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Combatants detail accusations in latest Milligan/Norwalk Redevelopment Agency legal battle

Real estate broker Jason Milligan, in front of a mural on the side of the former El Dorado Club, in 2020. The mural is gone now, as Milligan had that portion of the building demolished. Workers found it to be unsafe, he said. (Contributed)

NORWALK, Conn. — The war of words between real estate broker Jason Milligan and the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency has escalated with reams of legal papers filed recently, as Redevelopment seeks to defeat Milligan’s attempt to overthrow its Wall/West Neighborhood Plan, approved by the Common Council in 2019.

The wonky legal arguments stand alongside accusations developed by both sides’ ability to issue subpoenas and/or compel contestants to testify. Some highlights:

  • Milligan “has visited the Agency’s offices unannounced and created disturbances so frequently, that exasperated Agency staff have purchased and installed locks and a security and intercom system for the building,” Redevelopment states.
  • Although Milligan seeks to invalidate the Wall/West plan, he was for it before he was against it, Redevelopment states, calling Milligan’s legal challenge a cynical attempt to get himself off the hook in the major lawsuit stemming from his purchase of “POKO” properties, which may cost him millions.
  • New Canaan resident Daniel Groff, Milligan’s business partner in the legal entity challenging the Wall/West plan, is “probably not” aware that he is involved in the lawsuit, Milligan said in a deposition.
  • The Redevelopment Agency is guilty of “negligence, audacity and even, at times, deceit,” Milligan’s attorney, David Rubin, states. The blight analysis done to justify the Wall/West plan was done via a computer overview, not in-person inspections a “sham” that cannot sustain the blight determination.
  • Then-Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss told Council members in 2019 that Redevelopment staff had photographed every property in the Wall/West area. That wasn’t true.
  • Rubin accuses Strauss of altering a statement in the report urban planning consultants Harriman Associates issued to make it “irrefutably false.” Former Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan called that sentence “inaccurate.” Rubin says the sentence mislead the public.
  • Rubin is “focusing on pedantic minutiae” without presenting evidence that the Wall/West area is not blighted, the Agency states. The Common Council heard most of the Milligan team’s arguments in 2019 and approved the plan.

 

Milligan has been seeking publicity for his side’s legal argument and accusations, saying no one could read the words and “walk away saying the city & Agency acted properly… Nothing to see here.”

He recently sent his document to Wall Street stakeholders. One unintended result: some questioned if he was spending Jeffrey Epstein’s money.

Milligan said he’s not.

Epstein, a financier accused of child sex trafficking, died just over two years ago in a jail cell.  His demise was ruled to be suicide. He once described Lesley Groff of New Canaan as “an extension of my brain,” according to news reports.

Lesley Groff is married to Ike Groff, according to news reports. Multiple people search websites say Dan Groff sometimes goes by “Ike” Groff. The websites show an identical address for Dan Groff and Ike Groff. Milligan, who also lives in New Canaan, has named Dan Groff as the only other member of IJ Group LLC; as one person put it, the “J” to Milligan’s “I.”

Milligan is said to own about 40 properties in the Wall Street area. Reached Thursday, he declined to say whether Dan and Ike Groff are one and the same person.

 

Legal wonkery

Milligan, under the legal entity IJ Group, filed the legal challenge to the Wall/West neighborhood plan in April 2019. He alleged that due process was not followed in the plan’s creation and approval and accused the City and the Redevelopment Agency of fraud.

IJ Group LLC bought 67 and 69 Wall St. after the plan was released, Redevelopment states.

Jason Milligan, left, shows off a map in 2019, as Attorney David Rubin (center) and Norwalk Assistant Corporation Counsel Darin Callahan address Judge Charles Lee (not shown) in Stamford Superior Court. (Archive photo)

Milligan was already embroiled in an intense legal battle over his purchase of properties slated to become parts of Wall Street Place phases II and III, often referred to as “POKO.” The City and Redevelopment Agency accuse him of unfair trade practices and “sham” real estate transfers.

In addition to finding out the members of IJ Group as part of the lesser lawsuit, Redevelopment asked Milligan for the members of two other legal entities, Wall Street Opportunity Fund (WSOF) and Komi Ventures, the recent slew of documents reveals.

Milligan is the only member of those LLCs, he said, although Rubin indicated in 2019 that Komi had another member. Rubin didn’t answer an email, sent during the holiday season, asking if a member had dropped out. Milligan replied to the email but didn’t answer the question.

Milligan bought the POKO properties in May 2018 under Wall Street Opportunity Fund.

In a complicated aspect of that transaction, WSOF received a release on a $5.8 million mortgage on the land but this was not recorded in the Town Clerk’s Office, according to the City and Redevelopment Agency. Instead, the “collateral assignment of mortgage” was recorded by Komi.

In July 2018, Milligan announced that Komi had issued a notice of default on Wall Street Opportunity Fund and that a deed-in-lieu property transfer was in the works, claiming this would make the lawsuit filed against him irrelevant. He said that the City could elect to pay the $5.8 million note and acquire the properties, for which he paid $5.2 million. The deed-in-lieu transfer wasn’t executed, according to court documents.

Allegations regarding the Komi/WSOF relationship are offered in a motion for summary judgment on that case, filed by the plaintiffs in April. Milligan was attempting to get around the Land Disposition Agreement’s restriction on property transfers by setting up a deed-in-lieu, they state. The LDA specified that Redevelopment would approve property transfers.

At left, Wall Street Place, sometimes called “The Tyvek Temple” or just “POKO.” At right, the former Leonard Street municipal parking lot bought by real estate broker Jason Milligan in May 2018.

The motion is still pending as multiple defendants have been added to the lawsuit and reactions ripple through the court.

In October, the Redevelopment Agency filed a motion for summary judgment on Milligan’s attempt to invalidate the neighborhood plan. This is a request that the judge rule on the case rather than allow it to go to trial.

For a judge to grant summary judgment, the important facts must be established, and the decision made on the legal merits, a local lawyer explained.

Rubin argues that “there are issues of material fact relative to the RDA’s claim that it acted ‘eminently reasonable’ and in good faith, and summary judgment is not appropriate.”

Attorney Daniel Elliott, representing the Redevelopment Agency, replies, “Plaintiff cites to a number of tort cases (including slip-and-fall cases, good faith and fair dealing cases, and negligent misrepresentation cases) to argue that it is ‘inappropriate’ to decide these issues on summary judgment, and that they are questions for the trier of fact… Recall that Plaintiff has withdrawn its jury claim, and this case – if it proceeds forward – will be a Court trial and not a jury trial.”

 

‘Eccentric’ Milligan accused of contradicting himself

Redevelopment’s motion is “the opposite of limited to just the law,” Milligan said in November. “It reads like a novel with heroes and villains and pages and pages of unrelated information.”

Real estate broker Jason Milligan, Nov. 11 on River Street.

Redevelopment calls Milligan “a wealthy and eccentric owner of multiple properties in Norwalk” who bought properties that were under contract with Redevelopment and the City in a “brazenly, audaciously, and knowingly illegal” act. This legal assault on the neighborhood plan is inspired by “sheer, utter cynicism” and you know it because Milligan is making contradictory arguments in the different lawsuits, Redevelopment states.

In the infamous “POKO” lawsuit, Milligan argues “there is no doubt but that the 2019 Redevelopment Plan was prepared and approved consistent with the requirements of [Section] 8-127 [of the Connecticut General Statutes], as a new plan,” Redevelopment states.

That’s in contrast to some of his comments in this lawsuit, where he alleges that the blight determination was made via “improper and inadequate methodology,” thereby invalidating the blight determination needed per State Statutes.

The excerpt is “just one of many examples” of the contradictory approach, Redevelopment states.

 

Milligan: ‘No get out of jail free card’ for Rilling

Moreover, Milligan followed the plan’s development closely and supported it, proposing ideas which the Agency ultimately included in the plan, Redevelopment states. After he was sued over the POKO properties purchase, he began a “campaign of vindictiveness” against the plan he had worked with.

Then-Norwalk Director of Community Development Planning Tami Strauss, center, gives a brief explanation of the then-developing Norwalk Center Neighborhood Plan to the Common Council Planning Committee in 2018.

Strauss (then-Director of Community Development Planning) had multiple conversations with Milligan about the plan and Milligan never voiced opposition to it or its “deteriorated or deteriorating conditions” conclusions, “at least not before” the POKO lawsuit was filed, Redevelopment states.

In fact, before Milligan bought the POKO properties, he drafted language for a Wall Street Neighborhood Association announcement stating that one of the reasons it had been formed to “identify, punish and fix blight,” Redevelopment states.

In January 2019, WSNA member Frank Farricker drafted a letter on behalf of the group, calling the plan “a comprehensive document” that “can act as a sound foundation for cooperative growth in the area.” Milligan’s initial feedback was that the draft “may lather it on too thick at times but it is good.”

Redevelopment reports that later in the day, Milligan said, “It may unnecessarily give [Mayor] Harry [Rilling] an exit without getting anything in return … I see no need to give Harry Rilling a get out of jail free card at this moment. Our main goal is to marginalize the RDA.”

Days later, Milligan and a small group of WSNA members were working to challenge the “deteriorated or deteriorating conditions” determination with a public relations campaign meant to delay the plan, Redevelopment states.

Redevelopment needed to establish that 20% of the properties were blighted for the area to qualify for a redevelopment plan but instead set the bar at 40%, the motion states. Because Milligan and others disputed the blight determination established by the consulting firm RPA (Regional Planning Agency), Redevelopment commissioned a second consultant to supplement the data. It’s “perverse” that Milligan is attempting to use that to suggest that Redevelopment shopped for a consultant to say what it wanted to hear.

 

‘Unhinged’

Milligan “has given juvenile nicknames to, and engaged in foul-mouthed personal insults against, public servants, their consultants, and attorneys,” Redevelopment states, often quoting Milligan’s comments in and on NancyOnNorwalk articles.

His deposition testimony was “an unhinged performance, replete with the constant use of four-letter vulgarities and the crudest of ad hominem insults,” the motion states.

A transcript shows Milligan calling the first company that consulted on the blight determination, RPA, a “shell sham,” in contrast to Redevelopment’s representation that the firm was “wonderful, well established with a big team,” Milligan said.

“The team is nobody,” Milligan said. “The team was ‘Melissa working out of her bedroom while she’s like babysitting.’ It’s f—- retarded.”

Melissa Kaplan-Macey, RPA Connecticut Director, is a single mother, Redevelopment states.

A text message received by Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Brian Bidolli in July 2020. Bidolli, who began work in December 2019, testified recently that he hadn’t given Milligan his phone number.

Rubin doesn’t dispute Milligan’s behavior. Rather, he states that the “politically incorrect quotes” are cherry picked and taken out of context. As an example, Rubin characterizes the Kaplan-Macey “retarded” comment as “insensitive” and explains that it was “predicated on the fact that her deposition was taken remotely from her home during COVID, with her young children interrupting her.”

“While this does not excuse Mr. Milligan’s insensitive remarks in his deposition, it does provide context, and further begs the question as to why such irrelevant and inadmissible testimony is being provided to the Court if not to divert the Court from the actual issues at hand,” Rubin argues.

Redevelopment mentions a text message Milligan sent Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Brian Bidolli, showing himself giving the finger.

That’s as relevant as Mayor Harry Rilling giving Milligan the finger at a social event, Rubin states.

This anecdote comes from former Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano, who testified in March that he’d been speaking with Milligan as a Chamber dinner wound down, and Rilling, seated “a couple of tables over,” gave Milligan the finger while scratching his head.

 

Harassment from a ‘crank’

Redevelopment, in the motion for summary judgment, states that multiple people involved in the plan’s creation felt harassed by Milligan and blocked his phone calls. Harriman principal Steve Cecil thought one of Milligan’s early communications on the topic to be a “crank email” and instructed his staff to ignore it.

In March 2019, Straus sent Sheehan an email stating, “I wish to have no further conversation or contact with Mr. Milligan on the basis of harassment and sense of verbal hostility he displayed over the phone today and previously, and on the basis of physical hostility he has displayed previously in person.”

Straus left the Agency in mid-2020, after the pandemic began. Milligan, in a deposition, characterized this as Straus “fleeing to California.”

As mentioned above, Redevelopment states:

Milligan “has visited the Agency’s offices unannounced and created disturbances so frequently, that exasperated Agency staff have purchased and installed locks and a security and intercom system for the building.”

Redevelopment’s office at 3 Belden Ave. is just two buildings down from Milligan Real Estate at 11 Belden. Bidolli testified that Milligan’s “erratic and aggressive behavior” and his “storming into the office” prompted the installation of a security system. Some interactions are “civil;” others cause “great duress.”

“Even on my first day, he stormed into my office,” Bidolli said.

In the foreground, at right, is Milligan Realty. In the background, just beyond People’s Bank, is the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency.

Bidolli said he came out to his car one day and found that Milligan had taped a picture of himself on the windshield, which he felt to be “a form of intimidation” because he had just started the job.

It was a business card with Milligan’s photo on it, Rubin states.

Redevelopment’s motion for summary judgment “reads like pulp fiction,” Rubin states. “The RDA creates a rhetorical strawman caricature of Plaintiff’s principal, Jason Milligan. Their moving papers are replete with inadmissible, exaggerated and misleading anecdotal character evidence of Mr. Milligan, seemingly tilting at windmills with cravenness and crudity.”

 

‘Crooked’

Milligan accuses Straus of “conspiring” with the Agency’s second consultant in the blight determination – Harriman – “by improperly utilizing data from tax assessment records that was cherry-picked, taken out of context, misapplied and misused as a means to an end.” She “further disregarded an actual study that did not support the RDA’s pre-determined conclusions.”

In a deposition, Milligan called Straus a “crooked son of a bitch.”

“If they were not government people, if they were not covered by this bull—, these people would be going to jail,” Milligan said. “If this was in a private sector, there would be multiple people going to jail, 100%. The lying that they did, the deception that they did, the corruption they did, is off the charts.”

An excerpt from a brief filed by Attorney David Rubin, representing real estate broker Jason Milligan under IJ Group LLC, offering testimony from An excerpt from a transcript of testimony by former Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan.

Rubin’s reply to Redevelopment’s motion includes a transcript of a Sheehan deposition, 600-plus pages. Redevelopment’s attorney, Dan Elliot, objected to many of the questions; this doesn’t mean the witness is permitted not to answer the question, it means the lawyer has noted an objection that may eventually be used to ask the judge to discard testimony.

In other words, some of Sheehan’s answers might be tossed. This is the case with all the witnesses quoted in the legal documents.

Rubin argues that Sheehan characterized the Harriman analysis as “flawed” and “not satisfying Connecticut statute relative to a lawful blight finding,” summarizing a specific passage of testimony.
A review of the lengthy transcript shows Sheehan commenting that he found the analysis to be “sufficient to meet the requirements of the statute.”

“I think you could always explore things ad infinitum. You could continue to look and look and look and look. But the prescriptive here is meeting the objectives of the statute and does the area meet them or not,” Sheehan said.

‘Amended sentence’ accusation Excerpt from Milligan response to motion for summary judgment 21-1207

‘Materially misrepresents’ accusation Excerpt from Milligan response to motion for summary judgment 21-1207

‘I don’t think it’s incorrect’

Straus was project manager for the Wall/West plan and could “pretty much” make decisions regarding the blight determination without his input, Sheehan said. If it were him, he would have gone deeper than a desktop analysis to reach the blight determination.

Brian Bidolli. (Contributed)

“You could learn a lot by a desktop analysis, but you also want to go out and verify field conditions, depending on the conditions,” Bidolli testified.

Emily Innes of Harriman did her work from her desk in Massachusetts, never visiting the area, according to Rubin. She had two weeks for the assignment and testified that this was a short time frame.

Innes requested six types of records; for instance, water bills with zero balances would indicate vacant buildings. Out of the six suggested searches, Redevelopment conducted one, Rubin said.

The search for “code violations” showed that “the Building Department deemed the grand sum of three properties in the Redevelopment Area actually blighted,” Rubin said.

Strauss instead chose to use tax assessment data, eventually using a comment made by Norwalk residential property assessor Simon Wake as a key component of the blight determination.

Rubin attacks Wake’s involvement as he has no commercial property experience and is not trained in blight determinations for redevelopment purposes. Wake had no idea that his opinions were being used for this reason, Rubin states.

Sheehan said that tax assessment data had never been used for a blight determination before but called the information relevant. Innes testified that she’d never seen depreciation used before. “It was an interesting area to explore.”

Straus told Common Council members that Redevelopment staff members had gone out and photographed all of the properties in the Wall/West plan area but this was false, Rubin states, quoting testimony from Director of Business Development & Tourism Sabrina Church and others.

During a deposition, Rubin asked Straus why she’d made that representation. “I don’t know,” she replied.

The transcription of her testimony is 1,000 pages long. She was also asked about the amended sentence, which implied that asbestos had been considered in the blight determination analysis and is described as “irrefutably false” by Rubin.

“I don’t think it’s incorrect. It was poorly written,” she said.

“Strauss lied to elected and appointed city officials and the public relative to field work she claimed she had undertaken in further support of the blight determination, as well as the factors that were considered by the vendors in their blight determinations,” Milligan said in a statement, made multiple times in court documents.

An excerpt from a transcript of testimony by former Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan. Asking questions is Attorney David Rubin, representing real estate broker Jason Milligan under IJ Group LLC. Sheehan is described as “the witness.”

Rubin wrote, “{A} significant issue driving the blight finding is the all-mighty dollar. The City and RDA are improperly designating healthy areas as blighted as a means to an end; the end being money.”

A blight designation “opens the door to funding that would otherwise be unavailable,” Sheehan said during his deposition. Sheehan did not agree with Rubin’s statement that “finding blight is a means to an end, the end being money.”

Council members designated South Norwalk as a slum/blighted area in 2015. That “did bring in millions of dollars,” Sheehan said during the recent deposition.

 

 

Redevelopment: ‘No personal benefit’ to employees

“None of Plaintiff’s efforts have elicited any evidence that would suffice to meet the incredibly high bar for judicial intervention in the legislative function,” Elliott wrote in Redevelopment’s reply to Rubin’s arguments.

Rubin’s quotes are often “wildly out of context,” Elliot states. He points out that Rubin used a quote alleged to be from former Zoning Commission Chairman Adam Blank, but said the words were reported by Donna Smirniotopoulos, making it “double-hearsay” and “plainly inadmissible.”

Rubin took the account from City meeting minutes, which quote Smirniotopoulos quoting Blank when she spoke to the Planning Committee in 2019. It’s a comment Blank left on NancyOnNorwalk.

Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) and former Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) testified that they had no reason to believe Straus or other Redevelopment employees lied to the Council, transcripts show.

Elliott wrote, “The Redevelopment Agency and the public servants whom it employs worked tirelessly on this Plan, and, it should go without saying, derived no personal benefit from it whatsoever.”

Information added, 4:23 p.m. Monday and 4:52 p.m. Tuesday.

RDA motion for summary judgment 21-1022

Milligan response to motion for summary judgment 21-1207

RDA reply brief 21-1221

RDA exhibit 4 Milligan transcript 21-1022

RDA exhibit 6 interrogatories 21-1022

Milligan exhibit D Straus transcript 21-1207

 

One comment

Kenneth Werner January 3, 2022 at 2:53 pm

Nancy, thank you for this detailed and painstaking straight reporting on an issue of major importance to our city.

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