By Arthur Schwartz
Taken in handcuffs from the 6th precinct out onto 10th Street, Arthur Schwartz experienced the searing humiliation of eyes asking “what crime did that man commit.” And the humiliation continued when police escorted him into the Criminal Court where he had brought dozens of clients. Now he was the criminal. Lawyers and even a few judges who recognized him looked surprised and stunned—“why was attorney Arthur Schwartz in handcuffs, what did he do?”
Arthur Schwartz had acted because an amoral landlord who contrived to get a ninety-two-year-old tenant committed to a nursing home and then installed surveillance cameras had simply gone too far. Schwartz removed the cameras—and became a victim of those who can afford and relish the abuse of law. —George Capsis
Since Ruth Berk got home, I have dedicated myself, as her Guardian, to bringing about the repairs that her apartment has needed for twenty years. The situation has been so bad for so long, that one can look back to a decision by now retired Justice Sarah Lee Evans, in 1996, awarding Ruth Berk an eight year 50% rent abatement along with $62,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees because of the horrible conditions, and get a description of what the situation was two months ago.
As of June 2015 little had changed.
Instead, the Landlord, Lloyd Goldman, began an amazing campaign to evict Ruth and her daughter Jessica from their stunning fifteenth floor terraced apartment. There have been a dozen eviction actions brought, some alleging non-payment and others alleging that the Berk’s are a nuisance. None have succeeded, although the landlord did manage to get Ruth moved to a nursing home for eleven months, and probably would have declared that location her “permanent residence” (allowing eviction) had I not intervened and gotten her back home.
On June 4, the landlord’s attorney, Jessica Berk’s attorney, Yetta Kurland, and I had a conference with Judge Tanya Kennedy, who is overseeing all Ruth Berk matters. I asked that she order all repairs to be made before the latest eviction actions proceeded, and she did. Jessica Berk had told me that surveillance cameras were watching the apartment; when I asked on the 4th that they be removed the landlord’s lawyer scoffed at me, and said that there weren’t any cameras.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure who to believe. On June 18 we met with the building manager (the infamous Sophia Lamas) at the apartment to assess the work to be done. At the end Jessica pointed out the surveillance cameras, which, as it turned out, were extremely obvious, and which pointed, from five different angles, directly inside the Berk apartment.
I was outraged. So as I said to the press, as Ruth’s guardian, “I took appropriate action to abate what I perceived to be both harassment and an inappropriate invasion of privacy.” I did no damage. In the end I had five unplugged cameras in a bag, which I intended to deposit with Judge Kennedy or with the Attorney General’s Tenant Harassment Unit. I also called Community Affairs Officer James Alverici at the 6th Precinct and told him what I had done; I had been told that Community Affairs had looked at, and disturbed the cameras a month earlier. He said he would get back to me.
A half hour later he called me and told me that Sophia Lamas had come in to file a complaint. He said that she had been told that it was a civil matter and that no complaint would be processed. An attempt by the Landlord’s lawyer to get Judge Kennedy involved was rebuffed later that day. I sent the cameras on to the AG’s office, with a harassment complaint.
Fast forward to July 9. I get a call from a Detective Massey from the 6th Precinct telling me that Sophia has come back, after reading an article about the camera removal in Westview News, and that I had to turn myself in on a grand larceny charge, or have a warrant issued.
I called a lawyer, James Roth of Stampur and Roth, the best criminal defense guys I know. I emailed Corey Johnson, City Council Member, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and Borough President Gale Brewer. By the end of Friday, after I showed that the five cameras were only worth a total of $550 (grand larceny is $1000 plus), and the Precinct got tons of calls, I was told that I would get a Desk Appearance ticket for Petit Larceny. But at 7:30 pm that night my lawyer got a call that our new 6th Precinct Commander, Captain John Simonetti, wanted me to be charged with Grand Larceny, “stealing $4000 worth of camera equipment,” and that I must go through Central Booking, holding cell in the Tombs and all.
So on Tuesday at 8 am, after the NY Post ran a page three story, and Channel 4 did a sympathetic piece, I went in to the 6th Precinct with my wife, and met Detective Massey, who put me in a cell for three hours, no handcuffs. He then said we were going to Central Booking at 100 Centre Street. He said he would spare me the indignity of going into the underground holding cells, something which can last twelve to sixteen hours, and would try to expedite my case.
I was handcuffed, behind my back, and stuffed into the back seat of a car with the cuffs digging deeply into my wrists. At 100 Centre Street, I was photographed and fingerprinted (cuffs off, thank goodness), and then recuffed, behind my back, and marched up to the hallway outside the arraignment courtroom. There I met judges who I knew and lawyers who I knew, and a handful of people who said they had seen the story on Channel 4 and were supportive.
That was at noon. It took till 2:30 pm for me to get called into a courtroom, and another forty-five minutes to have my case called. I was cuffed through it all, even when I faced the judge, something I had never experienced. I didn’t enter a plea because it involved a felony; instead I was given a grand jury date!
Yes, in order to move forward the DA would have to have a grand jury indict me.
We immediately notified the judge that I would testify at the grand jury. Photographers were in the courtroom, and the press circled me on my way out the door. Even the reporter from the Post told me that his paper was on my side.
I am writing this about two weeks later, with some distance, and have two reactions. First, I believe that what I did was appropriate. I stopped a ninety-two-year-old woman from being harassed. I was doing my job, and I had been rebuffed and lied to when I asked “please.” Harassment of any tenant is serious business; harassment of a ninety-two-year-old woman who travels in a wheel chair is outrageous! I can’t wait to retain counsel for Ruth who will sue the landlord and his managing agent to stop the harassment, stop the lawsuits, and pay Mrs Berk some damages. (I am guardian so I can’t be counsel; in Court I am Mrs. Berk.)
I can also say, that despite the fun of being in the media (even the Times did a half page story) for doing a “good deed,” the experience was very disturbing. It awful to be locked up and handcuffed for the better part of a day. The photo of me in Court, published in the Post shows the obvious strain on my face when I faced the Judge.
(In the two weeks since my arrest, two young women committed suicide in holding cells, waiting for arraignment; the family of one, Kindra Chapman, actually called me to ask for my assistance.)
I am extremely annoyed that we have a new CO at the 6th
Precinct who reversed what his detectives had agreed to, and who thumbed his nose at Council Member Johnson and State Senator Hoylman (and me, an elected community leader.) I may just start a campaign to make his stay in our community as short-lived as possible. Perhaps next month the front page of WestView can say: “Simonetti Must Go”. He is a friend of landlords, and decided, in my case, to get tough on a do-gooder.
Understand dear neighbors: I don’t mind being arrested. If that is what it takes to achieve justice I will take an arrest. But the charges and the arrest here were totally unnecessary. The landlord should be charged with Harassment in the Second Degree and Ms. Lamas should be charged with Filing a False Instrument, claiming that the five cameras involved were worth $4000. This fight is far from over!
And thank you to the scores of people who reached out to be supportive, most especially Corey Johnson, Brad Hoylman, Gale Brewer, and Maya Angelou, who tweeted about me when a reporter mentioned that the book I took to read in jail was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Male Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village and President of the Public Interest Law Foundation Advocates for Justice.