Archive for the tag 'corruption'

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.

Sampson (File photo)

Sampson (File photo)

State Senator John Sampson’s defense team has taken a rather bizarre approach, practically admitting that he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of foreclosed homes - but that he did it too long ago for him to be prosecuted.

The pol appeared in court on Thursday to have two of the 10 counts against him dismissed, arguing that the funds were embezzled earlier than prosecutors said. According to a New York Times report, the issue revolves around the definition of embezzlement. The prosecution’s charges are based on when Sampson spent the money; Sampson’s defense said it should have been on when he moved it into an escrow account he controlled.

The paper reports:

The defense agreed, for the purposes of the motion, that the embezzlement took place in 1998 and 2002, when Mr. Sampson transferred the money to escrow accounts he controlled.

It is “extraneous” and “irrelevant” how and when the embezzled funds were spent, his lawyer, Nathaniel H. Akerman, said in court on Thursday.

A prosecutor, Alexander A. Solomon, argued that embezzlement was “not complete until the defendant used the funds in the escrow account,” which occurred within the five-year window.

The judge said the pol’s failure to return the money “shows some intention,” but also noted the prosecutor’s logical flaw that, if the money was not returned but also never spent, then the pol could never be prosecuted.

The case stems from two incidents in 1998 and 2002, when Sampson, a lawyer, was appointed the referee in foreclosure proceedings. He was to oversee the sale of the homes, pay off the debts, and return the surplus funds to the state within five days. According to the prosecution, and now apparently the defense as well, he did not return those funds and instead began using them for personal benefit in 2008.

The judge will rule on the motion by the end of the month, according to Capital New York. Sampson faces eight other counts for obstruction of justice, witness tampering and lying to federal prosecutors.

State Senator Marty Golden (Photo By Erica Sherman)

State Senator Marty Golden (Photo By Erica Sherman)

Federal prosecutors are looking into the campaign finances of State Senator Marty Golden, the pol confirmed.

“The campaign fund is being looked at,” Golden told the New York Post, regarding a probe by United States Attorney Preet Bharara.

The paper reports:

Golden has hired Gottlieb & Gordon, a law firm that specializes in government investigations and white-collar crime defenses, in response to a subpoena from the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office.

… [Golden] said he didn’t know why his campaign fund was being targeted.

Bharara’s office leads the nation in political convictions, having also put away former Sheepshead Bay State Senator Carl Kruger and several others. The prosecutor has not indicted Golden or made any public announcements about its investigation.

Golden was previously being eyed by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Moreland Commission before it was disbanded. Bharara’s office took over several of the cases the Moreland panel was looking into.

The New York Post speculated that the commission was eyeing the $541,599 that the pol steered to the Bay Ridge Manor, a catering hall he once owned and is now owned by his brother.

It’s also possible that the probe is looking at activity surrounding multi-million dollar tax breaks given to luxury developers in Manhattan, including a $44 million waiver to Extell Development. The commission sent subpoenas to those developers last summer. Golden sponsored the legislation in the Senate, and pleaded ignorance when asked about it.

view-tower

In a neighborhood of one- and two-family homes, with buildings that max out at seven stories, it’s really hard to get an idea of the scale of a 30-story building.

Fortunately, an anonymous amateur drone enthusiast got curious and dispatched his flying machine over the building site at 1501 Voorhies Avenue, where Muss Development is planning their luxury residential tower. The rest of us schmucks in our itty bitty homes and low-rises will appear as ants.

Our tipster filmed during one of last week’s overcast days. He said he hopes to visit the site again during clearer weather. But even with the foreboding clouds obscuring the view, the drone hovered at just under 330 feet, illustrating the views to be enjoyed by the residents of the building’s penthouse. It clearly dwarfs all buildings in the area, making even the tallest structure – the St. Mark Roman Catholic Church steeple – look like a children’s toy.

The jaw-dropping view goes out for miles, and the thin outline of One World Trade Center makes an appearance in the video. On a clear day, this tower will be visible from just about anywhere you can see the skyline south of Prospect Park.

Our tipster also turned the camera down, snagging an aerial shot of the lot.

drone

The approximately footprint of the combined properties now owned by Muss Development. (Source: Google Maps)

The development site, with Voorhies Avenue to the south and Sheepshead Bay Road to the north.

The developers behind the 30-story residential tower slated for 1501 Voorhies Avenue are envisioning a luxurious haven for the area’s wealthiest residents, housed behind a gated entrance on Sheepshead Bay Road and with units starting at $700,000, Sheepshead Bites has learned.

Muss Development and AvalonBay, the development team behind the planned 280,000-square-foot, 333-foot tall proposal, briefed community stakeholders at an off-the-record, behind-closed-doors meeting a week before Sheepshead Bites shed light on the plans. Several people at the meeting shared details with this publication on the condition of anonymity, since the meeting was considered a courtesy and not required by the developer.

What emerged from their description is the first glimpse of a luxurious project that will change the physical and, potentially, the socio-economic landscape of the Sheepshead Bay Road area.

The most immediate effect of the plans is an impending demolition of a storefront on Sheepshead Bay Road at East 16th Street. Where the prior developers sought to create a street that runs through to Voorhies Avenue, Muss and AvalonBay will create a pedestrian walkway. Attendees at the meeting said renderings shared with the group showed that the walkway was a gated private entrance to the complex’s grounds.

Behind the gates was a roundabout that caps off a long driveway from Voorhies Avenue, where vehicles will enter. The 52 outdoor parking spots will be to the east, the building, with its 124 garage spots, will be on the west, abutting the subway station. It’s unclear if the Voorhies Avenue driveway will be gated or have a security booth like Muss’ Oceana Development.

The building itself will soar 333 feet into the sky at its highest point, but a portion of the building – possibly the garage – will only be a few stories tall, capped off with an outdoor common space that could have a pool and be connected to a gym and health spa. They’re considering alternative amenities for the outdoor space as well, including a dog run. The building will be pet-friendly.

Three other developments by the same architect, Perkins Eastman, for the same developer, Avalon Bay (Source: Perkins Eastman) (Click to enlarge)

Three other developments by the same architect, Perkins Eastman, for the same developer, Avalon Bay (Source: Perkins Eastman) (Click to enlarge)

The price is not for the weak of wallet. Our sources said that units are designed to be comparable to the Oceana Development, and will begin at $700,000 for a one-bedroom. One attendee told Sheepshead Bites that prices are based on a $700 per square foot rate, though this couldn’t be confirmed by others in attendance (most of the details shared here were corroborated by multiple sources). None of our sources could provide the proposed price for the building’s most expensive units, but at the Oceana they were marketed for approximately $2.1 million when the building first opened.

All of our sources say that the building will be split between rentals and owned condos, with Muss selling the condos and AvalonBay managing the rental properties. One of the sources said the bottom two-thirds of the building will be rental, while the top third will be owned condos. No proposed rates were given for the rentals.

Rental tenants and condo owners would enter using the same entrance and use the same parking lot. However, of three elevators, two will be for both renters and owners, and one will be owners only.

Each attendee that we spoke to emphasized that the developer stated that the plans are far from set in stone and are only drafts; they’re subject to change.

Our sources told us that little opposition to the plan was raised by those in attendance, which included representatives for local elected officials and members of Community Board 15. Instead, they questioned specifics of the development that could be problematic.

Multiple attendees asked about affordable housing units, and were told “absolutely not.”

Parking was also a key issue raised by the stakeholders, with some saying 176 parking spaces for 250 units plus office spaces, although the minimum required by zoning, was far from sufficient for the neighborhood.

The developer responded saying that the building’s proximity to the subway station would make it unlikely tenants would have cars. One source told us that the developer said they believed much of the parking lot would sit empty most of the time.

This was described alternately by almost all of our sources as “bullshit” and “horseshit.”

Parking wasn’t the only vehicle-related issue raised. Voorhies Avenue is often at a standstill during the day, especially at that location where vehicles stop to pick up or drop off commuters at the train station, and a constant flow of cars depart the Belt Parkway at the exit ramp directly across from their proposed driveway.

The developer told attendees they’re working with the Department of Transportation to figure out the best road configuration to accommodate vehicles entering and exiting the property’s driveway. A Stop Sign on the property is being considered.

Sound and vibrations from the subway, just feet away from the property, was also discussed. The developers told attendees that the building would have special windows to block out the sound.

Among other concerns that came up was the additional stress that the highrise would place on sewage infrastructure, already criticized by some as deficient to handle the number of homes and businesses in the area. The developer said they’re conducting an environmental impact study. One source said the developer completed the study and found that there would be no problems to the infrastructure, but this was contradicted by another source. Other sources could not recall.

The building’s plans are still being reviewed by the Department of Building, and one source said they expect it that it will be put to a more vigorous process than most – although it will likely pass. The building is as-of-right and completely within zoning, so it will not need approval from the Community Board.

The developer told attendees they expect to begin construction by spring 2015 if all goes smoothly.

Demolition of the Sheepshead Bay Road storefront will happen within the coming days.

The approximately footprint of the combined properties now owned by Muss Development. (Source: Google Maps)

When developers proposed a 22-story development at 1501 Voorhies Avenue, the community balked at the sheer scale of the project. After sitting silent for five years and a change in ownership, new plans have been filed for a whopping 30-story residential development.

Muss Development and AvalonBay submitted the plans to the Department of Buildings yesterday outlining a 333-foot tall building, with 266,244 square feet of residential space spread across 250 units. At 30 stories, it will be approximately four times taller than anything else in the area except the St. Mark Church belltower.

The building will have a lounge, playroom, bike storage, and outdoor recreation space, according to plans filed with the agency. There will be 14,530 square feet of office space and parking for 124 vehicles inside a split-level garage, and another 52 spaces available outside.

The building’s basement level will be used for storage in addition to parking, with mechanicals and utilities elevated to the first floor to protect against flooding. The lot was overwhelmed with water during Superstorm Sandy.

The plans are being designed by the architecture firm Perkins Eastman, a top-tier outfit that has done a number of ultra-modern luxury apartment developments in New York City and elsewhere. They previously teamed up with AvalonBay to build Avalon White Plains and Avalon Riverview North in Queens.

Avalon White Plains (Source: Eastman)

Another development by the same architect and developing company, Avalon White Plains (Source: Perkins Eastman)

And if Muss Development sounds familiar, it should. Muss made a name for itself in outerborough residential development when it built Brighton Beach’s Oceana Condominium complex. It appears they’re trying to replicate that success with luxury market-rate apartments in Sheepshead Bay.

As we previously reported, Muss and AvalonBay snatched up the 110,028-square-foot lot in July for $20.2 million. Originally it appeared the lot was split in two, with the former Verizon parking lot taking up 87,500 square feet and a commercial strip along Sheepshead Bay Road at East 16th Street comprising the rest. The latest plans appear to indicate that the development will encompass both sites, but it’s still unclear.

The land was sold by Acadia Realty Trust, which purchased them for $20.3 million in 2008. Acadia, in partnership with PA Associates had planned a two-building complex dubbed Station Plaza that included a 22-story mixed-use tower. There was to be mall with four floors of shopping, a new public street that cut through the property at East 16th Street, and more than 650 parking spaces – anchored by 16 floors of residential condominiums.

The plans are currently under review to see if they exceed zoning. We’ll keep you posted.

Addition (September 25): The development was also covered by Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY).

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Gnomiki Day Care at 2221 Ocean Avenue, which was closed due to its history of violations. Its sister site at 2623 Ocean Avenue has been recommended for closure as well. (Source: Google Maps)

The operators of nine child care facilities – seven in Brooklyn and two in Staten Island – were charged last Friday with submitting false documents to the city to cover up a slew of health and safety problems, according to Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation Mark Peters, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, and Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, Jr.

At the centers, which served about 400 children, investigators said they found a long list of egregious conditions, including rat droppings, poison, a mountain of trash, and a fire alarm falling off the wall, the Daily News reported. Additionally, the DOI said they discovered owners had submitted fake educational degrees, forged medical records, and falsified letters stating employees had been trained in child abuse identification.

The city recently closed four of the centers:

  • Gnomiki Day Care, Inc., 2221 Ocean Avenue, closed due to the site’s violation history, city officials said.
  • Next to Home, 1123 Flatbush Avenue, was shuttered due to a city Department of Buildings vacate order issued in response to multiple DOB and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene violations.
  • Next to Home, 1159 Flatbush Avenue was closed because investigators said the program had been operating under an expired DOB certificate of occupancy.
  • One of a Kind Child Care, 6318 Amboy Road, Staten Island, ended operations after DOHMH petitioned to revoke the permit.

At the remaining five sites:

  • Next to Home, 5566 Kings Highway, was “never leased and never provided services to children,” the DOI said
  • ABC Little Star, 2345 85th Street, is still operating and city officials said DOHMH inspected it this week, finding no new violations.
  • Gnomiki Day Care, Inc., Group Family Day Care, 2623 Ocean Avenue, has been recommended for closure.
  • Next to Home, 353 Ocean Avenue, closed after the owner stopped operations, city officials said.
  • One of a Kind Child Care, a group family daycare operating at 6306 Amboy Road in Staten Island, is operating, but the owner that was arrested will be excluded from the program, officials said.

The site owners who were arrested were:

  • Viktoriya Federovich, 38, of Brooklyn, was the owner of Gnomiki Day Care, Inc. She was charged with presenting fraudulent documents to the city, including two Certificates of Completion for Identification and Reporting of Child Abuse and Maltreatment for an assistant teacher and a volunteer, the DOI said.
  • Elena Kaplan, 53, of Brooklyn, was the owner ABC Little Star Day Care, and, according to the DOI’s investigation, she allegedly submitted a number of false documents to the city, including a a fake public school teacher certificate for herself and state Nurses Association Certificates of Completion for various members of the staff confirming they had received training in identifying child abuse, when, in fact, they allegedly had not, the city officials said.
  • Owen Larman, 41, of Brooklyn, a convicted felon who was found guilty of operating a $12 million mortgage fraud scheme in 2007 and who was also charged in this case with stealing close to $60,000 in public funds. He was the owner and operator of Next to Home Child Care, which provided services at three locations in the borough. Next to Home also obtained a registration to operate a fourth child care program at 5566 Kings Highway, but the DOI said this site did not actually provide any services.
  • Gina Schiavo, 44, of Staten Island, was the owner of One of a King Child Care. According to the DOI, she allegedly introduced an individual to a DOHMH inspector under another teacher’s name and fraudulently provided documents with the name and qualifications of the teacher. When the inspector questioned the individual about her identity, Schiavo allegedly admitted that the individual was using another person’s name.

“These defendants forged and falsified documents in order to cover up safety risks and steal money intended for actual child care, as charged,” Peters said in a prepared statement. “Our investigations underscore the importance of continuing to vigorously police the integrity of the city’s child care systems, an effort that is very much continuing.”

In his statement to the press, Thompson too issued harsh words for the defendants.

“Each day parents throughout the city count on child care providers to protect the safety of their children,” he said. “It is disgraceful that greedy operators would circumvent safety provisions for their own benefit. Our parents and children deserve better and that’s why we worked so closely with the Department of Investigation on these cases.”

Sampson (File photo)

State Senator John Sampson had just scant hours to celebrate his victory in Tuesday’s primary elections before a former top aide and Democratic consultant was found guilty on Wednesday of conspiring with the pol to defraud the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee out of $100,000.

Melvin Lowe, 52, was found guilty by a federal jury of wire fraud, tax violations and swindling the DSCC out of the cash in 2010. He faces up to 82 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines, according to the New York Post.

Crain’s details the scam, in which prosecutors said Lowe directed the funds to a political consulting firm that then kicked it back to him.

Twenty-thousand dollars also went to political consultant Michael Nieves, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Nor has political operative Elnatan Rudolph, a former Brooklynite who owned Cornerstone Management Partners and who received $5,000.

In addition, Mr. Lowe was convicted for tax violations for his failure to report more than $2 million in consulting income, causing his bank to make a false statement to his mortgage lender, and for defrauding a Yonkers resident of $66,000.

Lowe told an IRS agent that Sampson ordered the $20,000 payment to Nieves, although prosecutors found the consultant was owed no money from the party’s campaign fund. The fund was controlled by Sampson, who at the time was the head of the Democratic conference, and Sampson approved the $100,000 payment. Prosecutors told the New York Times that they had not yet decided if they would pursue charges against the pol in connection to the kickback scheme.

Sampson faces unrelated criminal charges for allegedly lying about his ownership of a liquor store and, separately, for allegedly embezzling $400,000 from the sale of foreclosed homes.

He won his primary election on Tuesday with more than 54 percent of the vote, and is expected to win reelection in November.

Photo by Ariela B.

The offices of Grigory Shyknevsky, D.D.S., at 2523 Ocean Avenue, where one of the accused worked. (Photo by Ariela B.)

First phony lawyers, now phony dentists.

Authorities arrested four people for pretending to be dentists and practicing on patients out of two Sheepshead Bay area clinics.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed felony charges against Konstantin Shtrambrand, Ilya Zolotar, Sergey Tolokolnikov and Hakob Gahnapetyan for practicing dentistry without a license. They face up to four years in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors say that Shtrambrand, 43, Zolotar, 48, and Tolokolnikov, 54, saw patients at J.S. Atlantic Dental at 1707 Avenue P.

Gahnapetyan, 44, worked out of the dental offices of Grigory Shyknevsky, D.D.S., at 2523 Ocean Avenue.

The first clinic is owned by Joseph Grigory Shyknevsky, the son of the owner of the second clinic. Both are also being investigated, although no charges have been filed.

The sham practices came to light after the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit dispatched undercover investigators to the clinics. There they spotted each of the defendants wearing scrubs and performing dental work. Zolotar was seen drilling a patient’s tooth, and the other three were overheard doling out medical advice.

Schneiderman blasted the alleged frauds for putting unsuspecting patients at serious risk.

“New Yorkers deserve to have confidence that the people providing them healthcare are licensed professionals,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “Plain and simple: there is one set of rules for everyone and my office will not tolerate those who seek to skirt the rules, including in the medical profession.”

The August 28 bust, in which the clinics were raided by authorities, comes just weeks after FBI agents raided a Brighton Beach law office. In that bust, a man allegedly had stolen the identity of a retired lawyer and fraudulently represented clients in at least 11 court cases.

Sampson (File photo)

State Senator John Sampson is well on his way to reelection after besting three primary opponents last night despite multiple criminal indictments for corruption.

Sampson garnered 7,218 votes, or 54.17 percent of those cast – nearly double that of his closest rival, union organizer Dell Smitherman, who pulled in 3,981, or 29.88 percent of the vote. Homeless advocate Sean Henry, who ran a spirited and well-funded campaign, pulled in 1,668 votes, or 12.52 percent. A fourth candidate, Elias Weir, earned 3.44 percent.

It’s a strong win for the embattled pol. Prior to the election, some observers wondered if Henry and Smitherman would split the anti-Sampson vote and help usher in a victory for the incumbent; however, even if there was only one challenger, Sampson still would have won the Democratic nod.

The district is a Democratic stronghold, making reelection almost a sure thing for Sampson.

The pol will return to Albany in January, but will lose his seat if found guilty of the criminal charges on which he’s been indicted. He allegedly embezzled more than $400,000 from the sale of foreclosed homes to finance a political campaign, as well as separate charges for lying to the FBI about a liquor store he owned.

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