Volume 74, Number 9 | June 30 - July 6, 2004

Evicted merchant fined $47,175 for illegal posters

By Erica Stein

A wholesale produce business on Broome St. has been issued more than 400 tickets by the Department of Sanitation. Cheong Mei Inc. faces almost $50,000 in fines for violating the city’s postering law, which states that it is unlawful for any person to display signs, notices and handbills on public property — which includes lampposts, bus shelters and trees.

Under city regulations, each posting is considered a separate violation and is issued a ticket of $75-$200 for a first offense and $150-$300 for a second. Cheong Mei, which is owned by Tran Han Ho, was issued 239 tickets for $75 each in May and another 195 for $150 each this month, according to the Department of Sanitation. The posters, which can be found on street corners from Chinatown to Tribeca, seek to condense five years of legal proceedings into less than 100 words.

The fliers call for a protest against Wah Mai Chong and 101 Maiden Lane, Tran’s former landlords, which he says defrauded him by using a forged second lease to win a nonpayment-of-rent case against Sun Mei Inc., Tran’s retail store at 223 Centre St. The case — which has been unsuccessfully appealed by Tran and his attorney Polly Eustis several times — ended with the defendant’s eviction and according to Eustis, was largely decided by Judge Eileen Rakhower’s assumption that the second lease was valid. Rakhower is named on the posters and described as “aiding and abetting” the landlords. The signs also include the phrase “New York City Is Not For Sale,” which is commonly used as a slogan by the Chinatown Justice Project, a division of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence.

Tran says he has nothing to do with the posters — which are identical to the signs Tran has hung in and over his stores since late November 2003, just before he was evicted from Centre St. — and does not know who is responsible for them. “I don’t do,” he said of the posters. “I have no time, I’m working too hard.” The Department of Sanitation statute, however, assumes that “the person whose name, telephone number or other identifying information appears on any poster, notice or sign … is in violation,” so Tran is responsible for the payment of all fines.

Tran estimates he has spent over $2 million on the case since 1999. The money has gone for legal fees, the disputed rent (which he was obligated to pay in order to continue the appeal process) and two forensic document experts retained by Eustis, who both concluded that the second lease was false. Even with the new setback the citations represent, Tran says he will continue to attempt to regain possession of the Centre St. store. Eustis plans to defend Tran in the July 23 hearing while preparing to make yet another motion concerning the original case and resulting eviction.

“This is so skewed,” says Eustis, who believes the tickets were issued because of complaints made to the Sanitation Department by “an influential community group.” Asked if the group was the Soho Alliance, she said she didn’t want to single out any one group. But she said a complaint letter sent to Sanitation dated April 14 was also sent to her. The name on the letter was Bonnie Lynn, according to Eustis. Initially, Lynn sent Eustis a copy of an article about herself and how she “cleaned up Soho.” “I guess she did what she said she was going to do,” Eustis said. (Lynn previously wrote a letter to The Villager complaining about strickers that Bloomingdale’s put up.) “What’s wrong here?” Eustis said. “What’s worse, a business owner being defrauded of his property, or the posters announcing that fraud? What’s the real crime?”

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, said that Lynn and Carl Rosenstein, two members of the Alliance, made the complaints. “Bonnie Lynn is the Poster Lady — she rips down all the posters,” he said.

Hyun Lee, director of CAAAV’s Chinatown Justice Project, did not return calls for comment. However, in 2002 Lee wrote a letter to the Manhattan district attorney’s office on behalf of Tran, protesting alleged fraud by the landlord.


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