Attorney Harold Greenberg and his clients, Winstar Properties, are suing a now-homeless man for defamation and libel, among other things, after he bitterly complained on Facebook that Winstar recently failed to provide heat and committed other negligence at the historic MacArthur Park building where his girlfriend and her mother lived for two decades.
Tony Voci and his girlfriend Yanira Padilla are now homeless, he says, living out of his GMC Yukon truck ever since Winstar Properties stopped paying for “relocation” rent that landlords must provide to tenants while renovations are made. The mess began like this:
Last year, Voci helped his girlfriend and her mother, Andrea Cucul, personally repair their allegedly unheated and neglected apartment, No. 7 in the 59-unit building at 667 S. Carondelet St.
Voci says the building contained “uninhabitable conditions,” including crumbling, moisture-swollen walls and non-working heaters.
“They're frauds, they take your rent money, they won't do any repairs,” Voci tells L.A. Weekly of the landlords.
But Greenberg, who Voci has called a liar – and vice-versa – says: “My clients [Winstar] bought the property two years ago. … When they were notified that there was no heat, they frankly took care of it.” According to Greenberg, Voci himself damaged the apartment with his DIY repair work.
On January 29, Voci went online with his criticisms, launching a Facebook page that Voci dubbed “Hotel Carondelet”:
“Hotel Carondelet. The worse kind. The kind that have preyed on minorities. The kind that prey on women. … In this case, SLUMLORD PIGS that prey on Latina women.”
The landlord then halted its payments of city-required “relocation fees” that Winstar was providing to Voci's girlfriend and her mother to cover their and Voci's hotel costs while Winstar repaired apartment No. 7.
According to both sides, the contract between Winstar and the tenants, in which the landlord agreed to repair unit 7, also prohibited the tenants from showing up at the MacArthur Park apartment complex during the renovations.
Greenberg tells the Weekly that the three tenants “were not supposed to come back until [the unit was] restored. They came back and there was a lot of harassments and a lot of threats” toward the building's management, Greenberg alleges.
Not long after that, on February 18, Voci, Padilla and her mom discovered a “Three Day Notice to Quit” posted on their hotel-room door, stating:
“You have damaged the unit in violation of the lease by tearing up the carpeting, removing a dividing wall, removing part of the kitchen floor, punching holes in the wall to install a washer/dryer without permission, removed kitchen cabinets. You have permitted the occupancy of Tony Voci, an unapproved tenant. You have permitted Voci to repeatedly threaten and harass property personnel and construction workers. You violated an agreement to remain away from this unit during reconstruction after being relocated to a hotel.”
Yet even as Winstar moved to formally evict the daughter and mother from apartment No. 7, a city of Los Angeles housing inspector on February 24 issued a two-day “order to repair” to Winstar Properties. In it, Housing and Community Investments Department inspector Cirilo Yu noted: “Boiler not working properly.”
Less than a month later, on March 10, Voci, Padilla and Cucul ended up homeless.
Three days later, on March 13, Voci attacked Winstar's owner in a Facebook post:
READ THIS Jonathan Wintner. You are way behind in the game. And for the record we haven't even engaged our attorneys yet. … We stalled your eviction of unit 2121, we have gained access to the building without breaking a single law.”
Voci and Padilla live out of the back of his truck, with their bedding neatly arranged on the pickup bed, while Padilla's mother, Cucul, stayed for a time at a friend's place in the San Fernando Valley. Cucul was recently was allowed to move back into the newly renovated Unit 7.
But the landlord was not done with the battle.
On March 17, Greenberg filed a lawsuit against Voci, Padilla and Cucul and two dozen unnamed “Does,” alleging “trade libel,” defamation, and such deeds as “intentional … and negligent interference w/prospective economic advantage” as well as “intentional … and negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
Greenberg cited in court documents 36 online posts by Voci, such as this complaint below posted on February 17 on the “Hotel Carondelet” Facebook account:
“Winstar is pissing in the wind and they have compounded their problems by locking us off the property and threatening eviction – after – they promised to put us up in this hotel.
Three weeks after moving into the hotel their lawyer Harold Greenberg threatened Apt 7 with eviction for “violating” the lease. They are double dealing scum bags and frauds. Greenberg's action to proceed with eviction are what caught the City Councilman's office by surprise given they initially promised to pay for the hotel, along with viewing the Hotel Carondelet site.
Once brought up to speed the Assistant deputy called the Housing authority and spoke to 3 more Inspectors and had a HCID case file opened to meet the wrongful eviction when it comes.”
Two days after suing Voci, Padilla and Cucul, Winstar Properties filed a temporary restraining order against Voci for trying to gather petitions against Winstar from other tenants in the historic building. The court granted the TRO.
Both sides agree that Voci was tossed in jail briefly for violating the temporary restraining order – by visiting his attorney directly next-door to the Carondelet and thus coming within 100 yards of the apartment complex.
In an email, Voci wrote the Weekly, “My attorney's office at 2500 Wilshire is only six yards from the building. I was there for a meeting with Danny Bramzon, my civil landlord-tenant lawyer.”
From outside, the historic building at 667 S. Carondelet Street, a short walk from MacArthur Park, looks nice enough.
But Voci says that for years, the landlords failed to install working heaters. He claims that some tenants lived through cold winters, including his girlfriend and her mother, despite regular inspections by the city of L.A.'s Housing and Community Investment Department.
Voci tells the Weekly, “They have conspired to have me jailed and restrained. [A security guard on the premises] threatened me with a gun” and one of the building managers “threw soup on me while the cops were there, and they did nothing.”
Rushmore Cervantes, an executive officer with the city's housing department (known as HCID), says city inspectors found no evidence that the building lacked heating for up to 14 years, as Voci had claimed.
However, according to the city's web site, last September 23, HCID inspector Clarissa Siemens responded to a formal complaint at the building and found numerous problems:
“Smoke Detector(s) missing, defective, or not hard wired, Carbon Monoxide Detectors, Room heating appliance missing or defective, Countertop defective and/or not maintained waterproof, Windows, doors, cabinets, and frames not operable, defective, missing, and/or unsanitary, Floor covering defective, missing, or unsafe, Plaster/drywall wall/ceiling covering defective, deteriorated, or paint is peeling, Plumbing drain blockage, Leaking or defective plumbing faucet or fixture, Missing or broken faucet or shut-off valve handle(s), Insect, vermin and/or rodent infestation. Missing or defective insect screening.”
Regardless of this, Greenberg argues to the Weekly that it was Voci who damaged his girlfriend's dwelling:
“He destroyed the unit, took things apart with no authorization. He was not a tenant, he was not a handyman. He refigured the electrical without a permit. He reconfigured the plumbing – punched holes in the ceiling, punched holes in the floor.”
Voci has in turn accused the Los Angeles housing department of being a fraud, saying in one Facebook post:
“The HCID is a fraudulent organization, taxpayer money pays their salaries. Everyone who pays rent every month pays a SCEP fee (Systematic Code Enforcement Program), but what kind of service do they get? They get no service, they get no protection and that's why I call them frauds. All of the renters in Los Angeles are being defrauded by Robert Galardi's office.”
The department's chief inspector, Galardi, referred the Weekly's questions to Public Information Officer Cervantes. On April 1, Cervantes said the city recently discovered a whopping 246 violations at the Carondelet, mostly “nominal” – and cited seven tenants for violations of their own.
Now, one city official says, Winstar Properties is working to restore heat by May 22 to some apartments that don't have it – the very issue Voci had claimed was dogging tenants. The city official says, “We think the owner is making an effort to comply.”
Winstar's defamation claim against Tony Voci has been set for a settlement conference with a judge on May 8, and the couple is still homeless.