NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk is set to settle a lesser “POKO” lawsuit while a trial in the major lawsuit related to Wall Street Place has been pushed back to September 2022 – if it gets to the point of going to a jury.
The Common Council on Tuesday approved a settlement in the lawsuit filed by John Dias, former owner of the El Dorado Club next to the infamously stalled “Tyvek Temple.” Judge Edward Krumreich ruled in April that the charge of unjust enrichment had no merit but gave Dias a greenlight to pursue damages for inverse condemnation. An arbitration session ensued. Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said that details of the settlement would not be revealed at this point.
Meanwhile, the City’s suit against Jason Milligan and Richard Olson has been expanded to include other legal entities, inspiring pushback from Ken Olson’s widow. The City has moved for summary judgment and as that percolates, Olson’s widow seeks to have the charges against her dismissed. And Milligan continues to issue insults to anyone who will listen.
In all caps: LDA, POKO… ILSR, IWSR…
To review: all this legal action mainly revolves around the stalled Wall Street Place, commonly called “POKO” and sometimes “The Tyvek Temple,” a proposal that has its roots in a 2004 redevelopment plan.
Mayor Harry Rilling and the Common Council got the long-delayed Wall Street Place project going in 2014, but construction stalled in mid-2016 after Ken Olson, POKO Principal, was stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The debilitating and ultimately fatal illness restrained him from any hope of the Hail Mary pass needed to overcome a whopper of a problem: a $9 million budget gap.
POKO went bankrupt. Citibank took control of the property through a deed-in-lieu-of-foreclosure, and last January, the Zoning Commission approved a new plan for the property, expanding the mixed-use development to include 151 apartments instead of the original 101.
Milligan has filed an appeal of that approval.
It’s a complicated situation with a complicated legal document at its heart: a Land Disposition Agreement (LDA) governing the POKO properties due to the City’s contribution of two parking lots to the development.
In mid-2018, Richard Olson, brother of the late Ken Olson and participant in POKO, sold Milligan POKO properties under ILSR Owners, an entity spun off from IWSR Owners LLC, spun off of POKO. The City and Redevelopment Agency say this was a violation of the LDA, as Redevelopment had the right to approve a property transfer to a new “redeveloper.”
Milligan contends the LDA is invalid for a variety of reasons.
Also in the mix, tangentially, is the Wall Street Theater. The once-dilapidated theater, shuttered for a decade, reopened in mid-2017 after a $10 million renovation partially funded by tax credits, under the auspices of a nonprofit in a process shepherded by Frank Farricker.
POKO ‘wasn’t going anywhere’
Dias’ lawsuit against the City and Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, filed in 2017, explains that the City in 2008 announced an intention to take his property at 20-26 Isaacs St. by eminent domain and replace it with a street adjacent to the planned Wall Street Place development. POKO Partners signed a contract with Dias to buy his property for $2.5 million but never came up with the funds, Dias states, accusing the defendants of essentially warehousing his property without paying him.
Dias testified that the Redevelopment Agency was complicit, assuring him verbally that POKO Principal Ken Olson would deliver on his promises.
“After POKO breached its contract with me, I had several meetings with representatives of the City,” Dias said in an affidavit. “I was told that this was a big project and that POKO was not going anywhere. I was told that the Premises would be needed for the redevelopment project. I was told to just be patient. Based on this understanding, my plan was to stick it out and continue operating the Club El Dorado until the Premises was either sold to POKO or taken by the City.”
In 2017, with the partially built Wall Street Place covered in Tyvek and no construction going on, it appeared the project had failed, and his club “failed as well and I was left with nothing,” he said.
In November, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, asking Krumreich to decide the case in their favor. Krumreich dismissed the unjust enrichment claim but said the defendants had not provided sufficient evidence to definitively counter Dias’ claim of a property taking.
An arbitration session was held in June. The Common Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a settlement without comment.
The plaintiffs say they do not comment on the pending litigation.
Whither the El Dorado Club?
Milligan suggested he might buy the closed club for $2 million in 2019, contingent on the LDA being amended. But later that year Dias got a better offer: Farricker’s Wall Street Theater wanted to buy it for $2.25 million, Dias testified. Farricker also wanted the LDA restrictions removed, but when that happened in July 2020, he didn’t have the funds to buy it.
Why did the theater want it? Because the “eyesore of the unfinished POKO building” kept the expected philanthropy for the theater’s federal nonprofit from developing, so theater supporters thought they should protect the area and keep it arts-centric as “the incredible litigiousness of Mr. Milligan made us believe that the only way that we could preserve our future was, essentially, to make it ourselves,” Farricker said in a deposition.
The defunct El Dorado Club would have become a production studio under this scenario, but the lawsuits and the LDA scared off investors. Then COVID-19 hit, Farricker explained, specifically mentioning additional Milligan lawsuits “spooking” folks.
He attempted to arrange tax-exempt bonds but was unable to work it out with Patriot Bank. The employee he was working with left the bank in February 2020 and with COVID-19 underway, no one would accept income projections.
“The crime is that there was never — there’s never been any greater demand for a production studio in our nation’s history. And, because of all of the nonsense, we missed this unbelievable opportunity,” Farricker testified.
In July 2020, Dias found himself unable to pay property taxes on the club. “The ongoing expenses of maintaining the Premises without income therefrom were financially crippling,” he testified.
In September he sold it to Milligan for $1.5 million.
Farricker did not reply to an email sent in May, asking about the situation.
Also in May, Milligan said he could not share plans for the club. On Wednesday, he said, “I have tremendous plans that should be executed in conjunction with the other neighbors and area stakeholders. Unfortunately, we have a rogue part-time employee that thinks he is shadow mayor / god. His name is super Mario!”
Anyone following this case knows who he means: Coppola.
Milligan, under multiple legal entities, is the most active defendant in the lawsuit stemming from his purchase of properties slated to become part of Wall Street Place, which the plaintiffs said was done in violation of – wait for it – that infamous LDA.
Richard Olson of POKO Partners, who sold Milligan the properties, is also a defendant, under ILSR Owners.
And now, Pamela Olson is a defendant, too. Judge Sheila Ozalis in April approved the plaintiffs’ request to add four legal entities and two Olsons in their personal capacities. So now Richard Olson is a defendant himself, not just as the operator of ILSR, and Pamela Olson is there as executrix of her late husband’s estate.
Yes, it’s a little late to add defendants, the plaintiffs acknowledged in their pleading, but they had learned of the relationships between the entities just nine months earlier and were only able to question Richard Olson about it in March. In any event all the entities have been represented already through ILSR, as they’re all related, they said.
- POKO Partners LLC
- POKO Management Corporation
- POKO-IWSR Developers LLC
- IWSR Managers LLC
- Pamela Olson
- Richard Olson
The plaintiffs argued that the legal entities were just puppets for the Olson brothers, and allowing the “fiction of separate identity would serve only to defeat justice and equity by permitting an economic entity to escape liability arising out of an operation conducted by one company for the benefit of the whole enterprise.” They seek to “pierce the corporate veil” and hold the defendants jointly and severally liable for any judgment against ILSR, they said.
Pamela Olson wants out pronto because the estate has limited financial resources, Attorney Robert Fleischer said during a June 16 court hearing held on Zoom and broadcast on the State Judiciary’s new YouTube channel where, with three new lawyers added to the mix, the Hollywood Squares-like presentation was a sight to behold.
Ozalis greenlighted Fleischer to attempt a dismissal and, recognizing that similar motions would likely come from the other legal entities, said that the trial would need to be moved.
It was rescheduled from February to September 2022. And it’ll be a jury trial because that’s what Milligan prefers, according to his attorney, David Rubin. So the entire complicated scenario will need to be explained – probably more than once – to the lucky jurors.
Or maybe not?
Rewind a few weeks: In early April, the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment. In other words, they asked Ozalis if she felt she could end the case by making a ruling in their favor, based on the (voluminous) agreed upon facts. This would preclude a trial.
It’s a request made at the suggestion of Judge Charles Lee, who presided over the case before reaching mandatory retirement. After becoming testy with Milligan’s lawyer about a year ago, Lee instructed the plaintiffs to file for summary judgment.
“I am not even slightly worried,” Milligan said in May. “The attorneys working for the city are morally bankrupt mental retards. They literally just started their entire case over from scratch by adding a half-dozen new defendants who each have rights and potential defenses.”
And the rescheduled hearing isn’t really a surprise, as Milligan has recently uncovered an email from 2020 in which Coppola suggested that the case would take “at least five or six years” from its initial filing in September 2018.
The argument for judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor
The plaintiffs, in the requested motion, weave a colorful story via details uncovered in discovery. For instance, Attorney Meghan Gallagher, representing Olson and ILSR, described Milligan as being “a little bit frantic” in his haste to buy the properties as soon as possible, to prevent the public parties from filing for an injunction to prevent the sale. Attorney Candace Fay – Milligan’s cousin – subsequently sought to amend the documents around the already concluded sale, as it had become apparent Milligan might be sued. Gallagher characterized this attempt to repaper a commercial closing “truly absurd.”
As for Milligan’s qualifications to be the redeveloper for Wall Street Place, the plaintiffs quote him as saying he had never “started from dirt and built a mixed-use project” because he does not “like dealing with the municipal bodies.” The largest thing he’s built is a 6,000-square foot home and he does not “have experience with a public private development project.”
Would the municipal bodies like to deal with Milligan? They don’t say directly but they do identify the person he gave the finger to, via text, a few months back. The lucky recipient was Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Brian Bidolli, who has only been in his post since late 2019, long after the lawsuit was filed.
Then there’s the insult Milligan sent to Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King, who the City identifies as Jewish, in February 2020. Milligan claimed City leaders didn’t care about Wall Street Place, but only about power and position, and said, “Clearly you are not a Christian and have no conscience. Otherwise how could you sleep at night?”
Milligan, in May, said he didn’t know King is Jewish. “She is Irish. We have spoken about that. I apologized and she was not offended.”
King declined to comment.
Milligan engages in harassing behavior, the plaintiffs say in their motion for summary judgement. In addition to the above, in April of 2020, he filed an abuse of process claim against them. Eight months later, after they moved to strike the suit as frivolous, he withdrew it without even responding.
ILSR’s sale of the properties to Milligan was not a mistake, but an intentional, bad faith violation of the LDA, the plaintiffs say. It has substantially delayed the redevelopment of the properties; ILSR knew that would be the result but jumped at the chance for quick cash. Milligan, by his own admission, mislead the public parties about the transfer.
About that: It’s been widely reported that on May 31, 2018, Milligan told officials in a City Hall meeting that he wouldn’t close on the properties the following day as planned, but the transfer had already been recorded in the Town Clerk’s Office.
Turns out that Milligan didn’t wire Olson the money until “the following day,” June 1, 2018, according to the plaintiffs.
Milligan also didn’t legally record the release of a $5.8 million mortgage on the parking lot, making it look doubly encumbered. And he admitted he’d done that intentionally to force the plaintiffs to negotiate, plaintiffs say. They charge that Milligan overinflated the lot’s value and threatened to “embarrass” plaintiffs in the press if they did not negotiate with him on his terms, and his terms alone.
Milligan sought to flip the properties as soon as he bought them, then tried to escape the LDA’s penalties by having one of his legal entities foreclose on another over a non-existent debt, they say. When that flopped, he “resorted to more creative efforts: creating (and then voiding) fictitious leases, violating local building ordinances, contravening local zoning laws, challenging the Phase I zoning approval, filing (and then withdrawing) an abuse of process suit against Plaintiffs, and personally texting obscene images and insulting remarks to City officials.”
Without declaratory judgment in their favor, “the entire redevelopment of the Wall Street area is threatened,” they state.
No response yet
Milligan called the lawsuit “3 years of utter failure, hypocrisy and wasted money. All over ego.”
Although Milligan says he’s winning the major lawsuit and “not worried,” he’s recently been trying to settle the suit. He made an offer and got an “absurd” counteroffer, he said in May.
Ruben told Ozalis during the June 16 hearing that he’d file a response to the plaintiff’s argument for summary judgment by Friday, July 16, but nothing has appeared on the State judicial website.
Ruben didn’t reply to a Friday email asking if a response was forthcoming. Milligan claimed that the “6 new defendants at the 11th hour has cause a whole host of issues” and said, “We were prepared to respond to their motion for summary judgment months ago, and again recently but there are major new events fairly regularly.”
He’s not sure when it will be filed, he said. “I have paid a lot of money to prepare the response. It will be turned in when it is required, and it will be successful.”