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Village district leader arrested after removing landlord’s spy cameras

Published: July 16, 2015

Publication: The Villager

By Lincoln Anderson

Arthur Schwartz, the Village’s Democratic district leader, turned himself in for arrest at the Sixth Precinct on Tuesday and was charged with grand larceny.

At 11:30 a.m. he was handcuffed behind his back, then was driven by police to central booking, where he stayed cuffed in a hallway outside court till 3:30 p.m., at which point he had a bail hearing. He was not asked for a plea and was released on his recognizance — not having to pay any bail — at which point he was unhandcuffed. A return court date was set for Oct. 15 when a grand jury will begin hearing the case, if the Manhattan district attorney decides to prosecute.

A longtime Village activist and a top union lawyer, Schwartz was also the treasurer for Zephyr Teachout’s primary campaign last year against Governor Cuomo.

He readily admits that on June 11 he mounted a stepladder and removed five small surveillance cameras that were hidden — albeit not very well — behind a large molding in a public hallway outside the 95 Christopher St. apartment of Ruth Berk, 91. Schwartz kept the cameras for a couple of weeks, then sent them to state Attorney General Eric Schnederman’s office.

Sophia Lamas, the managing agent for the building, which is owned by BLDG Management, filed a complaint and told police that the cameras were worth $4,000 total, which is above the bar of $3,500 when a theft is classified as grand larceny. But Schwartz checked the cameras’ price online, and said they are worth closer to about $500 total.

“They’re called Speco pinhole cameras,” he said. “They’re about 2 inches by 2 inches, about the size of a Reese’s peanut butter cup package. You can find that at Amazon for $89 apiece. Lamas knew that.”

The value of the cameras in the complaint was subsequently reduced — apparently by the Sixth Precinct — to $1,000, but that still qualifies as grand larceny, a felony.

He found the spy cams when he was at Berk’s apartment as part of a court-ordered assessment of repairs that were needed. Schwartz, who is Berk’s legal guardian, helped get her released in May from a nursing home: Berk, a former cabaret singer, convinced a judge to spring her from the senior facility by wowing her by belting out “Summertime” and “My Funny Valentine” in court.

Jessica Berk, her daughter, who lives with her in the Village apartment, said they have a decades-long running dispute with the landlord.

“Before I was born, my parents were in litigation with them,” she said.

She said the landlord wants their rent-regulated apartment, for which the pair pay only $783 per month, but which could probably fetch 10 times that amount.

“It’s a two-bedroom penthouse apartment with a huge terrace,” she said. “We have one of the best apartments in the building. I’m sure the landlord would like it back.”

The landlord is currently trying to evict the mother and daughter.

The New York Times reported: “The Berks acknowledged that they are tens of thousands of dollars in arrears on rent, but said they had withheld payment because of damages in the apartment that the landlord would not permanently fix, like leaks from the roof and peeling paint. Their eviction case is pending.”

Calls to BLDG Management and its attorney, Lawrence Wolf, were not returned by press time.

Schwartz said that that surveillance cameras were not hard to spot because the molding had five conspicuous small pinholes. He had been told they were there by Jessica Berk. She told The Villager last week that she previously hired a private detective to check if any of the apartment building’s other apartments had surveillance cameras outside of them, and the detective found none. Similarly, Schwartz checked out the rest of the building and didn’t see any similar cameras anywhere else. As a result, he said, that means it’s “selective harassment” of the Berks.

It’s harassment, he said, since there were previously complaints about the cameras, yet the landlord kept them there.

Jessica Berk said she became aware of the devices’ presence more than a year ago, when early one morning she was awakened by the sound of loud drilling coming from outside their apartment’s front door and found a building employee drilling holes into the molding. She said she subsequently demanded the cameras’ removal numerous times, including in court, to no avail.

In fact, the harassment extends beyond the cameras, Jessica Berk said.

“The harassment began the day after my father died,” she said. “That was when I was 20. I’m now 55, and it hasn’t stopped.”

As The Villager exclusively reported last year, in March 2014 Jessica Berk was arrested after an unloaded .22-caliber handgun was found in their home during a court-ordered cleanup of the apartment, which had a severe clutter problem. Jessica Berk said the gun might have belonged to her late father, who ran the Waverly Lounge — where her mother performed — and also later worked a liquor store near the old St. Vincent’s Hospital.

The Manhattan D.A. subsequently dismissed the weapon-possession charge against her, however, saying that it “could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt” that the gun was hers. At the time the gun was found, Ruth Berk was in the nursing facility.

Though no charges have been filed against her over the camera incident, Jessica Berk said she, too, has lawyered up and is being represented pro bono by Yetta Kurland.

Schwartz said local politicians state Senator Brad Hoylman and City Councilmember Corey Johnson called the Sixth Precinct on his behalf to try to get him a desk appearance ticket instead of his having to be taken down to court in handcuffs, and also to try to get the charge reduced to petty larceny. With a desk appearance ticket, he simply would have been told to come down to court on his own on a given date.

“I got an e-mail from Arthur about this,” Hoylman said. “Videotaping a 93-year old rent-stabilized tenant with five surveillance cameras, as alleged, seems like tenant harassment to me. I tried to get some of the facts from the precinct, but it’s up to them to make a determination on the charges.”

Speaking before Schwartz’s arrest, community affairs officers at the Sixth Precinct said that it’s up to the complainant — in this case, Lamas of BLDG Management— to state the value of the confiscated property, and that it will be up to the D.A. to determine the cameras’ value.

Schwartz didn’t know beforehand whether he’d be put into a holding cell with other arrested men on Tuesday or allowed to sit in court until he was arraigned. It turned out he wasn’t put in a cell — but he had to spend about four hours on a bench with his hands cuffed behind his back.

“At least I sat in the hallway outside the courtroom,” he said. “And at least I wasn’t in a holding cell with other guys who…who knows what… But I wouldn’t have been handcuffed in the holding cell.”

The night before his arrest, he told The Villager he would bring along a book by Maya Angelou to read to pass the time. His wife, Kelly Craig, also helped him out.

“I was lucky,” he said, “because my wife was there and she fed me a protein bar and a bagel with cream cheese from Murray’s and a Snapple diet iced tea.”

Asked if he had ever been arrested before, Schwartz laughed, then said he had — three times in the early 1970s for civil disobedience when he was a student at Columbia University. Two were for anti-Vietnam War protests — one at the school and another in D.C. at the 1971 May Day march— while another was at a protest over Columbia’s ties to the shah of Iran. He was never convicted in any of these arrests and the charges were expunged.

He said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also recently made a call on his behalf, reaching out to Attorney General Schneiderman.

As for what countercharges he might file on his own behalf, Schwartz said, for starters, he could sue Lamas for “filing a false instrument” since she clearly exaggerated the cameras’ value.

And he hopes Schneiderman will get actively involved in investigating the landlord’s alleged harassment of the Berks.

Asked if he contacted Assemblymember Deborah Glick — his frequent political foil — for help, Schwartz said, “Are you kidding? She probably was dancing a jig.”

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