Exclusive: Judge Recused in $11M Real Estate Fraud Case at 315 W. 35th Street
Jotham Sederstrom Nov. 22, 2011, 10 a.m.
A New York Supreme Court judge has recused himself from a case involving an alleged $11 million real estate fraud and referred the matter to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.
The suit involves 315 West 35th Street, a 60,000-square-foot Midtown building that Isaac Chetrit, a cousin of the prominent real estate investor Joe Chetrit, has been trying to foreclose on.
The case has been locked in court over allegations that similarly named real estate investor Aaron Chitrik, the owner of the 315 West 35th Street, who is in default on the property, tampered with the deed to the mortgage, illegally transferring it to an entity that he controlled.
The debt has since been transferred back to Mr. Chetrit, who purchased it for roughly $11 million in 2010 with the intent to take control of the property. The confusion stemming from the improper transfer however has delayed efforts to foreclose, which are ongoing.
Aaron Chitrik did not return calls for comment, although an adviser, Benjamin Herbst, spoke to The Commercial Observer on his behalf.
In late October, Mr. Chetrit’s attorney in the case Stephen Meister, a principal at the law firm Meister Seelig & Fein, and colleague Kevin Fritz sent a letter to Justice Bernard Fried, a prominent judge who has presided over several high profile real estate cases in the city, outlining the fraud. Mr. Meister accuses a man named Benjamin Herbst, who has claimed to be an advisor to Mr. Chetrik, and two of his associates, Stuart Davis and Jonathan Lefkowitz, of counterfeiting the mortgage deed.
Mr. Meister told The Commercial Observer he suspected the group’s plan was to delay the foreclosure by tying up the case in court, potentially in hopes that Mr. Chetrit would offer a payoff to walk away.
In November Mr. Meister responded by adding Mr. Herbst and Mr. Davis as defendants in the foreclosure action and formally identifying their misconduct in a letter to Justice Fried. In an apparent nod to the validity of Mr. Meister’s accusations, Judge Fried has brought the case to the attention of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.
“I am referring this matter to the Office of the District Attorney, for whatever action is deemed appropriate,” Justice Fried wrote in a letter to the DA last week. “In light of this referral, I am recusing myself from this case, effective immediately.”
The case has since been turned over to Justice Melvin Schweitzer. Mr. Meister has continued to proceed with the foreclosure action and has asked the court to place 315 West 35th Street in the hands of a receiver in order to remove the building from the control of Mr. Chitrik in the meantime.
According to court records and Roy Martin, an attorney with the Midtown law firm Hodgson Russ, this isn’t the first incident in which Mr. Herbst has been involved in fraud. Mr. Herbst has tampered with mortgage and property deeds on several occassions, modifying the names on the documents in order to illegally transfer them to entities he controls.
In conversations with The Commercial Observer, Mr. Herbst denied the allegations. He said he arranged an amicable workout between Mr. Chetrit and Mr. Chitrik and accused Mr. Chetrit of improperly altering the mortgage papers. Mr. Herbst, however, was unable to provide any proof that there was ever a willing partnership between the two parties.
“I don’t know how he has been able to get away with this for so long,” Mr. Martin told The Commercial Observer.–DGeiger@Observer.com