a castmember of the failed television show Russian Dolls, was sentenced to nine years in federal prison yesterday for a fraudulent debt collection scheme that preyed on the vulnerable.

Levitis was also ordered to pay restitution of $2.2 million to the victims, and a fine of $15,000. His company, Mission Settlement Agency, was ordered to pay a fine of nearly $4.4 million.

The offices of Mission Settlement Agency at 2713 Coney Island Avenue, (Source: Google Maps)

The Manhattan Beach resident pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and wire fraud conspiracy for his role masterminding a ploy to victimize more than 1,200 struggling people through phony debt collection services, according to United States Attorney Preet Bharara. He previously denied his role in the scheme, and even claimed to be a victim of “rogue employees” – a tale prosecutors didn’t buy.

“Michael Levitis preyed upon people across the country who, like so many Americans, were struggling to pay off their debts after the financial downturn,” said Bharara. “Through Mission Settlement Agency, Levitis lied about quick, guaranteed cures to their serious financial problems in order to trick them out of money they could not afford to lose.  Worse, he created, for many people, a nightmare of spiraling debt and plummeting credit scores that plagues them to this day. With his sentence today, he has been held responsible and punished for his crimes.”

“[Levitis'] crimes here … were directed at desperate people, hundreds of desperate people drowning in debt.”

 

–Judge Paul Gardephe.

Levitis’ defense team previously requested a lighter sentence of just five years, but Judge Paul Gardephe balked at the request for a crime he found “extraordinary” in its cruelty.

“There is something special and extraordinary about the crimes here: the fact that they were directed at desperate people, hundreds of desperate people drowning in debt, trying to find a way out of their problems,” he said during the sentencing. “The determination to extract from these people their last few dollars makes this crime extraordinary.”

Levitis will be under home supervision until he heads to prison in February, the U.S. Attorney’s office said.

Prosecutors say Mission offered debt settlement services to people struggling to pay off credit card debt, promising to negotiate with the lenders on behalf of clients for a lower settlement amount. From 2009 to May 2013, Levitis, 38, directed Mission’s employees – Denis Kurlyand, Boris Shulman, Manuel Cruz, Felix Lebersekiy and Zakhir Shirinov, all of whom pleaded guilty as well – to make fraudulent claims in the sales pitches to clients.

Such promises included an ability to slash their debts by 45 percent, which never in fact happened. Additionally, the company sent potential clients letters falsely suggesting that the agency was connected to federal government programs.

In the end, Mission collected more than $2.2 million in fees from more than 1,200 customers, and never paid a penny to the customers’ creditors. Instead, he funneled the funds to cover expenses at his beleaguered 2670 Coney Island Avenue restaurant, Rasputin, as well as to make lease payments on two different Mercedes cars and pay the credit card bills of his mother, Eva Levitis.

Prosecutors explicitly said some of the funds went to throw the lavish parties featured in the reality show “in which he starred during the course of the scheme,” meaning Lifetime’s Russian Dolls.

That show debuted on Lifetime in August 2011, despite criticism from the Russian-speaking community that they feared they’d be depicted as “thugs, criminals and outcasts.”

It was canceled after four episodes.

Prior to the show, Levitis already had an uneasy relationship with the law. As critics of the show feared, it did in fact portray a criminal – the same month his involvement in the show became public, Levitis had pleaded guilty of lying to federal investigators in relation to an FBI probe dating back to 2007.

That investigation explored an alleged influence peddling scheme in which Levitis was recorded telling another restaurateur that then-State Senator Carl Kruger would help him with state matters if he held a fundraiser and turned over thousands of dollars for the politician’s campaign.

Kruger is currently in federal prison after being found guilty for accepting at least $1 million in bribes in an unrelated investigation. Levitis at the time was sentenced to three years probation and fined $15,000.

Since the current charges involving Mission Settlement were made public, Levitis has attempted to maintain a profile in the community through a private Facebook page called Russian Insiders. Moderated by Levitis, his mother, and his wife, users have complained of “Putin-style censorship” on the page, in which members are banned for any mention of the multiple Levitis scandals.

Sources have also said he frequently uses the page to disparage Sheepshead Bites as “anti-Russian,” presumably because of this outlet’s extensive reporting on his unscrupulous activities.

Dynamic's Brooklyn facility at 1830 Coney Island Avenue. (Source: DYCInc.org)

Dynamic’s Brooklyn facility at 1830 Coney Island Avenue. (Source: DYCInc.org)

The associate director of a Midwood-based drug rehabilitation and counseling center said she was among the first to sound the alarm about an impending spike in heroin abuse in the community, and now the group is turning to the radio to bring it to an end.

Karen Carlini, associate director of Dynamic Youth Community at 1830 Coney Island Avenue, told PIX11 that she knew there was a crisis on the horizon and was warning parents, community leaders and law enforcement more than a decade ago.

“We saw it happening every year,” Carlini told the outlet. “And we tried to tell people what we saw happening.”

Carlini, who has worked in the substance abuse field for 40 years, said she realized what was coming when she saw the nature of abuse change in the 1990s. While, nationally, heroin abuse cases were declining, she saw a rise in opiate painkiller abuse – pills with similar properties to that of heroin.

New painkillers, like Vicadin and Oxycontin, were liberally doled out to patients in the 1990s. Prescribed for cases ranging from a pulled tooth to severe cancers and injuries, leftover pills found their way into home medical cabinets. That gave easy access to teens, and the highly addictive drugs made an impression.

The state has spent the past decade tackling the problem, and a slew of legislative reforms over the past few years have cracked down on abuse. Addicted teens turned to heroin, an increasingly cheaper alternative.

Dynamic, which operates an intensive, in-patient rehab facility in Fallsburg, New York, called Dynamite Youth Facility, now works closely with community leaders to help meet the problem head on – including with local Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, chairman of the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Committee.

The pol launched a partnership with Dynamic this summer, as well as with the Kings Bay Y, to tackle the issue with an emphasis on the Russian-speaking community. They’ve established a regular segment on Russian-language DaNU Radio to reach out, saying that there are limited options for the Russian community because of language barriers and stigma.

“Many families don’t recognize the signs of addiction, are unaware of the help that’s out there, or are reluctant to address their child’s addiction because of feelings of shame,” said Cymbrowitz in a press release announcing the initiative. “We need to break this deadly cycle of addiction – and the only way to do that is by pooling our expertise and resources and working together.”

Credit: Flickr/tom.arthur

Credit: Flickr/tom.arthur

Due to a recent spate of credit/debit card skimming reports at gas stations in New York City, the NYPD is urging folks to be alert while paying at the gas pump–and to look out for credit card skimming devices.

Our neighborhoods are not immune. In April, there were two incidents at Sunoco stations in Brooklyn, one at 1248 Coney Island Avenue in Midwood, and another 1907 Cropsey Avenue in Bath Beach.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Choose a pump near the cashier. Experts say skimmers prefer to target pumps in the shadows.
  • Inspect the gas pump reader before using it.
  • If you do suspect a skimming device, call 911.
  • If a device is discovered refrain from touching, call 911.
  • When possible utilize cash, instead of your credit/debit card.

suspect

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Thief.

A man and a woman wormed their way into a Coney Island Avenue apartment building, knocked on someone’s door, and ripped an iPhone right out of the tenant’s hand when he answered, police say.

The 29-year-old man was robbed at 4:45pm on September 19, sparking a hunt for the two perps now wanted for grand larceny.

The male thief is described as white, between 30 and 35 years old, approximately 6’0″ and between 220lbs and 240lbs. He was wearing a white tank top and tan pants.

The woman is described as light-skinned, between 25 and 30 years old, also 6’0″ and was wearing jeans and a hat.

The two were caught on surveillance camera fleeing the lobby of the building.

Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS (8477).  The public can also submit their tips by logging onto the Crime Stoppers website at WWW.NYPDCRIMESTOPPERS.COM or by texting their tips to 274637 (CRIMES) then enter TIP577.

Litvin gives “pro” legal tips, discussing how the banks are out to rip you off.

Gennady Litvin / Source: About.me

Gennady Litvin / Source: About.me

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is suing a local law firm and its namesake attorney, accusing them of running a fraudulent mortgage rescue scheme that ripped off financially vulnerable homeowners facing foreclosure.

The attorney general filed suit in New York County Supreme Court yesterday against Midwood-based Litvin Law Firm and Miami-based Litvin, Torrens & Associates, as well as their principal attorney, Gennady Litvin.

Litvin Law Firm is located at 1716 Coney Island Avenue, and Litvin lives in Brooklyn. The firm’s website claims it can provide “foreclosure defense in 31 states across the US,” as does Litvin’s About.me page. Their YouTube page has a handful of testimonial videos from satisfied clients, as well as legal tips from Litvin himself. And radio and TV ads touted connections to “state attorney generals and the federal government.”

But it was all a sham, according to the attorney general.

One of the testimonial videos, claiming that Litvin’s firm successfully eliminated her mortgage in Alabama – even though Litvin was not permitted to practice in Alabama.

The suit claims that the law firms targeted struggling homeowners, then billed them monthly fees ranging from $595 to $750 each for services they would not – and often could not – offer.

Using third-party marketers, the firms picked up clients from across the nation, claiming that they would have a “custom made attorney defense team” that provided “a level of service that usually is only enjoyed by large corporate clients.” They said they’d do “forensic loan audits” to find errors in their mortgage documents and defend against foreclosure, winning concessions from lenders.

In reality, they only had offices in two states and were not permitted to provide foreclosure defense in many of the places where they enrolled clients. Homeowners in most cases never spoke to an attorney, never received representation, and never saw the benefit of the hundreds or thousands of dollars paid to the firms. Most wound up negotiating with lenders on their own, according to the attorney general.

The third-party marketers have already been taken to task by the Federal Trade Commission, agreeing to a permanent ban on mortgage and debt relief services and paying $3.6 million to pay back duped clients.

The Litvin Law Firm was given the boot from practicing in Rhode Island in January after that state’s attorney general found he was offering mortgage foreclosure assistance despite not being licensed in that state.

The attorney general is on the lookout for possible victims of Litvin’s scheme. If you believe you were a victim of the Litvin Law Firm; Litvin, Torrens & Associates; or any of its affiliated marketers, or if you believe you were a victim of another mortgage fraud, please file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office. Complaint forms are available here. You may also call the Attorney General’s Consumer Hotline at 1-800-771-7755.

Schneiderman’s office is also reminding beleaguered homeowners of the free services available through the Home Owner Protection Program (HOPP), which uses funds from the National Mortgage Settlement to fund legal services and housing counseling across New York to provide foreclosure prevention services. Consumers can call 855-HOME-456 for help.

ice-cream

Personally, I prefer my ice cream smutty.

kastattoo

Ink-lovers take note, KasTattoo, formerly of Coney Island Avenue, has been resurrected in a new storefront  on Avenue Z, half a mile away from their previous location.

The new location, at 2103 Avenue Z, opened less than a month ago. It replaces the offices of ZRealty Services.

The owner, Kas Vilkas, wrote to tell us to say that “everybody’s welcome.”

His previous location at 2631 Coney Island Avenue opened in 2009. It shuttered in 2012, and was replaced by Tattoo Kulture.

Welcome back, KasTattoo, and good luck!

mandees-1

Mandee’s to the rescue? More like turn tail and run.

The long-lived Brighton Beach Avenue location of Mandee is having a storewide sale as it gets set to close its doors for good. Its parent company, Big M, is retreating from the neighborhood following bankruptcy proceedings last year that it said were spurred on by Superstorm Sandy.

Signs at the location are calling it an end of lease sale. An employee of the store told Sheepshead Bites that the 713 Brighton Beach Avenue storefront would shutter in late October, a decision that will leave 20 to 25 people without jobs, she said. Employees have been directed to steer customers to their Sheepshead Bay location on Nostrand Avenue and Avenue U.

Big M, which also owns Annie Sez, filed for bankruptcy in January 2013, saying that Superstorm Sandy forced company stores in New York and New Jersey to close and that business had not been able to recover from the impact. The company was in the midst of a turnaround and restructuring when the storm hit, according to Bloomberg News.

At the time of the filing, the New Jersey-based company operated 129 stores in eight states, including 84 Mandee locations. It was founded by brothers Leon, Max and Bernard Mandelbaum in 1948 and remains a family-owned business.

development-1

The following is a press release from the offices of Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz:

Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn) is urging the Board of Standards and Appeals to reject a special permit application by a Sheepshead Bay ambulatory health care facility that would severely impact residential parking.

The applicant, Eric Palatnik, P.C., for 2464 Coney Island Avenue, wants BSA to reduce the facility’s required number of parking spaces in the building’s indoor garage. Thirty-four spaces are currently reserved but BSA can reduce that number to 17. BSA is conducting a hearing on the matter tomorrow at 10 a.m. [Ed. — The meeting has now passed.]

Community Board 15 has already voted against the proposal.

Assemblyman Cymbrowitz says eliminating indoor parking spaces will cause parking woes for people on East 9th Street, located around the corner from the facility, in addition to other nearby streets. “East 9th Street consists of attached homes with no garages. Residents here must rely solely on street parking, which is already in short supply,” he said in a letter to BSA.

Curb cuts have been installed on East 9th Street for the health care center’s underground parking garage, limiting parking for residents even further, he said.

Exacerbating the situation is a car rental business on the first floor of the same building, Assemblyman Cymbrowitz said. The car rental business will use the underground garage spaces when necessary, meaning that patients at the health care facility will need to look for available street parking when the indoor spots are occupied.

“In order to minimize the impact on residents’ quality of life, it is essential that BSA vote against the application to reduce the required number of parking spaces for the ambulatory health facility,” he said.

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