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Why did New York schools pay $ 25 million for the site of former hot dog Nathan?

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This story was originally published May 23rd CITY.

In September 2018, Lorraine Grill, then head of the city’s school building department, received an email from her friend Carl Shisura from his email account as the leader of the New York City Building Congress.

He asked if they could talk on the phone about Nathan’s Famous’s closed restaurant in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.

The conversation was not about hot dogs, but rather Shissura’s idea that this site could be a public school, according to an email and other received by THE CITY through a request for Freedom of Information Act.

“The property is Nathan’s former site – 86 and 7th avenues. The address is 650 86th Street, I believe 70,000 SF, ”he wrote in an email, telling Grill that the owner was“ Ready to make a deal ”.

“He would have preferred to deal directly with the SCA. Maybe you or one of your deputies can call him and then hand him over to his team, ”he added.

Scissura left two obviously key pieces of information. First, this “owner,” Tim Zys, was in the contract but had not yet acquired the site, which was still owned by Nathan’s Famous.

And Shissura never showed in emails from Grill for more than three years – and never told city or state lobbyists – that Zis had agreed to pay him thousands of dollars a month.

Instead, Scissor imagined himself solely as a local benefactor of Bay Ridge. “Believe me, I do not want to participate in anything else (sic) in the fact that schools are built in the best area of ​​New York :)”, – he wrote Grill.

On October 23, 2018, ZIS completed the purchase for $ 12.25 million, and on July 1, 2019, he resold the property for $ 25 million to the Grillo Public Schools Construction Agency, according to public records paid by taxpayers.

Ziss did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the mayor’s office, Eric Adams, speaking on behalf of Grill, said she had “always made decisions solely on the merits, and this situation was clearly no exception.”

“At no point did Mr. Shisura say he was being paid to discuss the project, and First Deputy Mayor Grill never found out about the deal,” said City Hall spokesman Charles Lutwak.

“It’s lobbying”

Shissura was more than a familiar name in Adams Town Hall. Earlier this year, the mayor was on the verge appointing him head of a powerful urban economic development corporation. After the CITY in January first revealed Scissor’s secret work for Ziss, Adams named another EDC chief, Andrew Kimball.

Managing the Building Congress, a trading group for the real estate and construction industry, Scissura began working with Ziss in July 2018, according to a copy of the contract received by THE CITY.

In addition to the $ 15,000 tariff fee, Ziss has been paying Scissura $ 6,000 a month since October this year, the contract shows. The outlined scope of work included meetings with local leaders and elected officials on the development of five properties in Bay Ridge. According to people familiar with the matter, New York City Congressional staff and council were unaware of its sideline.

The contract states that Shissura “will not act as a lobbyist as defined by the New York State Lobbying Rules, and will not act as a lawyer in this project.” Scissura is not a registered lobbyist in New York.

But many experts who spoke to THE CITY said Shissura’s efforts to influence the real estate deal fit the classic definition of lobbying.

These actions include his pathetic emails to Grill, who is now the first deputy mayor under Adams.

“He is asking for action against a government official, this is lobbying,” said a lawyer who specializes in lobbying, who asked not to use his name.

He pointed at urban lobbying law, which prohibits any activity that attempts to influence eight individual actions. The list includes “any decision of an elected city official, city official or employee regarding the terms of acquisition or disposal of any interest in real estate by the city.”

Under city and state lobbying laws, a person found guilty of unregistered lobbying faces a civil fine of up to $ 30,000, in addition to a criminal penalty for a Class A offense. The city clerk declined to comment on the story, and Mixes the state commission on public ethics (JCOPE) did not respond to calls.

Scissura continues to defend his work with Ziss.

“As I said in the past, my friend Mr. Zeiss asked me to consult on some property, but I made it clear that I would not be a lobbyist for his organization,” he said in a recent statement to THE CITY. week.

Shissouri’s personal lawyer, Claude Millman, said Monday night: “We have reviewed the emails identified by THE CITY and we argue that they reflect any” lobbying “that should have been reported in accordance with the law in these circumstances,” he said. wrote in an email.

The law does not consider every connection with the government to be “lobbying”. To argue otherwise, one would have to ignore detailed definitions and numerous exceptions in a complex regulatory regime. ”

Buy now!

In dozens of emails from September 2018 to February 2021 between Shissur and Grillo, he maintained a steady drumbeat battle over Zisa’s property inquiries – while never disclosing his own financial stake.

“He would have preferred to deal directly with the SCA. Maybe you or one of your deputies can call him and then pass it on to your team, ”Shissura wrote in an email sent on September 22, 2018.

Shissura approached Grill about the site a few weeks later with more urgency.

“I know he has other potential tenants, and I don’t want the SCA to miss out again,” he wrote.

In the same email exchange Shissura invited him to contact Gail Mandara, who was involved in purchasing real estate for SCA. Grill politely knocked him down.

“Carla, you know I consider you the whole world, but it would be inappropriate for you to talk to Gail during negotiations,” she wrote on November 14, 2018. “I promise to contact her to find out about the latest and come back to you.”

Building allies

District 20 in Brooklyn, which includes the Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights districts, is one of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Shissura, a former member of the local school board, spoke openly about his involvement in school construction.

In his letters from Grill, he also mentions other real estate properties owned by Ziss, including a plot at 7614 4th Avenue that can be used by schools.

“The other part[s] from constituency 20, but also excellent, ”he wrote in 2018. “Hopefully someone can contact him.”

And emails show that Zis immediately moved in to turn the property over.

“Although[t] you should know that we are a few inches from signing a contract on Nathan’s website! ”wrote Scyssuri’s Grill on January 4, 2019, just over two months after Zys bought the website. “Thanks for helping with that.”

Shissura kept going after Nathan’s deal. In October 2020, he wrote Grill an email about a possible Bay Ridge school website. “The owner is really on the last breath (sic) with holding the site” after other potential buyers showed interest, he wrote. It is unclear which site he meant.

“Can we achieve this and at least sign contracts with him or even talk to your team … talk to him to run the ball,” he wrote.

The demolition of Nathan’s former building was completed in late December last year, and according to the city, the school should open by 2024.

In late 2021, members of the New York Construction Congress council anonymously received a copy of the contract between Scissura and Ziss, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The contract was also sent along with a letter from a Building Congress insider expressing concern about the deal, the people said.

At the board meeting, Scissura assured members that it no longer works with the developer and he is still in charge of the trading organization.

Several members of the Board of the Construction Congress did not respond to requests for comment from the CITY.

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