Tag Archives: court

Right to Know

24 Apr

The attorney representing accused child murderer asked city court Judge Diane Wray to close yesterday’s felony hearing to the public. It was an unusual move that I’d suspect more and more criminal defendants may seek out. Up to the judge’s discretion, the defendant “must demonstrate to the court a strong likelihood that evidence relevant and admissible would prejudice the defendant’s trial if it were disclosed to potential jurors”. 

I can’t imagine that any of the facts already known and released – how the boy, Abdifatah Mohamud, was seen running from the stepfather just hours before his killing; how the killer tied the boy up to a chair, gagged him with a cloth, duct taped his mouth, and beat him repeatedly with a blunt, wooden instrument until dead; and how the homicide was because Abdifatah was supposedly a little behind in his homework. All of those facts are relevant, admissible, and would prejudice a jury against the accused. 

Some judges have been permitting reporters to record the audio and/or video of court proceedings, and some also allow live Tweeting and other forms of electronic insta-reporting. Perhaps this was an effort by the defendant to prevent any of these from happening. 

This is a solid First Amendment issue – as is, quite frankly, the default prohibition against cameras in the courtroom – that should be resolved in favor of the public’s right to know. 

Valenti’s Goes to Court

31 Jan

If you’re wondering why we’re still following the Valenti’s saga (begun here, with an innocuous takedown of a Janice Okun “review”, updated here, here, herehere, here, and here), it’s because the commentariat has weighed in well over 2,500 times. It’s generally the same 10 – 15 commenters adding details, accusations, and trading barbs, but I’ve received lots of positive feedback from people who remain riveted by how a mediocre red sauce joint could generate so much interest and hatred.

Terry Valenti and Lori Brocuglio took possession of the restaurant property in late September pursuant to a lease that commenced on October 1st. Their landlord, Frank Budwey, agreed to give them two free months’ rent, and also to pay deposits to National Fuel and National Grid to enable Valenti’s to turn those utilities on – they didn’t have the capital to do it.

The restaurant, however, wasn’t in Terry Valenti’s name. Instead, the property was co-owned by Brocuglio and an acquaintance of theirs named Melissa Janiszewski, who has since become estranged from them. There have been allegations made that Janiszewski’s credit and identity were deceitfully misappropriated. In North Tonawanda City Court yesterday, Ms. Janiszewski sat with Mr. Budwey.

Terry Valenti sat in the front row, with three people who were set to testify on the restaurant’s behalf. He was wearing a black button-down shirt, his head was uncovered, and he had shaven off his facial hair, leaving him almost unrecognizable. Ms. Brocuglio arrived soon thereafter, wearing a black specked suit and a red suede fringe jacket. When she sat down, she briefly spoke with their attorney, Mark Carney, and held up some sort of CD-ROM to one of their supporters and seemed proud of it for some reason.

Frank Budwey approached Carney and asked him if he had been paid. Carney replied that it was, “none of [his] business”, and Mr. Budwey retorted that he didn’t want Mr. Carney to waste his time. Under normal circumstances, a lawyer is not permitted to talk with a party opponent in any way, and had I been in Mr. Carney’s shoes I would have simply replied that I was not permitted to speak with Mr. Budwey, remained silent, or advised Budwey’s counsel of the approach.

Judge William Lewis presided over the rather informal eviction trial. Budwey’s attorney, James Rizzo, elicited testimony from Mr. Budwey about the non-payment of rent, now alleged to be $5,200. At one time, Brocuglio wrote Budwey a bad check for $3,000, a crime that is being contemporaneously prosecuted in North Tonawanda Court, and paid Budwey what he says was $500 cash in early January. However, the receipt for that cash shows $1,500 was received – Budwey claims that Brocuglio added the “1”. Judge for yourself:

$500 or $1,500?

Budwey testified that Valenti’s paid utilities for October and November, but not since. He testified that they have never been current on owed rent. On January 13th, Budwey terminated the lease by serving a 3-day notice to quit, and he filed the eviction action a week later.

However, Budwey claims that he crafts his leases to enable him to take self-help measures to secure the property and payment of rent if the tenant is 10 days in arrears. Under that provision, Budwey gives himself the right to enter and secure payment without the lease needing first to be terminated, and without any notice.

That’s exactly what Budwey did on January 11th – 11 days after the January rent was unpaid – he shut off the gas, blocked the doors, politely asked patrons to leave and offered to pay them cash, and wanted to prevent Valenti and Brocuglio the ability to destroy or loot the premises. The police were called, and Budwey relented. On cross-examination by Mr. Carney, Mr. Budwey acknowledged that he had recently changed the locks and the alarm codes. Mr. Carney’s questioning and demeanor were often argumentative (not that he was being rude, but that he was improperly making an argument during questioning), and at one point Carney and Rizzo got into a shouting match that was ended when Judge Lewis did a bit of yelling himself.

Carney made the point to the judge that he intended to remove the case to Supreme Court to pursue a claim against Budwey for self-help, seeking treble damages. Since that hadn’t been accomplished or applied for, Judge Lewis continued with the eviction proceeding.

The eviction is a simple action for Budwey to re-take possession of the unit, terminating the lease. There aren’t many defenses available to a commercial tenant in this situation – either the rent is paid, or it’s not. Valenti and Brocuglio’s claims about Budwey’s alleged illegal self-help are not defenses to the eviction, but a separate action for money damages. It is entirely possible that Budwey wins possession, but that he loses a subsequent trial for money damages in another venue. In speaking with Mr. Budwey, he indicates that he’d gladly pay to be forever rid of Valenti and Brocuglio, and he isn’t concerned about their threats of ongoing litigation.

At one point, I observed Mr. Budwey getting rather animated, requiring his attorney to shush him. I observed Mr. Budwey look directly at the seated Mr. Valenti, and ask him to “come on, speak up!” By contrast, Ms. Brocuglio was standing next to Mr. Carney the entire time, at one point looking back at Ms. Janiszewski and shaking her head at her. When Carney asked Budwey if the Valentis had abandoned the premises, Terry Valenti audibly said, “no”, and Ms. Brocuglio turned around and shushed him.

As Mr. Carney’s cross-examination was briefly halted, the judge sustained Mr. Rizzo’s objection over the line of questioning having to do with the lock-out. Rizzo argued that self-help is irrelevant for purposes of the eviction action, and based on the lease language, the judge agreed. However, the judge had to adjourn the proceeding because of a personal matter, and it will again be taken up at 11am on Tuesday.

As I waited to see if anyone would talk to me (unlikely as they’re all represented by counsel), Ms. Brocuglio approached me. She said, “hi, Alan”, adding, “I’m glad that now you’ve heard more of the story.” She told me that much of what people have left in comments here at Artvoice Daily are lies, and that this is all “from a divorce”. She refused to be interviewed on camera, and was whisked away to talk with her lawyer and supporters.

Before the proceeding, Budwey provided me with this document, which he says shows that even if Valenti’s was allowed to re-open, he’d still owe various creditors thousands.

Budwey told me that, when he went away to Jamaica, he offered to give Terry Valenti a second chance – a blank slate – all he had to do was keep Lori Brocuglio off the premises. Terry told Budwey that he would, but when Budwey left, Brocuglio was present at the restaurant every day. Before going COD with Tarantino and SYSCO, Valenti’s stocked up on over $10,000 of food, and supplemented that with Curtze, the last purveyor who would work with them. When the electric was shut off last week, all that food is now rotting, and the foam flame retardant system was deliberately activated by someone. Mr. Budwey clearly likes Terry Valenti and was willing to work with him, but he reserves a special hatred and disgust for Ms. Brocuglio; whenever he mentioned her name he used exquisitely colorful expletives.

If you pass by Valenti’s Restaurant now – a place that Janice Okun awarded 2 1/2 stars just 5 short week ago – a place supposedly run by an Iron Chef winner and CIA graduate, it now looks like this:

And had they not lied to Brian Kahle, Channel 7, and Janice Okun, no one would be paying them any attention.

 


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How Not to Run a Business

12 Jan

No surprise, the owners of Valenti’s are embroiled in a bitter landlord/tenant dispute with Budwey’s.  No surprise, it’s over unpaid rent and whether the rent is triple net or not.

The saga of the Iron Chef has reached Lifetime Movie of the Week proportions. It’s also fodder for discussion on Chowhound.

Woe is Mo: #Hassan uses the Chewbacca Defense

2 Feb

Muzzammil Hassan completed his direct testimony yesterday, leading the jury through his version of the events of January and February 2009.

It was largely similar to the previous days of Hassan testimony, whereby he narrated a story for the jury over frequent prosecution objections and stumbling over evidentiary issues.  Hassan needed to tell the jury all about his feelings, at the hands of Aasiya Zubair‘s “bullying” and “controlling” behavior.

Aasiya clearly wanted out of the marriage.  Hassan testified that he felt “blindsided” by service upon him of the divorce papers, together with an order of protection forcing him out of the house.  He testified about feeling embarrassment and shame at earlier restraining orders, feeling humiliated having to visit his kids under court-ordered supervision.  Hassan went to great pains to paint Aasiya as what he termed an “evil dragon” whose mood would swing from sweet to sour like a pendulum.  He testified earnestly to the jury that Aasiya would be nice to him on minute, while behind his back she was meeting with lawyers and plotting to divorce him.

So?

He testified about two lunchtime meetings that he and Aasiya had at the conference room at Bridges during the six days between service of divorce papers and the murder.  At one, Aasiya purportedly offered to drop the divorce if Hassan would agree to budget $10,000 per year for her and the kids to visit Pakistan every year.  Turning to the day of the murder, he testified that they held a volatile meeting at lunchtime where Aasiya demanded that he break off contact with two female friends of his.  He testified that at this point, Aasiya pulled a knife on him.

Hassan had testified about text messages he had sent to one of them several weeks before the murder, where he was telling her that his wife was a “bully” and expressing thanks to this friend for paying attention to him.

So? If his wife was such a bully, and he had a support system built-in by way of psychological counseling and friendships, he didn’t have to kill anybody.  He could have just let the divorce go through and be free of the supposed “dragon”.

He felt very hurt after that meeting, and took a drive to clear his head.  He happened upon the Hamburg Wal*Mart where he coincidentally walked in and happened to unexpectedly go to the hunting knife department and randomly bought two large knives.  He testified that he got one to help a friend “chop wood”, and another for protection from Aasiya.

His testimony was that he was going to meet Aasiya to call the other friend at 6pm.  She was to meet him at the studio.  He waited for her, and she came in and started walking to the conference room, saying they had to make that call.  When Aasiya reached into the pocket from where she had previously pulled a knife, Hassan freaked out and murdered her with multiple stab wounds and a beheading.

He began breaking down on the stand, explaining that he was relieved that he had slain the “evil dragon”, that the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders, and that his kids would not have to live with a monster anymore.

The problem for Mo Hassan is that the objective evidence did not corroborate his story. He parked in an unusual spot in an empty parking lot.  He parked out of sight, where his wife wouldn’t see him.  The text messages between them showed that she was going to the studio to drop clothes into his car.  She had the kids wait in the car. He texted her that he had left the studio – that she should put the clothes in the office.  But he waited in the office for her.  She didn’t know he was there.  It was a darkened studio, where he lay in wait for his wife, whom he had just told that he was not there.  It took 37 seconds from the time she opened the door until her head was severed from her body.  He had $4900 on him.  He had used $100 to buy the knives, he gave the rest to his eldest son, who was waiting outside for his murdered stepmother.

This wasn’t the sudden, unplanned, unexpected act of a man who snapped.  This wasn’t a battered husband who killed her before she killed him.  This was a methodically pre-planned execution.

If he wanted out of the relationship, he had it.  She had filed for divorce.  The notion that he felt trapped in an abusive relationship is nonsense.  In cases of battered spouse syndrome, the abuser maintains control over the other person in the relationship – divorce is out of the question, as it would break that control.  There was only one person in the relationship of Aasiya Zubair and Muzzammil Hassan who didn’t want a divorce to take place, and that person is the defendant.

It’s interesting that the only two emotions Hassan has displayed during this trial have been anger and, only yesterday, crying.  I’m sure he feels sadness that he’ll never be a free man again, that he will not be a dad to his kids, that he’s in this situation; I’m sure those were tears of relief at having finally told his story.  Not once, however, did he express an iota of remorse for having murdered his wife so violently.  He didn’t cry for leaving his kids without their mother.  He didn’t cry for having committed a needless homicide.  He didn’t cry for having murdered this woman whom he supposedly loved so much he went out of his way to stop the divorce.  It doesn’t add up.  It’s the Chewbacca defense in real life.

And so he ended his testimony.  Nothing was his fault.  It was all Aasiya’s fault.  He was the loving husband, going to counseling, trying to save his marriage.  His wife was a demanding bitch who said mean things to him, so he snapped. He destroyed her body, now he concluded about four days’ worth of destroying her reputation. His domination is complete. Cry, Mo, cry.

Today, the prosecution commences its cross-examination of the defendant.  Hopefully, ADA Colleen Curtin Gable will conduct it, as it would be interesting to see Hassan’s demeanor under tough questioning from a strong, intelligent, female in a dominant role at this stage in the trial.  I don’t think he’ll fare well.

(Report based on personal observation of the trial, along with following the #Hassan hashtag and the Buffalo News’ live blog).

Riter Radio & Hassan

27 Jan

In case you missed my talks with Brad Riter on WECK 1230-AM regarding the Hassan trial:

[audio:http://www.weck1230.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/012411Bradhr2.mp3%5D
January 24, 2011

[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/wnymedia-cdn/files/2011/01/Riter-Radio-01-25-11-HOUR-2.mp3%5D
January 25, 2011

[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/wnymedia-cdn/files/2011/01/Riter-Radio-01-26-11-HOUR-2.mp3%5D
January 26, 2011

Erie County Legislature Downsizing: On Ballot Tuesday #WNYVotes #ECLEG

27 Oct

The Erie County Legislature downsizing referendum (15 to 11) will appear on the ballot next week.  My understanding is that it may even make it to the front page of that ballot, which will be helpful.

The Appellate Division in Rochester yesterday affirmed Judge Sedita’s earlier ruling, noting that minor technicalities should not thwart the will of the people, and that the board of elections abused its discretion by rejecting the referendum in the first place.

What we need to do is merge Erie County with the City of Buffalo, have a metropolitan government, a unified school system, 9 city councilpeople, 3 at-large seats, and a Metropolitan professional city manager.  The upcoming green code and a regional planning board with actual powers ought also be implemented.

All done reform.

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Legislature Downsizing: On Ballot #ecleg

8 Oct

Justice Sedita ruled yesterday afternoon that the Erie County Legislature downsizing ballot question will be submitted to the voters in November.

My liveblog of yesterday’s argument is here, and my prediction that Judge Sedita would rule the way he did is here.

Scam-Making

27 Mar

If you wanted to know how disgraced Buffalo developer and current Niagara Falls developer Frank Parlato can fund his various schemes, consider this, from an article in the New York Post.

In an e-mail about the real-estate deal, one of Raniere’s closest advisers, Kristin Keeffe, revealed that Parlato was being paid $1 million by the group to wrest control of the project from Plyam.

How does a Frank Parlato find himself a millionaire?

Clare and Sara Bronfman, heirs to the Seagrams fortune, are caught up in NXIVM – a group that is commonly referred to as a cult, run by a person named Keith Raniere. Their father, Edgar, desperately wants them out of NXIVM.

NXIVM, based in Albany, sponsored a recent visit to that city by the Dalai Lama. Several local people who associate with Parlato got to travel to see the Dalai Lama speak last year.

From an expose in the Times-Union:

The case is Precision Development LLC vs. Yuri Plyam, a claim first brought two years ago by NXIVM principals. The initial suit alleged Plyam embezzled some of $26 million the Bronfman sisters had invested in a failed real estate venture in which Plyam was supposed to manage the construction of residential homes around Los Angeles.

Plyam had been Raniere’s commodities trader, the motion says. Plyam countersued, and the case has become a complicated argument involving him, Raniere, other NXIVM leaders and the Bronfmans.

In Plyam’s countersuit, in which the new complaint emerges, his attorney seeks to highlight Raniere, portray him as a commodities market loser and list him as a defendant.

Evidently, Raniere was involved in some sort of commodities/real estate scheme with the Plyams, but had allegedly run out of money; no less than $100 million, much of it from the Bronfman sisters. The Post story alleges that Raniere wanted to cut the Plyams out of the deal, and paid Parlato $1 million to pose as a representative of Edgar Bronfman to the Plyams in an effort to remove them from the deal.

Parlato’s goal was to convince Plyam that Bronfman wanted to buy into the real-estate deal and cut Raniere out, the papers allege.

Parlato told Plyam that Bronfman “had been trying to get the girls out of the cult for a long time,” and that getting in on the construction project would allow the old man to keep an eye on his — and his daughters’ — investment, according to the documents.
Plyam believed Parlato, who continually disparaged the “destructive” Raniere and said Bronfman was desperate to “get his daughters out of NXIVM.”

“The father feels that Raniere took advantage of his babies,” Parlato told Plyam, according to the legal documents.

In reality, Parlato — who in the 1990s was accused by Buffalo-area lawmakers of running a housing scam — was working for Raniere, another set of court papers claim.

Naturally, as you might expect, it was Steve Pigeon who introduced Parlato to NXIVM.

It’s a tangled web indeed, and one that is being played out in court right now. But the allegation of affirmative fraud and misrepresentation is shocking.

Will the Defendants Please Rise

14 Nov

It was announced yesterday that a group of terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, will be brought to Federal Court for the Southern District of New York to stand trial for conspiracy and mass murder.  They will be brought to New York from Guantanamo Bay, where they have been held and even tortured since being apprehended.

The conventional wisdom had been that, because this was an act of war, these people should be tried under military circumstances.  But war crimes have been tried, and are being tried under the auspices of the distinctly civilian Hague military tribunals, with much success.

There is a certain karmic and poetic justice in bringing these people to New York to stand trial before New Yorkers just steps from where two airplanes brought down the World Trade Center, killing 3,000 innocent, average commuters and travelers.

The torture that took place obviously renders a lot of evidence inadmissible in court, but if the government has enough untainted, admissible evidence of these historic crimes, then this is not a concern. Maybe we should stick them in with the general population on Riker’s Island.  If inmates accused of crimes against children get the shit beat out of them with regularity, I wonder what a tough street kid from an outer borough awaiting trial on an armed robbery charge might think of these guys.

I thought what Josh Marshall wrote on the subject was quite persuasive.

This isn’t just a matter of wanting to see punishment. It also vindicates our system of justice and values — and for it all to happen here, the scene of the crime, among the people of this city, not out on some island or in some secret jail.

Listening to the questions at Attorney General Holder’s press conference, I’m hearing again fears about giving the defendants a platform “to air their hateful views.” But really, who is so cowardly as to worry about what these five say? Is our standing and self-respect so brittle?

There’s a widespread belief that many seem to have that calling these people criminals and treating them as such somehow elevates their status and diminishes the fact that al Qaeda has effectively been making war on the United States. I’ve never understood this mindset. The key point in World War II is that at the end of the war the Allies would not deign to accord the leaders of Germany and Japan the respect accorded to defeated armies. They were tried as criminals. Because that is what they were.

Whether it’s fear that our justice system can’t mete justice out to these men, or worry that KSM or the others might mouth off about us at their trial, or concern about future attacks, I am continually surprised that the voices of cowardice and fear manage to convince themselves and others that they speak for courage and determination.

And Congressman Jerry Nadler’s district includes the World Trade Center.  He says,

I thank the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder for their diligent efforts to bring to justice those who have committed acts of terrorism against the United States. In particular, I applaud the decision to bring those individuals responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center to New York to face trial in our federal courts. New York is not afraid of terrorists, we want to confront them, we want to bring them to justice, and we want to hold them accountable for their despicable actions.

Fiefdoms and Peasants

13 Jan

Ostrowski was in court yesterday with Peter Reese, who sat on the county charter revision commission. He recounts that Reese kept repeating that Paul Cambria, representing the legislature, was correct in his argument before the court. Adds Ostrowski,

Now, Collins previously insisted on printing 365,000 tax bills that are now headed for the recycling bin. Pride goeth before the fall, Chris.

Prediction: anyone who wants to run against Chris in three years will be scrambling tomorrow for copies of those erroneous tax bills. Expect to see them in anti-Collins commercials in the next election.

One of our best judges, Paula Feroleto, had granted a TRO, later vacated, against Collins to stop him from printing the tax bills. Collins should have listened to wise counsel but I suspect he listens to no one but the man in the mirror.

I think that’s absolutely right. Someone will get a hold of the old bill and compare it to a revised bill, and make the argument that Collins tried to raise your taxes higher than necessary, and it took a judge to shut him down. On top of that, the cost of printing those bills during a pending lawsuit affecting them, was paid by you and me. I hardly think that “Six Sigma” principles were exercised in connection with that endeavor. Doesn’t seem too lean or efficient to me.

I have the sense that things are worse now than they were under Giambra. At least Giambra was an old-time pol, and even when he was wrong or being a prick, at least you had the sense that he was a political animal who knew how and when to listen and compromise. He knew that the legislature had a role to play in county government.

Now? This petty and too-expensive fighting over who gets to control 10% of a billion-dollar budget just underscores how useless this governmental entity as a whole has become. So, let’s revisit this:

‘Twas 2008, and the county was screwed
the people were not in a holiday mood.
The taxes, they said, were quite high, thanks, enough,
and people agreed that the times were quite tough.

On a floor called sixteen, a man crunched up some numbers
Six Sigma, he thought, would drag us out of our slumber.
Amid raises for managers, programs were cut.
The lawmakers’ charges, he’d always rebut.

In order to pay for his raises so steep,
the people’d fish money from pockets less deep.
Thanks to meltdowns and layoffs – economy dire,
taxpayers had little up there to admire.

But lawmakers thought they could do him one better
and changed his proposals – some letter by letter.
They cut all the raises, revived some dead funding,
and wondered, who died and made this guy the king?

On the floor of sixteen, Collins grew quite enraged,
and the comptroller soon had to become more engaged.
Explaining to Collins his budget was faulty,
but not using language one might think was too salty.

He told the lawmakers that they were wrong, too.
Their outlook was based on too blissful a view.
A budget like theirs, higher taxes required,
a result that really quite no one desired.

The leg passed its budget, some vetoes were used.
The leg overrode some, those cuts they refused.
Then from the Rath Building arose some weird chatter.
The People then wondered, “NOW, what was the matter?”

It seemed a dispute had arisen quite great,
as to which branch of power could set the tax rate.
The executive said, he’s the man with the pen,
while the leg thought that it could. It told him, and then…

To court they all went, led by Lynn Marinelli.
against Collins and Green, (I saw her on the telly).
Judge Feroleto granted Lynn an injunction,
who argued that Collins had usurped a leg function.

Then Judge Peradotto, the leg soon lamented,
ordered that Collins’ bills could be printed.
So from Springville to Amherst and then Lackawanna,
we’ll pay more for less stuff, sort of anti-nirvana.

So now a new judge said that Collins was wrong
and the battle in court, it will not be prolonged.
Your taxes this year will go just a bit higher,
but not nearly as much as Chris Collins desired.

When green and red budgets were part of existence,
we complained and cajoled, and put up some resistance.
the problems keep coming, they should all feel shame.
For now everything new can seem old again.