Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.
They’ll stand as shining symbols of affluence next to The High Line: two towers known as The XI, housing a hotel and 234 condos going for up to $25 million, rising to take their place in the city skyline.
The Chelsea buildings, according to the developer’s website, will be “unmatched in Manhattan and unparalleled in the world.” They’ll feature “groundbreaking amenities” and “mesmerizing views of the Hudson River and New York City skyline on all sides.”
The XI, a recipient of nearly $1.5 million in tax breaks, also may already have achieved another sort of distinction: serving as a kind of ATM for the Gambino crime family, according to federal prosecutors.
The Mafia family once controlled by the late John Gotti skimmed hundreds of thousands of dollars from The XI and other Manhattan projects by buying off a top executive of the firm behind the condo complex, prosecutors charged.
That executive, identified by prosecutors as John Simonlacaj, 50, is a managing director of the HFZ Capital Group, a Manhattan real estate developer that’s built multiple luxury residential and hotels across the city. Simonlacaj oversaw construction of The XI for HFZ, which purchased the Chelsea property in 2015, according to court papers.
On Friday, Simonlacaj surrendered and entered a not guilty plea in Brooklyn Federal Court to federal charges of wire fraud conspiracy and tax fraud. He was released after posting $250,000 bail.
Simonlacaj is the cousin of Mark “Chippy” Kocaj, 49, one of 10 alleged mobsters busted Thursday in Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue’s major crackdown on the Gambino clan, once notorious for its control of New York’s construction industry.
Prosecutors say that Kocaj, reputed Gambino capo Andrew Campos and alleged crime family soldier Vincent Fiore operated a Mount Vernon carpentry firm, CWC Contracting, which was hired to work on multiple city projects, including The XI.
To get the inside track with HFZ Capital, between June 2018 and June of this year, CWC allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to “multiple employees” of HFZ Capital, prosecutors charged. Sometimes it was in cash, but sometimes it was “in-kind benefits” to the employees, according to court papers.
Free Home Work Alleged
With Simonlacaj, CWC provided free labor and materials to perform “extensive” renovations on his home in upscale Scarsdale, according to court papers. The cost of the work was covered by inflated invoices to HFZ, the indictment alleges.
In court papers, prosecutors charged that the Gambino family “is thriving, earning millions of dollars through various forms of fraud, bribery, money laundering and extortion, particularly in the construction industry.”
CWC got jobs by bribing employees of numerous construction companies and real estate developers, prosecutors alleged. One of those outfits is listed in the indictment as Construction Company 1, identified by other public records as HFZ Capital.
To get their hooks into HFZ, prosecutors say, the mob bribed Simonlacaj, who handled several projects for HFZ and is listed as the owner’s representative on The XI in city Building Department records.
The XI, which is still under construction, abuts The High Line, the popular park built on an abandoned railway that runs through Chelsea up to the recently opened Hudson Yards. It’s considered one of the hottest real estate locations in the city, with luxury residences adjoining the park selling for hefty sums.
The XI is one of these high-end properties, a pair of leaning towers that will include a Six Senses Hotel and condos ranging from $2.8 million for one-bedrooms to $25 million for a half-floor penthouse. The developer benefited from $1.49 million in tax credits for cleaning up a toxic brownfield at the site, according to state records.
Prosecutors say that Fiore is heard talking about how CWC would get work with HFZ, noting that Kocaj is Simonlacaj’s cousin — “but keep it to yourself,” he states.
“There’s things we can do with Chippy there,” Fiore allegedly said. “He whispers what he needs to whisper and we get things done.”
Both Kocaj and Fiore were recorded by the FBI boasting about their violent escapades, according to prosecutors.
In one recorded conversation, Kocaj went off about a fight he had in a diner where he “stabbed the kid, I don’t know, 1,000 times with a fork,” according to prosecutors. Fiore allegedly threatened to send members of the Latin Kings gang to assault individuals who had hit his son.
Discussing eight days of work owed to a laborer for his work at Simonlacaj’s home, Fiore — who refers to Simonlacaj as John Si — was heard on the feds’ wire stating, “Put that against 76 11,” listing the address of The XI at 76 11th Ave, near 18th Street.
“Chippy knows about that as well. That’s John Si’s house.”
Through CWC, the Gambino family allegedly siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars from HFZ by getting Simonlacaj and other unnamed HFZ employees to approve inflated “change orders” that jacked up the cost from the original proposed scope of work on several projects, prosecutors say.
On Friday, Christophe Lagrange, an executive at HFZ, said he was not aware of the charges filed against Simonlacaj and said he hadn’t seen him at work all day. He declined further comment.
At the time of THE CITY’s call to Lagrange, Simonlacaj was entering his not-guilty plea. On his way out of Brooklyn Federal Court, he declined to speak to a reporter for THE CITY.
Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.
SUPPORT THE CITY
You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.
We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.
Please consider joining us as a member today.