• Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

How one woman’s quest to fix her Harlem housing complex got her busted on campaign finance charges

How one woman's quest to fix her Harlem housing complex got her busted on campaign finance charges

When the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged six people last summer in a conspiracy to bundle illegal campaign contributions to the Eric Adams mayoral campaign, prosecutors alleged five of them did it to benefit themselves or companies with business before the city.

But the sixth defendant swept up in the so-called “straw donor” case  — a 78-year-old retired accountant with no prior record named Millicent Redick — didn’t fit that narrative.

In her first interview, Redick tells the Daily News her motivation arose not from self-interest, but from desperation. Redick said she was hoping to find a way to persuade indifferent city officials to address nightmarish conditions in Esplanade Gardens, the sprawling Mitchell-Lama co-op in Harlem where she has lived since 1968.

“I wrote letters to elected officials, I wrote letters to the city,” Redick said. “I wrote press releases. I contacted code enforcement. I went to the courts. They did nothing. It’s like a Catch-22.”

In April, prosecutors acknowledged in court that Redick neither benefited financially nor was a key player in the alleged scheme. No money she touched actually ended up with the campaign.

In May, at the urging of Judge Althea Drysdale, prosecutors offered her a misdemeanor plea with no fine or jail time. They even mulled allowing her to plead to a noncriminal violation.

But Redick has so far declined, insisting she did nothing wrong.

“She’s a fighter and I admire her,” said Redick’s lawyer Alexei Grosshtern. “Her goal was to bring attention to the dire situation in her housing development. That attracted the attention of politicians like Mr. Adams and that is what roped her into this situation. But her desire was an entirely selfless one.”

Urban renewal turned nightmare

The story of how Redick arrived at this crossroads begins with Esplanade Gardens itself and involves an appearance by the future mayor.

The birth of the six-building complex with roughly 1,800 apartments at W. 147th St. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. was heralded in a 1963 New York Times article titled, “Middle Income Co-Op Planned in Old Transit Yard in Harlem.”

Redick and her now-deceased husband, Lawrence Redick Jr., moved into a 21st-floor apartment at 129 W. 147th St. in 1968, and over five decades, built a life and raised their two kids.

Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, the man who would charge Redick in 2023, in fact, lived for part of his childhood in the complex. His mom actually taught Redick in a continuing education math class in 1973, Redick says.

Over the years, Redick built close ties to her neighbors and was active in Harlem issues around housing, banking, air pollution and supermarkets. She also served on the co-op board.

In March 2016, Redick’s husband, then 69, died during surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, court records show. She sued the hospital for wrongful death. The case was settled last March for $900,000.

At Esplanade Gardens, as time passed, the physical condition of the complex deteriorated and the co-op had trouble keeping up. A 2012 story in The News quoted residents complaining about broken elevators, leaks and delayed repairs. The complex’s pool where Redick had watched her kids play has been closed for repairs for six years.

In 2020, the board brought in a contractor to begin wholesale repairs. But what followed was a range of problems detailed in dozens of lawsuits and thousands of complaints and violations reviewed by The News. Deafening drilling and widespread disruption stressed an aged population left in their apartments during the height of the pandemic rather than being relocated, according to residents and court papers.

Pictures from Millicent Redick's apartment showing damage in bathroom caused by contractors.

Millicent Redick

Pictures from Millicent Redick’s apartment showing damage in bathroom caused by contractors. (Millicent Redick)

In Redick’s apartment, leaks from floors above caused by the renovation exposed her to toxic mold and damaged her health. She says workers also left her ceiling with broken and defective plaster in several rooms. Records show Redick filed multiple complaints and city inspectors issued 28 violations in 2020 and 2021. But little was resolved, Redick says.

Fed up, she sued the co-op and its management company in April 2021.

More than three years later, the case is still pending and, Redick says, the mold and leak problems remain.

Damage from a leak in Millicent Redick's apartment.

Obtained by Daily News

Damage from a leak in Millicent Redick’s apartment. (Obtained by Daily News)

In Gloria Lowe’s apartment, workers bizarrely installed a water pipe that protrudes 2 feet below her living room ceiling. Workers broke a hole in a wall. Leaks warped her floors, her kitchen tiles cracked and mold mushroomed in her linen closet, a list of violations included in one of the court files shows.

Lowe, a retired educator, filed suit in September 2022. She has appeared in court at least 15 times. The pipes still jut from her ceiling. She has refused to pay maintenance, and the complex has twice towed her car. She’s spent thousands to fix the problems and says she has slept in hotels at times.

In Gloria Lowe's apartment, workers bizarrely installed a water pipe that protrudes two feet below her living room ceiling. (Téa Kvetenadze / New York Daily News)
In Gloria Lowe’s apartment, workers bizarrely installed a water pipe that protrudes two feet below her living room ceiling. (Téa Kvetenadze / New York Daily News)

“It’s just been unbelievable. It’s hard for anybody to envision what we went through,” Lowe said.

Tracey Jones, a resident of 2569 Seventh Ave., says her apartment has been afflicted with leaks that led to mold and disgusting odors. Her bathroom tiles were damaged. There were holes in her walls.  Jones sued in 2023.

Tracey Jones, a resident of 2569 7th Ave., says her apartment has been afflicted with leaks which led to mold and disgusting odors.
Tracey Jones, a resident of 2569 7th Ave., provided The News with these photos of a neighbor’s apartment with heavy mold problems.

“They’ve been held in contempt of court. They’ve had a $24,000 violation they haven’t paid,” she said, referencing legal action she has taken. “This is my fourth time in civil court.”

On Dec. 24, 2021, Jones’ 78-year-old aunt Ellen Grant wrote an anguished letter about her own apartment to the board, the contractor and local pols begging for help.

Plastic covered Redick's possessions for more than a year.
Plastic covered Redick’s possessions for more than a year. (Millicent Redick)

In the letter, penned in perfect script, she wrote she had no access to her bed as a result of the renovation and had to sleep on her sofa with her legs on a stool. She couldn’t use her kitchen or shower and had no ventilation because the windows had to be closed.

“Due to the conditions I have been forced to live in, my ability to walk has greatly deteriorated,” she wrote. “Pain, suffering, medical bills — none of which was a part of my medical history before this so-called ‘capital improvement.’ ”

Five months later, on May 24, 2022, Grant was dead. Jones said she found her body on the floor by the sofa surrounded by clutter and construction debris.

An anguished letter that Ellen Grant wrote in December 2021 to city officials. Five months later she was dead.

Graham Rayman

An anguished letter that Ellen Grant, 78, wrote in December 2021 to city officials. Five months later she was dead. (Tracey Jones)

A snapshot of city inspection records from May 23 show 1,657 complaints filed in the past two years and 2,371 open — or unresolved — violations. Tenants have filed at least 88 lawsuits.

The city Housing Preservation and Development Department has sued the complex at least nine times over conditions since Jan 1, 2023  The Buildings Department had full or partial stop work orders on five of the six towers as of May 23.

Contractors mistakenly drilled a hole in a wall in Gloria Lowe's apartment through to the outside "big enough to put a football through," Lowe said.

Gloria Lowe

Contractors mistakenly drilled a hole in a wall in Gloria Lowe’s apartment through to the outside “big enough to put a football through,” Lowe said. (Gloria Lowe)

The court files are thick with judge’s orders to fix problems, and city inspectors have fined the co-op $11,500 for recent heat and hot water violations, but often there are long delays if the problems are fixed at all.

Meanwhile lawyers for Esplanade Gardens have filed at least 173 suits against tenants for nonpayment of rent. Records show the complex claims tenants owe $6.2 million in back maintenance — a sum that has been growing for many years and includes people who aren’t paying out of protest against the conditions.

Ilana Maier, a spokeswoman for the Housing Preservation and Development Department, described the Esplanade renovation as complicated by the pandemic and aging infrastructure combined with funding struggles — challenges many Mitchell-Lama co-ops are facing.

In legal responses to the lawsuits, Esplanade Gardens denied many of the allegations. The board chairman declined to comment for this story.

Can Eric help?

By 2021, Redick and her longtime friends in the complex were at their wit’s end. They decided to try to arrange a meeting with Adams, who was running for mayor.

“On Sundays in the summer, we would all cook a meal and sit at the pool and have our jazz and watch our kids swim and we would laugh. It was a family affair,” Redick said. “All that was taken from us. So I called the ladies — come on y’all, all of us.”

Redick says she turned to contractor Shamsuddin Riza, a friend of her late husband for whom she provided accounting services.

Riza told The News he contacted retired NYPD Inspector Dwayne Montgomery to set up a meeting for Redick with Adams about Esplanade.

“I said she’s a very good person and what’s happened to the seniors there is a shame,” Riza said. “He said, ‘No problem.’”

Montgomery and Riza were both later charged in the straw donor case. Neither Adams nor his campaign, prosecutors say, was aware of the scheme.

In late May 2021, Adams and David Johnson, then a campaign aide and now a special assistant to the mayor, arrived at Redick’s front door to meet with her and six of her friends. Redick and Lowe say Adams spent about an hour there and listened as they laid out the problems in the complex. Lowe took photos of the group.

“He made general promises,” Redick said. “We hoped he would help us resolve these issues that we have had.”

In May 2021, Eric Adams arrived at Redick's front door to meet with her and six of her friends.

Obtained by Daily News

In May 2021, candidate Eric Adams spent an hour in Redick’s living room with Redick and six other Esplanade residents. After his election, little has improved, Redick and Gloria Lowe say. (Obtained by Daily News)

After he departed, the women agreed to raise money for his campaign. Redick donated $500 to Adams that August. She says she also collected contributions from residents and turned them into money orders.

Redick says she sent copies of the money orders to Riza but held on to the originals. Once she learned the campaign was no longer accepting donations, she refunded the money orders to the people who donated.

The indictment alleges Riza sent her two checks totaling $3,100 to buy money orders to further the straw donor scheme.

But Redick says the checks from Riza were payment for unrelated bookkeeping work she did for him. Riza backed up Redick’s account to The News.

Campaign fraud Shamsuddin Riza Mayor Eric Adams

Shamsuddin Riza, pictured during his arraignment earlier this month, gave $600 to Adams' campaign. (Curtis Means/Pool)

Curtis Means / Pool

Shamsuddin Riza is pictured during his arraignment in April. (Curtis Means/Pool)

Adams won the election and took office in January 2022. Redick, Lowe and Jones all say nothing has changed. City government has been no more responsive to their concerns after Adams’ election than before.

“He could’ve appointed someone who would sincerely monitor the work being done here. Someone with oversight power,” Redick says.

“He could have dealt with the environmental issues, the finances. He could have done a lot of things. He didn’t do any of it.”

William Fowler, a spokesman for the mayor, referred questions on the meeting itself to his campaign, but said Adams has a long record of pushing for legislative reforms to address problems in Mitchell-Lama complexes.

“He has proven time and again his commitment to helping these oft-forgotten New Yorkers —– many of whom are elderly, people of color on fixed incomes,” Fowler said. “The Adams administration has continued to work with Mitchell-Lama boards to make improvements to their buildings while ensuring they remain affordable.”

Adams campaign attorney Vito Pitta did not reply to emails from The News. 

Redick cuffed and perp walked

On July 7, 2023, Redick was called to the Manhattan DA’s office, held in handcuffs for four hours, then paraded through a gantlet of TV cameras to her arraignment.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I don’t even jaywalk so how did I get here? It’s not funny, but you have to laugh to keep from crying.”

Montgomery, Riza and businessmen Yahya and Shahid Mushtaq and Ronald Peek were accused of pursuing the scheme to advance business with the city.

Dwayne Montgomery appears in court on July 7, 2023.

Curtis Means / Pool

Dwayne Montgomery appears in court on July 7, 2023. (Curtis Means / Pool)

Media reports zeroed in on a quote from a July 2021 wiretapped call in which Montgomery told Riza “[Adams] said he doesn’t want to do anything if he doesn’t get 25 G’s” for his campaign.

Regarding Redick, the indictment alleged Riza enlisted her “to obtain straw donors in Harlem after Montgomery needed 10 more donors to facilitate another contribution.”

For most of last winter, Redick was without heat, She sued over that in Housing Court in February, court records show. The lack of heat forced her to stay with relatives, she said

In addition to dealing with the criminal case, she has had to trudge numerous times to Housing Court. She wins rulings but little changes.

In April, Esplanade Gardens sued her for nonpayment of rent. She says the co-op is now blocking her from using the parking space she has had for decades.

Millicent Redick is pictured in Esplanade Gardens in May. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)

Barry Williams for New York Daily News

Millicent Redick is pictured in Esplanade Gardens in May. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)

“What upsets me the most is here’s someone who has lived there so long and put so much time into the community to have the city turn their back on her,” Redick’s son Lawrence Redick III, 58, said. “The tenants suffered. The complex is not responsive. The courts don’t really resolve it. Where do you go from there?”

Maier, the Housing Preservation and Development Department spokeswoman, said the complex is seeking a loan from the city and $7 million in city funding is in the pipeline to help complete the renovation.

She said the city doesn’t have the legal authority to manage the day-to-day operations of the complex, but the department closely watches finances, the progress of construction and selection of new tenants.

“Generally speaking, lack of oversight is not the driving force of issues at Esplanade Gardens, it’s the high amount of unfunded capital needs,” she said.

After all the hubbub of the arrests, a year later, the four defendants closest to the scheme have pleaded guilty piecemeal to lesser charges.

Montgomery, the ex-police inspector, was facing prison time, but pleaded to a misdemeanor and received a $500 fine and 200 hours’ community service. Riza, the contractor, also facing prison time, received three years’ probation.

The Mushtaq brothers received 35 hours of community service. Peek’s case is pending.

Redick is due back in court July 16.

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