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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | The Little Italy Merchants Association has dropped its bid to extend the Mulberry St. Mall’s length for an extra block after it was discovered that at least half, and possibly more, of residents’ letters allegedly in support of the initiative were fraudulent, with forged signatures.
According to Community Board 2, the board received 68 letters in support of the one-block extension for the seasonal mall.As the board usually does with petitions or letters of support or opposition, C.B. 2 staff members made phone calls and sent e-mail queries to the numbers and e-mail addresses listed on the letters to check their validity. The calls yielded the following results:
Out of the 68 individual letters, 29 people whose names were listed as having been signatories said they had never signed them.
Eight phone calls resulted in the person answering the phone saying that no one by that name lived there.
Another eight phone numbers were nonworking numbers.
Six calls went unanswered.
Four calls were to households where no one spoke English, so it couldn’t be confirmed either way if a resident had intended to sign one of the letters or not.
Eight messages were left but no one called back.
Five people did say they had, in fact, signed their name to one of the support letters.
Concern over the letters came to light last week and, by the start of this week, the issue had quickly snowballed. On Tuesday, Brad Hoylman, chairperson of C.B. 2, reached out to John Fratta, president of the nonprofit Little Italy Restoration Association, regarding the bogus letters. Bob Gormley, the board’s district manager, also spoke to Fratta regarding the irregularities.
Shortly afterward, Fratta called The Villager to announce that he and Ralph Tramontana, the president of LIMA, had decided LIMA should drop its application for the one-block extension — though the application for the usual-length mall is still alive and will still be voted on by C.B. 2 at Thursday’s full-board meeting.
On Tuesday, Hoylman told The Villager the mall incident was troubling.
“At this point, the petitions are invalid,” he said. “While all the facts have not been sorted out, it is extremely disappointing and a significant breach of trust that any group would submit phony petition signatures to the community board as evidence of the community’s support for an official action, such as the one being considered in this instance,” Hoylman said. “We’ll be following up if any additional action on the part of the community board is required to get to the bottom of this.”
Councilmember Margaret Chin first learned of the matter on Wednesday when Fratta sent her copies of the disputed letters.
“These are very serious allegations,” Chin said. “I’m committed to working with Community Board 2 and LIMA to get to the bottom of this. Obviously, any instance of forgery or misrepresentation is totally unacceptable.”
For the record, Chin had not issued a letter of support or opposition for the mall extension since it’s an application that would be reviewed by the Mayor’s Street Activity Permits Office (SAPO), not the City Council.
A longtime community activist, Fratta is also a former Democratic district leader and a former district manager for a Bronx community board.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Fratta said that, with the exception of one business, all the merchants on the proposed extension block — Mulberry St. from Broome St. to Kenmare St. — supported joining the mall. Major movers behind the extension push were a gelato shop and a barbershop, both of whose owners feel the block needs a boost in foot traffic to improve their business.
“I spoke to Ralph today,” Fratta said on Tuesday. “We’re pulling the last block. We have a good thing going. We don’t want to jeopardize what we’ve got,” he said, referring to the rest of the Mulberry St. Mall. “I feel that it’s the right move.”
The mall operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It stretches from Canal St. to Broome St., and participating restaurants can put their tables out onto the street and merchants can have table displays on the sidewalk.
Fratta said the signatures of support were collected by the barbershop and by building superintendents on that block.
Fratta said he personally did not actually look at the letters and their signatures. He said that Tramontana put them in an envelope and handed them to him. Fratta said he just took the envelope but didn’t look at the letters. He, in turn, handed a packet with the letters to Hoylman at last week’s meeting of the Borough Board — when the chairpersons of all the Manhattan community boards hold their monthly get-together with the borough president. According to Hoylman and another person, previous to the Borough Board meeting, Fratta also handed a packet of the letters to a C.B. 2 member on a board committee that was reviewing the mall-extension application.
Fratta noted that even Tramontana had expressed surprise when he saw a letter he believed was signed by Georgette Fleischer, the head of Friends of Petrosino Square and a vigilant local quality-of-life activist.
“Ralph was so excited when he first saw it: ‘Even Georgette is supporting us!’” Fratta said, recalling Tramontana’s words. “Anyone knows with half a brain, she’s always opposing us.”
Fratta said Gormley also told him he had caught a misspelling of the name of a well-known local resident, John Casalinuova, whose last name was given as “Casanova” on one of the bogus support letters. Fratta said he’s known Casalinuova for years, so if he actually had seen the letters, that definitely would have caught his eye.
LIMA president Tramontana, meanwhile, said he still thinks the signatures were valid, but that people didn’t own up to having signed the letters because of “scare tactics” by Fleischer and another woman, Robin Goldberg. He said the two women spread misinformation about the mall’s fees, inflating the cost, and telling merchants that they wouldn’t get much in return for paying to join.
“They were using bully tactics,” Tramon-tana said on Tuesday. “Merchants would call me saying [Fleischer and Goldberg] are telling them the mall is going to put vendors outside and block the store.”
According to Tramontana, the opponents said the mall would just mean more garbage, noise and traffic congestion. But he said, in fact, the mall would leave the block cleaner because there would be more garbage pickup and that it would be quieter since the block would be closed off to car traffic, which would also mean less air pollution.
“It’s a shame they did that,” he said, referring to Fleischer and Goldberg. “That last block really needs help. People were looking forward to it — coming down and sitting and having a coffee without the traffic fumes all around,” he said of the block’s residents.
Tramontana denied there were any forged signatures since they included personal phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
“If some of them were forged, they would have to know detailed information about people — and that’s hard to do,” he noted. “My assumption is that people got afraid” to admit they had signed the letters, he said.
Reached for comment, Fleischer said, “I’m astounded that Ralph Tramontana claims I actually signed it. I have seen it myself, and I can tell you that that is not my handwriting.” (See Page 7 for a copy of the fraudulent letter with a forged signature, as well as a sample of Fleischer’s genuine signature, which she submitted to The Villager for comparison.)
What’s more, the letter claims that Fleischer lives on Mulberry St. between Kenmare and Broome Sts. when in fact she lives a block away on Cleveland Place.
As for Tramontana’s claim that she bullied people into renouncing their letters of support for the mall extension, Fleischer retorted, “That’s pure spin.”
The packet of letters also contained a notarized affidavit from a resident of the block, Dan Weill, vouching that there was “overwhelming support” among its residents and small business owners to add the block to the seasonal mall.
The owner of the Barber’s Blueprint is a Russian immigrant named George. In a phone interview on Wednesday, George, who declined to give his last name, denied the letters were fraudulent, noting they contained personal contact information.
“How do I know their phone numbers?” he said. “Why should I forge anything? Why should I write by somebody’s name? It’s the people that write it. And I had the super’s help. She’s the super on this block; she has four buildings on this block.”
The main thing, George said, is that he and four or five other stores on the block really want the mall.
“I want the mall to happen because it brings more foot traffic, more business,” he said. “The San Gennaro Festival is 12 days and St. Anthony’s Feast is 10 days, and they come a week before to set up. This kills my business.”