Thursday, September 23, 2010

Behind the New York City Regional Center's visas-for-investments program, one of New Jersey's questionable "Billboard Boys"

Paul Levinsohn, one of two Managing Principals in the New York City Regional Center--the investment vehicle Forest City Ratner aims to use to raise $249 million (mainly) from Chinese millionaires--has a bit of a history as an operator, exploiting a legal loophole to get rich.

He has an important cameo in The Soprano State: New Jersey's Culture of Corruption, by Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure (as pointed out to me by Michael D.D. White):
Gary Taffet and Paul Levinsohn went from being on [Governor Jim] McGreevey's election campaign to being chief of staff and chief counsel, respectively. Their tenure was short-lived, however, and they became known as "the Billboard Boys."

Levinsohn and Taffet formed a billboard business three years before McGreevey's inauguration while working for McGreevey's campaign and with everyone knowing their clout with McGreevey--correctly predicted to be the next governor.

...[Philcor Media] developed billboards for which they needed local and state agency approval.

Just before becoming part of the McGreevey administration, Taffet and Levinsohn sold the approved billboards and billboard sites for $4 million. The Philadelphia Inquirer investigated and reported: "[Francis] Doyle is identified on public documents as the sole owner of Philcor, but his corporation received none of the billboard proceeds, sale documents show. Instead, the money was distributed to two corporations extablished by Taffet and Levinsohn.
But those corporations were not part of the public documents seeking government approvals.

Levinsohn claimed he and his partner sold the billboard company five days before McGreevey took office and they became state employees. However, according to the book, Levinsohn actually was sworn in a month earlier and was still doing billboard business with NJ Transit--even though that's against state law.

And while "McGreevey's propaganda arm" claimed Levinsohn was not working as deputy attorney general despite the title, he during that time signed a U.S. Department of Labor application for Golan Cipel, the Israeli man at the heart of the controversy that led to McGreevey's resignation and self-outing.

McGreevey's take

McGreevey's book, The Confession, has a somewhat more charitable take. He explains that he chose Levinsohn, a "charismatic and hard-working lawyer," as his chief counsel:
Unfortunately, I later learned that both men [Taffet and Levinsohn] were compromised. Partly that was because of the campaign roles they had served on their way to state government. They were my horse traders, doing and saying what was necessary to bring in votes and money. I don't believe either of them made overt promises to any of my donors.... [but] As soon as they arrived, they were slammed by people coming to collect on the promises they thought they'd heard. The pressure on them, and indirectly on me, was tremendous.
McGreevey writes of the billboard deal:
Until the buzz around the articles reached me, I had no idea that during the campaign the two had built a sizable company on the side, buying and controlling billboards around central Jersey. They'd built this business around a little known loophole in a town's ability to pass zoning laws restricting billboards. Apparently, state-owned land was exempt... Between Election Day and my inauguration, they reached twenty-two lucrative advertising deals with fourteen powerful New Jersey companies, including one controlled by Charlie Kushner.

... Sometime in the two weeks before joining the administration, they sold the business for a staggering $4.4 million for a dozen billboards--a perfectly legal transaction, but an astronomical sum that made the deal look like it involved political favors... I only know that the whole thing looked atrocious.

... A federal investigation ultimately found they'd done nothing illegal. But the public felt they'd sullied the high office of governor... and the backlash seriously undermined my administration.
Legal but unsavory

So what they did was legal but still unsavory--perhaps not unlike the EB-5 visa program.

The New York Times reported 5/15/03:
The former aides, Gary B. Taffet and Paul A. Levinsohn, key figures in both Mr. McGreevey's 2001 campaign and his administration, announced their resignations late last year after complaints that they had helped the company win approval for 13 billboards in towns where billboards had been prohibited.

...When asked about the matter during a news conference today, Mr. McGreevey said he considered both Mr. Taffet and Mr. Levinsohn ''decent individuals,'' but found their behavior regrettable.

''During the transition period they ought to have limited their activities to the business of government,'' the governor said.
NYCRC bio

Levinsohn's biography on the NYCRC site skates over the departure from McGreevey's administration and stresses his more recent business experience:

Mr. Levinsohn is an attorney and businessman involved in numerous real estate and private equity transactions over the past 15 years. He owned, developed, and acted as counsel for real estate projects throughout the New York metropolitan area including single-family homes, apartment and commercial buildings. Over the past ten years, Mr. Levinsohn has acquired and sold more than 200 retail commercial properties to public REITs and individuals. Mr. Levinsohn’s experience also includes negotiating and obtaining financing for a diverse range of real estate investments.

In addition to his background in real estate, Mr. Levinsohn has conducted a variety of private equity transactions. In 2004, he and other investors acquired and privatized one of the largest convenience store and gas station chains in the northeastern section of the United States. The company, previously listed on the American Stock Exchange, licenses or operates 290 stores in three states. Mr. Levinsohn sold his position in the company in early 2008. Recently, Mr. Levinsohn, along with other investors, purchased the assets of a New England-based nutritional supplement company, which sells its products to national retailers such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and CVS.

Mr. Levinsohn’s career also includes public service. In 2002, he was appointed Chief Counsel to the Governor of New Jersey. Under this post, Mr. Levinsohn oversaw a staff of twenty-one attorneys and coordinated all legal operations for the Governor’s Office. From 1995 to 1997, Mr. Levinsohn served as a law clerk for Judge Anne E. Thompson, U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

He's done well--apparently buying a TriBeCa apartment for $4.15 million in 2007.

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