Eviction Defense Attorney Accused of Ties to Controversial Landlord
Trinidad Ruiz is interviewed by a Univision reporter at the BASTA protest last week.
Danny Bramzon made a name for himself as a brash, bellicose defense lawyer who founded the nonprofit firm BASTA to help low-income tenants facing eviction. His opponents — the landlords' attorneys — have accused him of purposely gumming up the court system in order to put pressure on landlords.
Bramzon has defended his tactics, telling Curbed L.A. earlier this year, "With the way Los Angeles has skyrocketed in rental prices, we have to defend every unit to the death."
Or, as he put to L.A. Weekly in 2014: "I'm fucking Robin Hood!"
But the L.A. Tenants Union has recently accused Bramzon of having business and personal ties to a landlord, Jeff Byrd, who they say has been harassing tenants and pressuring them to vacate their rent-controlled apartments.
"For us, it’s a conflict of interest," Tenants Union activist Trinidad Ruiz says. "He's supposed to be looking out for tenants."
Bramzon denies the existence of any sort of conflict. He says he's good friends with Byrd and that he's done a few favors for him here and there.
"I’m not out there evicting tenants," Bramzon says. "I’m not out there intimidating tenants. That would be absurd! I’m helping tenants every day, at great cost to me. BASTA’s accomplishments are unmatched."
Bramzon says BASTA has helped "over 25,000 men, women and children avoid homelessness."
The Tenants Union organized a march on BASTA's headquarters last week, asking that Bramzon explain his relationship with Byrd. Bramzon says he wasn't there for it (Ruiz says Bramzon was there) and wonders why they're protesting him: "I mean, come on, Tenants Union! Why are you at my place? If you’re mad at Jeff Byrd, go to Jeff Byrd’s house!"
The Tenants Union alleges that Byrd has used a number of tactics in an effort to get rid of longtime tenants in his buildings, whose monthly rent is far below market rates thanks to the city's rent-stabilization ordinance. According to Ruiz, Byrd has offered the tenants "cash for keys" deals — checks to vacate their apartments — worth far less than the tenants are entitled to by law; has purposely not cashed rent checks and claimed they never arrived; and has repeatedly posted notices of plans to fumigate the apartment, only to cancel the fumigation and post signs again the following week.
"He told them all if they did not sign a 'cash for keys' contract, he was going to schedule fumigation every three weeks," Ruiz says. "A lot of them are sick of dealing with the rent issue. They accepted way below the $19,000 they were entitled to and are leaving."
Byrd could not be reached for a comment.
A lawsuit filed last year by tenant Macrina Molina alleged that Byrd returned rent checks, falsely claiming they were late. The suit named former BASTA attorney Jon Gelb as a co-defendant and alleges he was business partners with Byrd. And the attorney who represented the defendants in the case? Daniel Bramzon. At least he was until last week, when he removed himself as attorney — the day after the Tenants Union showed up to his offices.
"I wasn’t litigating the case," Bramzon says. "I jumped in and filed a form."
Gelb, reached by phone, declined to comment.
Tenants Union activists inside the BASTA office last week
The day after the Tenants Union showed up at his office, Bramzon posted a response to the protest in a comment on the group's Facebook page, reading in part:
Just to be absolutely clear ... BASTA never represents landlords and NEVER will, and I do not represent Jeff Byrd in any lawsuit. I recognize that my name appeared on a case that involved Jeff Byrd. ... It was a temporary placeholder as a favor to a fellow attorney who had not fully explained the situation to me. However, I have made sure to absolutely remove my name from the case in order to avoid any appearance that BASTA or myself would support anti-tenant activities. I hope this effort puts to rest any concerns about my involvement.
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Documents on the Secretary of State's website show that Byrd is the owner of at least five limited liability companies, or LLCs. Three of those LLCs list the company's agent for service as Sidia Calfa, who is BASTA’s vice president of administration. Her address is listed as BASTA's address. A fourth LLC was set up in 2012; its articles of organization document was signed by Bramzon, acting as Byrd's attorney.
"I’ve known Jeff Byrd for 25 years," Bramzon says. "I haven’t really been his attorney. Over the years, he’s asked me to put together his corporate filings. That’s public record."
Other documents, photographs of which were sent to L.A. Weekly, show that tenants who signed "cash for keys" deals with Byrd in 2016 were instructed to drop off their keys at Bienvenidos, an immigration law firm started by Bramzon next door to BASTA.
Sarah Truesdell, who worked at BASTA, first as an intern in 2007 and then as an attorney until 2014, recalls seeing Byrd's tenants in the office.
"When I worked at BASTA, Jeff’s tenants would occasionally come into the office to pay their rent," Truesdell says. "That’s how I know of Jeff. I didn’t know what kind of landlord he was."
Bramzon denies that Byrd's tenants have paid their rent at his offices but confirms they have at times dropped their keys off.
"Jeff doesn’t have an office," Bramzon says. "His office is in Corona. And he doesn’t live here. He’s sent people to drop off stuff at our office all the time. It’s a dropoff spot. I take keys and give them to him next time we get together. ... As long as it’s not a big brick of white powder, I say sure. I kind of do him a favor. But people don’t pay rent at the office. We’re not Jeff’s satellite office."
He adds: "I’ve told Jeff, 'No more favors. None of your people can drop anything off at my office.' I have not done anything wrong but to avoid even the perception of it — we don’t want anything to detract from what I’ve accomplished."
Bramzon says he believes the allegations made against him didn't originate with the Tenants Union but instead came from another nonprofit law firm, the Eviction Defense Network (EDN).
"This is a job that’s put together by EDN, because they want to have a monopoly on tenants," Bramzon charges. He notes that former BASTA attorney Claudia Medina now works for EDN. "She’s a disgruntled former employee. She’s trying to take us down."
Medina flatly denies this.
"I didn’t tell the Tenants Union to protest BASTA," she says. "I’m a dues-paying member of the Tenants Union, but I had no part in the protest whatsoever."
Elena Popp, executive director of EDN, says she knows very little about the allegations against Bramzon and was disappointed to hear about his claims against her firm.
"Until this very moment, I have been very supportive of Danny Bramzon and BASTA," Popp says. "I have tried to bring him into the fold of eviction defense attorneys. For some reason, he always does something to alienate people."
The allegations have made other eviction defense attorneys suspicious of Bramzon.
"What we’ve seen in the public record about Danny is disturbing and unacceptable," says Jessica Schibler, an attorney with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel. "We have worked with BASTA in the past. And because of these allegations, and what we’ve seen in the public record, we’re reconsidering that relationship."
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