Brooklyn Dems sued for breaking office lease

The party said it couldn’t pay because of the pandemic. Its landlord says the party owes $82,000.

Downtown Brooklyn, New York

Downtown Brooklyn, New York Barry Winiker, Photodisc - Getty Images

The Brooklyn Democratic Party is getting sued by its landlord, which says the party tried to break its lease on office space without permission, and now owes $82,000 in back rent. 

The suit was filed Thursday in federal court in Brooklyn, and hasn’t been reported yet. 

CIM Group owns 16 Court Street, the office building across the street from Brooklyn Borough Hall, where the party has leased suite 1016 since 2005. Stephen Chiaino, a lawyer for the party who was then a partner at Abrams Fensterman, sent a letter dated July 16, 2020 telling the landlord the party intended to terminate the lease effective Sept. 1, “due to the Tenant's inability to utilize the Premises for its intended purpose as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic.” 

The letter was sent to the real estate firm, SL Green, suggesting that the party didn’t realize that the New York based company had sold the building to the Los Angeles based CIM Group three years earlier. 

According to its filing, CIM Group responded with its own letter on Sept. 4 writing that the “Landlord wholly rejects” the party’s attempt to break the lease. “Tenant has no right to terminate the Lease. Landlord does not accept Tenant’s purported surrender of the Premises or termination of the Lease.”

Chiaino responded in a letter dated Oct. 16 saying the Brooklyn Dems had incurred significant debts, and couldn’t pay the $19,000 in rent due at the time. He asked for permission to use the building’s freight elevator so they could move out “a 2,400 pound safe” the party uses to protect ballot petitions. 

It isn’t clear if the landlord ever responded – but the lawsuit says the party vacated the office on or before Nov. 1, 2020, and that the outstanding rent never got paid. CIM is now seeking $81,698 in rent, utilities and taxes, at least $14,712 in attorney’s fees and $12,689 in interest, for a total of more than $109,000. 

The party now has the money to pay it. After the former party chair, Frank Seddio, left the Kings County Democratic County Committee in January 2020 with more than $226,000 in debt, his successor Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn turned the finances around. The party had $255,402 in the bank, according to a Jan. 17 filing with the state Board of Elections. Though it also reported a $41,463 debt to Grassi, an accounting firm.

It’s notable that the party is reporting some of its debts – as the outstanding payments to the landlord have not been included in those filings. The debt was also not included on the balance sheet that party leadership posted on its website in Jan. 2022. A balance sheet for the new year has not been posted yet.

Progressive party reformers like the New Kings Democrats have been consistently critical of the way party leadership handled its finances. Bichotte Hermelyn came in committing to financial transparency, including quarterly reports. The party has published only three such reports since Bichotte Hermelyn took over more than three years ago.

Reformers have also criticized Bichotte Hermelyn for the way she’s worked to maintain strict control of the party, rather than cede some power. “There’s just an enormous amount that was done to suppress democratic participation with COVID as an excuse,” Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats President Diana Gonzalez, a former executive director of the party, told City & State, referring to the long-delayed, two-part, 26-hour-long organizing meeting in Dec. 2020. “So I’m not surprised she tried to inappropriately break a contract.”

City & State contacted Bichotte Hermelyn, Seddio, party Executive Director Yamil Speight-Miller and a lawyer for the party, Howard Fensterman. None of them responded. 

Despite being a standard landlord-tenant dispute, the case was filed in federal court – possibly an attempt to keep the case outside the sphere of influence of the party, which plays a major role in electing and appointing judges for local courts. Since 16 Court St. Brooklyn Owner, LLC is technically filed as a foreign limited liability company, it can file claims in federal court. CIM Group’s lawyer did not immediately return a request for comment.