New Canaan Police finally Arrest A Parent for Hosting Underage Drinking Bash

Update 5-13-13 12:30pm: The New Canaan police have finally released the name of the parent charged with a felony for delivery of alcohol to minors. It is Nils Erik Berg, age 56, of 501 Spring Water Lane. Apparently when the two arresting officers brought Berg into the station for processing someone in the NCPD decided they’d let him go for the night, with no bail and a simple promise to appear on May 20th. He is married to Luz A Berg. After asking for two days, NCPD’s youth officer Carol Orginc finally confirmed for me Berg did not have to spend time in jail even though Sargent Milligan specially told me and my boyfriend Friday night the Dad would be spending time in jail.

The Berg’s are from Argentina and bought their 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath 3,569 square foot house in 2003 for $810,000. They have two daughters, Martina and Sofia Berg. Martina graduated from New Canaan High School in 2011 and her facebook profile says she attends NYU. Sofia is under 18 and Martina is under 21.

NCPD says Nils told them he threw a party for his daughter and her friends and served them alcohol and then a lot more kids showed up with their own alcohol. It’s illegal in CT, even on private property, to serve alcohol to anyone but your own kids.

 Martina Berg (right) with friend posted Nov 2012 on Facebook

Martina Berg (right) with friend posted Nov 2012 on Facebook

If this is a first offense for Nils (CT case-lookup shows no criminal record in Connecticut), my bet is the State offers the father Accelerated Rehabilitation and in a year his felony arrest is erased. The NCPD can claim they arrested a parent and are doing their job. But besides a few thousand dollars spent on a defense lawyer and his name in the local paper, that’s likely the only penalty Berg will face. Which begs to question why we have this new law if it’s just used as a slap on the wrist?

Original Text
The New Canaan police just arrested a parent for hosting a large underage drinking party on Spring Water Lane. It happens the be the street I live on and after hearing screaming and yelling coming from the street I called the cops. We live at the end of a beautiful quiet street, with forest and streams between the homes, so to hear this type of ruckus was something rare.

When I walked half an acre to the end of my drive way I saw the whole street was packed with unfamiliar cars with groups of 3 to 4 teens in the cars or walking towards them carrying beer cans. I couldn’t tell if they just decided to have a block party on the street or something was getting broken up. Three boys stumbling together towards their car threw a beer can at my 6 month old puppy who was barking from all the unusual action on the street. I thought I saw one car back into another as the teens blared their music and yelled a new location for their next party spot. By the time the cops got to end of Spring Water Lane most of the teens had run off, likely drinking and driving. But the cops did find the parent home cleaning out beer cans and got him to admit he had allowed the party. NCPD Sergeant John Milligan came to my front door at a little after 11pm to tell me the father who hosted the party would be spending the night in jail. It’s estimated over 50 kids were at the party and the street was dirty with beer cans for about half a mile.

This would be only the third parent charged for hosting an underage drinking party in New Canaan since the State passed a law in 2006 that allowed the cops to arrest parents if they can prove they knew an underage drinking party was occurring in their house. In 2011 Laurie Underwood, of Weed Street in New Canaan, was given only an infraction and her daughter Avery was charged with a felony for having a fake id and for delivery of alcohol to minors. Avery had told her mom to hide in the closet when the cops came. Avery was able to plead out on her case and after a period of time her charges were erased from her adult record.

It will be interesting to see what the New Canaan police actually charges this parent with. I have never met the man so I can’t report his name and the officer didn’t tell me. Sergeant Milligan did say if any of the teens at the party tonight get in an accident the parent would be liable.
External resource on the signs of alcohol abuse

Hearst CT Newspapers Making Side Deals After Class Action Suit Challenges How Arrest Are Reported

Two well-known Connecticut lawyers are spearheading a class action lawsuit against the dominate news publisher in Fairfield County in a move to get Hearst newspapers to take down online news reports of people who have been arrested but then have the charges waved or dropped. Bill Keller, New York Times columnist and the paper’s former Editor in Chief, wrote on the case yesterday arguing the lawyers, Mark Sherman and Stephan Seeger, are trying to erase history with their novel lawsuit. Keller’s column drove a boat load of comments on the issue from around the country encouraging an interesting debate on how news organization follow and report criminal arrest stories. Publicly, Hearst is fighting the case but I’ve learned the their Connecticut publications are also making private side deals now with people who contact the paper and ask to have their arrest story reflect the final outcome of the case—or the ‘new truth’. That is if they agree to opt-out of Sherman’s class action suit against Hearst.

Hearst hired a top media law lawyer, Cameron Stracher, to defend the suit because Sherman is trying to get a costly libel claim through. The idea is to hold Hearst newspapers accountable for continuing to publish an arrest story online after the person has had the charges dropped through one of the State’s accelerated rehabilitation programs because Connecticut has an ‘erasure law’ that says a person can legally testify they have never been arrested if they complete the AR program. The state believes they are expunging the record so Sherman argues the media should have to also.

“The truth changes in a day. One day my client would have to say she’s been arrested, the day the charges are waived or dropped she can legally state she’s never been arrested. So if a paper keeps an arrest published online and people read the story after the record is expunged are they reading the truth? Is the publisher continuing to print an untruth? New readers see the story, new ads are published next to it, the publisher is still profiting from what isn’t a legal fact anymore,” attorney Mark Sherman told me in an interview this week.

The problem most journalist and editor’s see is the fact that a person WAS arrested and went through some legal proceedings in a court house, which is all a true historical event that is documented and was available to the public. Sherman argues by keeping the story up, Hearst is still making money on a prior news event that is now false. Police blotters typically draw high ad rates because they are often the most read stories for local news publications. The Norwalk Hour rotates out their online arrest stories every 60 days but publications like Hearst (Greenwich Time, Stamford Advocate, CT Post) or AOL/Patch leave them up for a long time and use background key word coding to draw your attention to similar arrest stories.

Sherman’s suit, which is scheduled to be heard this month in Hartford Federal Court, started with a Greenwich mom that works as a nurse who was arrested after the local keystone cops tried to bust her adult sons for dealing pot. It was small amount of pot they found at her house, which with new Marijuana laws in the state would likely only equal an infraction. The State made a deal to waive the charges if she went to a drug class. The problem for the Greenwich mom/nurse is when she looks for jobs employers first see her pot arrest when they Google her name and there are no reports the charges are gone now. Sherman told me he took the case pro-bono because he thinks this is an important issue. He’s also got a local reputation as the go-to lawyer when your teen gets busted for DUI’s, drugs or other misconduct because, if you can afford him, he’s good at making deals to get people into AR programs and thus legally he gets their arrest erased.

Most of my peers in the media I spoke with think Sherman is just being a bully and trying to make court reporter jobs extremely difficult while trying to get some dough from Hearst big pockets. There is also the idea that this suit is trying to ‘control history’ not just erase it. I don’t think an arrest report should be taken down as a news story. But Sherman and Seeger are onto an important issue. Cops and Court reporters need to finish the story–even if that means a lot more work. It’s not a sexy headline to say the Greenwich mom who was busted with her sons for pot actually had the charges dropped but it’s the truth and reporting it is equally as newsworthy as the arrest.

There is another issue here. Arrest reports are often a one side re-write of what the local cops choose to put in a request for warrant report or dole out at their weekly news briefings with reporters. A lot of what you see in a warrant report doesn’t reflect what actually happen– I’ve seen first hand how some Cops lie and make stuff up to get a judge to think their is probable cause. And in the Norwalk, CT court there are judges like Judge Huddock who was known to sign any warrant report put in front of him. Then there is the fact if the arrested person speaks it could be held against them in court so until you get to trial. or see defense motions filed to challenge the arrest, a reporter often only has a story from the view of the cops to print. Unfortunately I have witnessed, while working for Greenwich Time, how editors at Hearst don’t encourage their court reporters to always follow up on the case and report out the ending. And that, I think, is a serious error in journalistic behavior. In France they won’t print the person’s name until they are convicted. In the U.S. military they won’t do perp walks because they actually assume the person is innocent until a trial proves otherwise.

But printing a person’s name who is arrested in this country is perfectly legal and also seen as somewhat of a watchdog deterrent. I think it’s OK to print the accused name and everything you can find out about them as long as the reporter does what they can to follow the story through court motions and update original arrest stories with dropped charges. What is ironic with the Hearst case is they are spending big dollars to defend Sherman’s suit but I’ve learned they are also making side deals with people who contact them and complain about their arrest stories not being updated. Since Sherman filed his lawsuit I have seen copies of releases from Hearst that say the paper will add code to the online story to take the person’s name out of a Google search and update the arrest story with details of how the charges were dropped but the story stays online. Now to make this deal Hearst also makes the complaining person sign a release that they will have no claims in Sherman’s class action suit against them.

When I asked Hearst outside counsel Cameron Stracher about this secret release deal he claimed he didn’t know what was going on. The releases I saw were drawn up by some of Hearst in-house lawyers like Ravi Sitwala. The official quote I was given was, “Cameron Stracher, an attorney for Hearst, says he has no knowledge of whether or not Hearst has entered into or drafted such releases.” Which in my view is basically spin for ‘oh shoot how did she find that out’.

Sherman’s chances are slim of getting his case past Hearst motion to dismiss in Federal court and if he does I’d expect even more media organizations to join in the fight. But what Sherman has accomplished is some accountability at Hearst –considering we now know they are making these private update-the-story deals. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s the right change. Our Fairfield County courts are filled with people being overcharged or wrongly charged. And the Stamford/Norwalk judges easily allow these AR programs to go through which a lot people, even if innocent, take because they can’t afford to fight to charges.

On the flip side, the AR programs are also easily given out to young adults (or 16+ minors) where there is solid evidence of hosting say underage drinking parties or driving while intoxicated which feels like the state isn’t really interested in delivering a punishment for these crimes. Take the case of New Canaan 19-year-old Avery Underwood who was charged with a felony forgery because they cops found a fake CT ID on her when they busted an underage drinking party she hosted where her mom Lori Anderson was found hiding in the closet when the cops came. Sherman, her attorney, got Avery into an AR program and her record was erased after a probation period. But it doesn’t mean the crime didn’t happen and I think it serves a public interest for Avery’s name and address to be reported so other parents in the community can know where underage drinking parties were happening. As a journalist covering this story I would never agree to take it down. I’d been updating the case during the legal proceedings and finished the story by reporting her AR plan but her case remains published online.

What we really need is dominate market publications like Hearst to investigate the cops and the courts instead having their beat reporters build up a favor bank with local cops to get news before another hyper-local news sites like the AOL Patch print it. I’d love to see a Hearst reporter track all the arrest turned into AR programs and print the number of trials the Norwalk or Stamford court actual win v. lose each quarter. Or how about a data analysis story of all the charges that get plead down while people are forced to pay burdensome bonds. Besides me, I’ve seen about one Darien reporter, at a non-Hearst publication, take on his local cops this past year and follow a case where there was serious miss-information in a warrant report resulting in the charges being nullified right before trial. But a few reporters working diligently to report a person’s ‘whole history’ doesn’t make up for Hearst ‘incomplete histories’.

Does a Material Weakness in New Canaan Financials Mean Problems for Muni Bond Investors?

New Canaan’s town council received an external audit management letter that warned of possible material miss-statements in the town’s financials. The management letter, sent to town council and obtained by this reporter, talks about police overtime booked as receivables instead of an expense, a finance director for the Board of Ed having unchecked spending on his town credit card, double postings of tax collections, and inaccurate accounting records on bank accounts for years that the auditor said was impossible to reconcile. For a town with $129 million of public debt issued this is worrisome since it could affect their bond rating ,which would increase New Canaan’s borrowing cost. There also could be issues with compliance of State mandated regulations designed to protect the rights of bond investors.

In the audit world when a material weakness is issued in a report it’s their way of saying something doesn’t smell right. A ‘material weakness’ is more severe than a ‘significant deficiency’, which in turn is more severe than a ‘deficiency’ in internal controls.

Roy Abramowitz, C.P.A., and former treasure of the New Canaan Republican Town Committee said, “Material Weakness in my experience usually is a result of purposeful neglect of duties, incompetence , cover-up or out-right fraud.”

My favorite part was the auditor’s warning that the town ethics policy needed to be reviewed. Especially the ‘Ethics Policy for Disclosure of Interest in Transactions’ on page 18 of the Management Letter. You know the kind of thing where former First Selectman Jeb Walker could have given town contracts to organizations or people he might have had a financial connection to.

Abramowitz warned the Town Council and the Board of Finance that there could be internal control issues when Jeb Walker was in charge of New Canaan. When a Certified Public Accountant, with over two decades of experience, offers his professional opinion you’d think our elected officials would pay heed to the warning; but instead Roy’s own Republican Town Committee ostracized him. Then when Rob Mallozzi took over in 2010, the First Selectman still wouldn’t put Abramowitz on the Board of Finance because Roy thinks Mallozzi was concerned about political backlash from the RTC. Abramowitz says he was worried about federal regulators seeing the town’s loosey-goosey accounting standards as a possible securities violation because New Canaan has sold its debt to the public investing market.

And don’t think the S.E.C. isn’t going to start coming after towns that abuse their financial statements to get bonds sold. Today the securities regulator sued the Southern California town of Victorville for fraud in a muni bond deal where airport assets were overvalued. The also nabbed the broker/dealer who sold the bonds and it’s founder, Jeffery Kinsell, for his role in sucking up fees on inflated assets in the bond deals.

But it’s not just investors in New Canaan’s muni bonds that have cause for alarm; there is also concern residents were overcharged for their real estate taxes. Abramowitz wrote in a letter to a Town Council member this week, “This audit shows The Board of Finance, Town Council, and Board of Selectman utilized inaccurate financial data to formulate the town budget and compute the “mill rate” most likely resulting in an inflated “mill rate” and New Canaanites over-paying real estate taxes leading up to and during the worst economic debacle since the great depression.”

Apparently in New Canaan we can’t just elect officials to manage our finances and trust they’ll get the job legally and ethically done. It looks like we’ve also go to inspect their work and pay an expensive outside auditor to tell us cronyism is alive and flourishing in the Next Station to Heaven.

Update 4-30-13: The New Canaan Advertiser has now also posted the auditor’s Management Letter online and stated it shows the town had material noncompliance with laws and regulations . The Town Council now plans to have the Auditor explain what they found to the town at 6:30pm (Tuesday) at the New Canaan Nature Center. It will be interesting to see if the Auditor has been coached to down play the serious problems it found.

Auditor Management Letter for New Canaan, CT June 2012

New Canaan Police Officer Pickering Put on Leave-State’s Attorney Investigating

On Monday, March 11th, the NCPD honored part of a media FOI request and confirmed the officer on leave is Fred M. Pickering and they are running their own internal investigation on top of the States Criminal Investigation. This was a result of media pressure on the town 1st Selectman to get the cops to follow State FOI Laws about information on public servants put on leave. There are still unanswered questions on who is leading the investigation and why it’s being done by Pickering’ peers instead of an out of town police unit.

Update 3-9-13 11:30am: At least two employees of Tequila Mockingbird have said it was Lt. Fred Pickering who was in involved in the bar fight on February 23rd. Last night I stopped by the police station to see if Pickering was on duty but he wasn’t. The desk officer told me he didn’t know when he’d be back on duty. Pickering’s voicemail doesn’t say he’s on leave but the NCPD Chief also won’t answer emails asking when his senior officer will be returning for work. Attorney Gene Riccio told me he has been hired to represent Pickering and would not comment further on his client’s role in the alleged fight. Pickering has not returned a call for comment.

The 2011 NCPD annual report shows Lt. Pickering is in the top 6 of command for the 45 person force. He stated on the local Patch site once he needs 30 years of service to retire and started the job in May 1987. Pickering and his wife Mary Beth (a soccer coach) live at 129 Gower Rd in New Canaan. The modest 4 bedroom 3.5 bath house, that he bought two years after he started the force, is appraised at near $900,000. Pickering’s published earnings for 2012 is a little over $152k plus he can earn overtime or private service pay at $65 per hour with a four hour minimum. The police have still not told the press if the officer is on paid or unpaid leave although multiple publications including this one have made FOI request to get this information that is a matter of public interest (and paid for with our tax dollars).

The concern here is how did Officer Pickering handle himself while off duty with his friends who allegedly made racial slurs at another patron in Tequila Mockingbird. One witness, Kevin Jones, told me he heard someone called Pickering a ‘Pig’ and then more name calling happen, via Pickering’s crew, and then the altercation happen.

Pickering is the brother of the director of human resources for the town Cheryl Pickering Jones. The family has a history of working in fire, police, nursing services for New Canaan with deep roots tied to town government.

We are still waiting on the town attorney to give a legal opinion on if the NCPD has to honor the press FOI request to release the officer’s name. I first reported yesterday the State’s FOI commission believes they have to release the name of a public servant on leave. If the town attorney, Ira Bloom, denies the information we are seeking under Federal and State FOI laws I will file an appeal / complaint with the State FOI commission and I hope other local publications do the same.

3-9-13 3pm: The New Canaan Advertiser is also reporting Pickering is on leave and quotes sources that say it’s a paid leave. If Pickering is on paid leave, then given that’s funded by taxpayer dollars, the NCPD has to answer our FOI request. The public deserves to know who is running the investigation, who made the decision to put Pickering on paid leave, how long he’s been on it, and I’d like to see a copy of the police union contract that could show if they had to put him on paid leave or if they had an option. We also need confirmation if his weapons and badge have been turned back in while on leave.

3-10-13: Here is some interesting case law history on how Pickering and a few other NCPD handled a controversial DUI arrest in 2004 by a women who was having a reaction to medicine. In 2008 Pickering received the Police Meritorious Duty Award for his work in Domestic Violence cases.

3-12-13: The New Canaan Advertiser is reporting the name of the man accusing Pickering. Joel L. Anderson, of 186 Lakeview Ave, had been arrested by the NCPD in 2011 for allegedly stealing pot (but his arrest record was expunged and their are no convictions against Joel). Anderson’s address at the time of his arrest was in Section 8 Low-Income housing. He and two of his buddies were outed for the alleged pot heist after they reported the guy they might have stole it from had hit their car. It’s kind of a funny story. Sources close to Pickering have told me this is not the first time 24-year-old Anderson has tried to file a complaint against Pickering but I haven’t seen a 2nd complaint. The NAACP has gotten involved at some point in the complaints against Pickering and I have to wonder why Pickering wasn’t investigated by the State’s attorney before if there was a prior complaint?

Original Text
A New Canaan, Conn. police officer was put on leave and is under criminal investigation by the State’s attorney. The NCPD release a statement today that a person complained they were hit by the off-duty officer at a popular local watering hole, Tequila Mockingbird. The complaint said a fight started when a person in the officer’s group started racial slurs. The NCPD is not releasing the name of the officer and said the event happen February 23rd.

Josh Fisher, New Canaan Advertiser Editor in Chief, asked the NCPD Chief Nadriczny if the name would be released via a FOI request. The chief said no until the investigation is complete. The name of the complainant is also not disclosed.

If something sounds fishy here you’re right it is. Why are we just getting word of this on March 8th. If a cop is put on leave that is a matter of public interest, if public coffers are being used to pay him while he is on leave that is a mater of public interest. I spoke with Attorney Valica Harmon at the State’s FOI Commission who said, “There is no basis of fact for the Police to withhold the name of an officer that has been put on leave. That’s a personal decision and separate from the State’s attorney investigation. The public has a right to know if public coffers are being used to pay this person while on leave.”

I emailed and called Chief Nadriczny at 2pm today with a FOI request explaining the above. If he doesn’t respond with a name today the State’s FOI office said I should filed a complaint with the FOI commission.

I have also asked Chief Nadriczny if ANYONE involved in the incident was arrested for breach of peace, disorderly conduct or assault. You know the charges you usually see when there is bar fight by grown men.

At 2:45pm Chief Nadriczny wrote back saying

“Ms. Buhl -This is an ongoing, active criminal investigation and our press release contains the information we will release at this time.”

I also want to know if another town is being called in to run the investigation. Can the NCPD investigating one of their own?

Remember this is the same police unit who was investigated for racial profiling with traffic ticketing writing last year by the CHRO and was also involved in accepting free alarms from New Canaan Alarm company but no one was ever charged with wrong doing or fired.

New Canaan Patch/AOL editor Michael Dinan wrote in comments on his story about the event that the Patch would not allow readers to post comments speculating who the officer is. I find that ironic since AOL/Patch is known to encourage their editors to allow all kinds of speculative comments about people in town to get the page views up.

If you’ve heard who the officer is feel free to comment here and I’ll investigate it. The NCPD is paid with our tax dollars and we have the right to transparent information from them, which we are unfortunately not getting today. Based on the NCPD Chief’s refusal to honor the press FOI request I’ll be filing a complaint.

Here is the NCPD press release from 11:45am on 3-8-13:
NCPD Press Release Dispute Investigation 03-08-13

UPDATE 4:30pm: I spoke with Ira Bloom the town attorney who said he’s looking into if he thinks the NCPD have to release the officers name. The Advertiser also spoke with the town First Selectman who said he asked Bloom to look into it and they’d have an answer on Monday. If they say no I encourage every local publication to file a FOI complaint with the State Commission as they clearly think the NCPD has to comply.

New Canaan’s The Tuscan: Cash Crunch & Sex Den Rumors Led to Rich Chef Failure

UPDATE 1-14-14: Marc is apparently still having money troubles. This time he was arrested for credit card fraud. The Darien Times is reporting he gave the local cops a digital road map to find who was responsible for withdrawing cash from a women’s account when she left her card transaction unfinished at the Darien Stop and Shop. Oh Marc….

UPDATE 6-19-13:The state of Connecticut has caught up with Marc Minella’s bad check writing and he’s been charged with a low level class D felony because he wrote a $5,000 check for gas for his New Canaan restaurant in December and it bounced. Then he blew off his court date and this week was arrested again for failure to appear. What’s odd is Marc’s father, who is an investor in his restaurant, is a millionaire and could have paid the gas bill. Instead it appears he’s letting Marc have to deal with the mess left behind when The Tuscan shut down.

Original Text
A restaurant closing in New Canaan has led to drug and sex rumors, backstabbing, and high finance types in a dirty fight over money – a story that has one of the country’s wealthiest suburbs questioning what really happen. The Tuscan, run by chef co-owner Marc Minella suddenly shut its doors last month after a wild ride of opening success which included a top New York Times review. Residents have been speculating it was a drug raid or asset seizure that shut it down and are dumbfounded how this hot spot funded by Wall St financier David Minella couldn’t survive.

Through court records, business filings, conversations with restaurant staff and sit down interviews with Chef Marc Minella (age 35) and his former partner James Dadio (age 43) I’ve untangled a story of a chef’s dream gone horribly bad; squashed by local politics, his own hubris, and a father who never instilled fiscal responsibility.

The Tuscan opened in the fall of 2010 and was instantly packed with monied patrons thrilled to have a new place in town with great food and a lively scene. Its after dinner night life via live bands, big ticket wines, and $40 creative fusion food made you feel decadent. A 4,000 square foot former furniture store had been turned in to a sexy swingers den; according to court records $1.7 million was spent building the space out. Chef Marc, who has a trust fund, became a 7.5% owner and the master butcher he teamed up with, James Dadio, owned a little over 11%. Dadio says he put $154,00 into the restaurant’s capital; Marc says it was $111,000. This left Marc’s father and Darien resident David A. Minella with 80% ownership. Minella senior has owned a few asset management firms dealing in corporate buyouts and restructurings leaving him a double-digit millionaire in his early 60’s. Buying companies and getting the most out of moving around assets to increase a stock price he’s good at – helping his son understand how to not overspend and run a profitable restaurant not so much.

Marc, who had spent a few years with his new wife working in restaurants around Florence Italy, was allowed to build his dream kitchen spending at least $300,000 and it took up more space than the dining room. His sous-chef was paid $75,000 a year (more than average for Fairfield County restaurants) and Marc and James agreed to pay themself $1,500 a week. James ran the butcher and meat shop upfront helping to sell customers on pricey aged beef during the dinner rush. Marc hired interns and a full staff to get his NYT rated ‘worth it’ food ready for his Wall Street customers. While the small dining room was often packed at the start covering the hefty rent was hard. Recent court records filed by the landlord show for the 1st two years The Tuscan would pay New Canaan Republican operative Wadia $14,500 a month plus utilities and taxes that added on another $3,000 per month. After two years the rent went up to $14,935 with a cap of $18,000 towards the end of the 10 year lease. Dadio said payroll was around $10,000 a week but in all practically purpose he and Marc never issued paychecks to themselves. Wait staff was paid their nightly tips only every two weeks basically giving the restaurant a bridge loan.

A theme of heavy drinking happen while on the job as you’d see bartenders drinking on the dance floor with patrons. Their first thanksgiving weekend college students in New Canaan took over the place leading to a smashed high-def TV and girls throwing up on the dance the floor – but Marc told James ‘Hey at least we brought in $5,000 in liquor sales for the night’.

Rumors started to spread earlier that the town’s drug sniffing dog, Zira, was making visits into the place at night and you’d see New Canaan PD parked across from the restaurant just hanging out. Marc had a known drinking problem with some cocaine use on the job and had been to rehab a few times, according to multiple restaurant staff, but substance programs were also court recommended for his partner James Dadio.

The co-owners along with multiple staff interviewed for this story say drugs were never trafficked/sold from the place and a check of Stamford’s DEA records show no such raids. Minella says he actually hired the New Canaan cops to hang outside the restaurant after the first thanksgiving madhouse to make older patrons feel comfortable. Unfortunately it just fueled more rumors.

Word had gotten out that there was a secret sex room downstairs. Two bartenders I interviewed said couples in there 30’s and 40’s or married men in town would come in asking to get into ‘the room’ thinking there were escorts on the premise ready for paid action. One bartender who was there from the start said she’d see men coming in alone trying to tip her hundred dollar bills to get into the room saying ‘they were having trouble at home and really really just needed it for the night’. The bartender said some customers just couldn’t believe it wasn’t real.

“Customers might have had sex in the bathrooms but there were never prostitutes on call for customers nor was there a room with a bed hidden on the premise,” said Chef Marc shaking his head with a laugh during our interview at Sushi 25.

Still the restaurant couldn’t stop the rumors or the town’s politicians from reacting. Staff have confirmed one ex-employee even called the New Canaan Fire Marshall to report people were sleeping at the restaurant but when the Marshal came at 3am they found no one.

James and Marc business relationship didn’t last long. James had been arrested for harassment and threatening with his former business partner at Greenwich Prime Meats-a case that’s still on going were he plead not guilty. Within three months of the opening James was signing documents to end his partnership. Marc says they fired James, James says he quit after Marc was on a cocaine bender and came after him with a knife one night. But James says his core reason for getting out was watching his investment get wasted on poor restaurant management.

Marc’s father David wasn’t a silent investor when James was there. Every Thursday night David would make them have meetings trying to figure out how to cut cost. The Minella’s even suggest taking 10 percent off the top of the employees paychecks, hoping they wouldn’t notice, but James and the restaurant manager stepped in to warn that would be illegal. Mario Batali’s New York restaurant was sued for doing something similar and had to pay $5.2 million to staff he’d siphoned tips off.

The Minella’s ended up offering James only $36,000 as a return to capital three months after the opening. He took it with hope to open up his own butcher shop in town. But even though Marc’s father had millions of his own he waited nearly a year to get James his cash, which was used to open Manero’s Gourmet Ally around the corner on Elm St (it’s now closed).

In the meantime James extracted a bit of his own revenge. According to a text message he sent Marc – James made an anonymous call the town’s heath inspector squealing that Marc had a busted hot water heater yet was still serving. A. Briggs Geddis, the town’s Director of Environmental Health, showed up in mid-March 2012 and told Minella he had to shut down till he got it fixed. Marc had already ordered a backup and had it working the next day but somehow town politics took over. Mr. Geddis didn’t come back the next day, a Friday, to see how it was working. Instead he claimed red tape and wouldn’t be available till after the holiday weekend – forcing wait staff and bartenders to lose out on good tips during March Madness. Marc admitted in our interview Mr. Geddis kind of had it out for him since the beginning because he’d mouthed off to him during the opening inspection. Geddis and the town have refused to comment over the incident.

The shutdown made headline news in the local Patch – a gossip rag who focuses on page views. It was enough to scare off patrons for a bit. Meanwhile Marc was faced with a nasty divorce. His pretty blond wife from Mass. of over five years had taken off with their 1 year old daughter and a c-class Mercedes bought for Marc via a loan from his Dad just days before his birthday. She got a protective order against Marc in Mass. by claiming residence with her parents in Duxbury, Mass. In March 2012 a financial statement filed by Marc in Stamford family court claims he is only making $500 a week and has $672 in weekly expense. He starts to pay barely $100 a week in child support but then a judge stepped in with a different view. Court transcripts show the judge has questions about cash that isn’t booked in the business and ordered Marc to pay $300 of the $500 he says he’s making a week. (Former bartenders who worked with Marc say his personal bar bill a week is $500)

Minella's Happy Years Before The Tuscan

Minella’s Happy Years Before The Tuscan

The $35,000 car his wife, Kinsley McGrath-Minella, basically stole, was ordered by the court to be parked and not driven as the judge said this was one of the only financial assets the couple had. The judge also made reference that it didn’t make sense to put $1.7 million into a risky restaurant business when you could invest it and make 4% on a mutual fund. (The judge clearly hasn’t seen recent returns in the market) The couple had been living in the maid’s quarter of David Minella’s mansion on Hollow Tree Ridge Road in Darien which borders New Canaan. The 8-bedroom, 7.5-bath, 10,000 sq ft home is estimated to be worth around $6-7 million.

Marc had another problem in March 2012 when he was at his Dad’s $2 million Naples Fla. home. He was arrested for high speed driving and a DUI. His mug shot shows a black eye so it looks like there was an accident. Marc was due for his criminal trial on January 3, 2013 but didn’t show up. A bench warrant was issued by Colliers County, Fla. along with a D6 suspension of his drivers license. Florida isn’t likely to spend the money to extradite him so it’s doubtful he’d be jailed when he shows up in Stamford civil court for his divorce trial on February 27th. Although a Florida criminal lawyer I interviewed said Florida’s real recourse is if he gets pulled over while driving in Conn. and a cop takes him to jail after seeing the out-of-state bench warrant. Of course Marc could fly down to Florida and make a plea deal- but at press time that hadn’t happen.

DUI Arrest 2012 - Florida

DUI Arrest 2012 – Florida

Cash flow at The Tuscan wasn’t great in 2012. They shut down for a month building out a brick oven pizza bar where parts of the high-end butcher shop had been; but customers were not packing it out when they reopened in September. After that Daddy wasn’t willing to put any more money in. Meanwhile the landlord started to get stiffed– in October rent wasn’t paid. One of the guys in the butcher shop had health insurance taken out of his pay check but when he went to the doctor he was told the premiums hadn’t been paid for months. For at least the last month The Tuscan was open, staff confirmed their pay checks were bouncing. They’ve told me they’ve consulted a lawyer now to see if they can file an employment lawsuit.

With three months of unpaid rent The Tuescan’s landlord Wadia filed suit in Norwalk housing court and was award a lien on their expense restaurant equipment for damages of $57,663. A copy of the lien was filed with New Canaan’s town clerk. Wadia had a marshal serve lien notices to the restaurant for a cost of around $600. Marc says the marshal came in and placed stickers on the equipment the court had ordered a lien against. The chef also said he was still allowed to use the equipment and nothing was taken out of the restaurant by the marshal. Not having enough cash in the business to pay his staff was the real reason Marc claims they finally closed for good in January.

Chef Marc called an employee meeting in January to explain the closing but when he didn’t show up the staff took out their frustrations from having their paychecks bounced. According to people at the meeting expensive bottles of alcohol and other items in the restaurant were taken.

The landlord’s lien is likely not going to hold water because David Minella was one step ahead of the restaurant’s landlord. UCC filings with the state of Connecticut show he had already placed a lien against the restaurant assets in April 2012 via MDM Investors Group. The Minella’s plan is to fight Wadia’s lien in housing court because their UCC lien is in a first position. MDM are Marc’s initials and the Investor Group is a separate LLC from the restaurant LLC called MDM Restaurant Group; although both list a business address of 814 Hollow Tree Ridge Rd Darien CT – Minella senior’s home.

Marc appeared concerned about his staff not getting paid and explained in our interview they’d be first to get cash after a bankruptcy is finalized. The staffers who know the restaurant’s largest investor, David Minella, has deep pockets don’t want to wait for lengthy bankruptcy. Wadia is trying to ask even more for rent now, (around $20,000 a month according to Marc) to fill the space with a new restaurant but if the Minella’s drag out a bankruptcy we could be seeing another vacant space in town for quite a while.

Chef Minella says he plans to stay with cooking and is trying to find chef jobs in New York. New Canaan never got their underground sex den hangout and there is still no live music in town; but a bunch of restaurant vendors and staff are left with empty pockets while Marc Minella hangs in his Dad’s McMansion without the wife and kid.

Landlord Lien

Landlord Lien


Hedgie James Higgins Threaten by Wife’s Ex-Lover

A New Canaan hedge fund manager was subject of a news event last week after reporting he and his wife were being harassed on the phone by a man who allegedly wanted to break them up and then force the hedgie to eat pizza. The initial news report said the man was giving the hedgie a hard time because he worked at Bear Stearns and the man was obsessed with his wife. Police reports show that former Bear executive was James Higgins (goes by Jim) who founded Stamford-based Sorin Capital Management.

The caller, Donota Anthony Minicozzi, was arrested last week for threatening, harassment, and larceny via extortion. Higgins told the local cops he was getting three to five calls a day from his alleged harasser who said things like:

“Bear Stearns crook. Notre Dame sucks. See you at South Beach” The caller said his name was Steve and started the contact in December. He’d ask James “Did you have a good year, you crook? After bankrupting Bear Stearns. 7 bedrooms in New Canaan CT. Sue was good with one bedroom in NY in her dancing years.”

It turned out that James wife, Susan, did know Donato.[They are the mid-40’s couple on the left in the photo] Police reports say she told him she dated him 20 years ago but broke up with him because he stole money from her. Donato actually has a criminal history in New Jersey for a larceny conviction in 1988 and in 2001 he was charged with forged writing. His warrant report says he now sales flooring.

Donato used disposable cells phones so the cops had to get the courts permission to ‘ping’ his number the next time he called. They were able to even track a call to a Planet Fitness in Brick,New Jersey. Apparently Donato liked to work out and do his harassing at the same time because when the cops called the gym someone who worked there said yea he’s in the gym at the same time the call was made.

James Higgins wife Susan Photo:Jim Gerweck

James Higgins wife Susan Photo:Jim Gerweck

Susan Higgins was getting her own phone calls – hang ups that is and then pizza started to be delivered to the house because Donota thought ‘it’s just a symbol that we can get to you (James) any way we want.’

How the cops charged him with larceny get’s a little fishy since he didn’t steal anything and the police report doesn’t show an extortion plan to change money ever happened. Recorded phone calls do show the ex-lover telling James “You can keep your fucking money and we are going to fucking torture your life. We are going to start sending shit to your house. The pizza is just a fucking start. Just wait till the fucking girls start coming to your house. Your life is going to be one miserable thing.”

I guess girls and pizza are not a welcome thing in the Higgins house.

When the Stamford cops finally found Donota and left a message for him to call the Special Victims unit back he lashed out one more time to James. On January 23rd at 8:51am he left an angry message about sex saying “Special victims-that should be the fucking people you screw every day. The people you take 3 percent every day. What you should be worried about is to screwing your fucking wife the one that used to screw everybody. I have film. You know your wife used to do that, and I had her plenty of times too. You should use some of the bedrooms you have in your house to screw her.”

Well now. A reporter for the Stamford Patch apparently was at Donato arraignment because he reported the New Jersey man turned himself in and told the cops he was sorry, had just been divorced, and well….was lonely. He even brought the cops one of the Motorola phones he used to make the calls.

Now apparently Donato wasn’t very good at Google research because a simple name search for James shows he left Bear Stearns in 2004 – as co-head of their commercial mortgages group – which would have been well before the bank started blowing itself up on crap resi mortgage bonds. Higgins also didn’t have a great year for his flagship hedge fund during the financial crisis. In 07 investor records show he was running $1.5 billion and had returns of over 20% but in 08 the fund suffered a 36% loss and he liquidated it in 09. Sorin Capital has other funds and started a second flagship fund which hopefully is doing ok. He did fork over near $8 million in 2008 for his newly built 7 bedroom , 7 bathroom , 9,600 square foot mansion on New Canaan’s tony Ponus Ridge Rd. Maybe Donato was a little jealous over Susan and James’s fancy house?

I called James at his Stamford office for comment today. At first the man who answered the phone said he wasn’t there. When I told him I was a reporter who was about to report James role in this little saga James quickly came to phone. He wasn’t thrilled the story would be reported and made a few off the record comments trying to convince me not to report it. He wouldn’t answer if he still feels threaten by Donato now that he’s arrested and has a protective order against him and just gave an official no comment. There is nothing in the police report saying Susan and Donato had recent contact/relations before the alleged harassment started so besides memories from 20 years ago we don’t really know what motivated Donato threatening calls and food deliveries to the Higgins.

Donato is schedule to be back in court this month. It’s not clear if the Higgins still allow pizza deliveries to their mansion.

UPDATE 4-18-16: Susan Higgins is back in the news again. Allegedly she was out partying to much on Wednesday April 14th and decided to drive home and crashed her car on West Ave in New Canaan. By the time the cops got there the car was in flames and Susan refused to do a breath test. She has now been arrested for driving under the influence. So far there are no reports of others hurt in the accident.

Ruth Jones Empire Keeps Crumbling

UPDATE 8-26-13: Ruth Jones was arrested for three counts of larceny felony charges in a real estate scam this week that involved her allegedly renting out the home of NBC senior producer Jennifer Hilton, and keeping the rent money, after she was hired as a listing agent to sell the home. Ruth’s son, Adam Jones, was also arrested along with her friend Lynda Silvestro of Hoyt Livery. The news was first reported by the New Canaan Advertiser.

Ruth Jones Arrested for Real Estate Scam

Ruth Jones Arrested for Real Estate Scam

Original Text
Ruth Jones real estate empire is still being gutted and auctioned off on the court house steps. Last week four more New Canaan properties were sold via her bankruptcy trustee Richard Cohen. One of the buyers was a bank Jones owed money to who used a credit bid to secure the house. Robert Deak and Moshira Soliman picked up the three other smaller homes. This fall Jones lost a three-year bankruptcy battle and was forced into liquidation.

She’s not making it easy for Cohen to sell the homes and get creditors paid. He had to file a motion for contempt because she wouldn’t turn over records showing how much of a security deposit the rental properties had. Ridgefield Bank took legal ownership of her Beacon Hill McMansion in September — it’s not clear if they plan to sell or rent it out. Court filings show Jones had second and third loans on most of the auctioned properties which means proceeds from sale don’t even get near paying back all the banks she owes. A bankruptcy plan filed by Jones in November said she also owes the town of New Canaan a little over $39,000 and she wanted to have five years to pay that back.

Jones was an investor in failed USA Bank who also gave her second loans on some of the properties auctioned off taking the loan to value way over 100 percent. USA Bank is still subject to a FDIC investigation for bank fraud.

Ruth is still appealing her bankruptcy in federal court but it’s not stopping her assets, including the Bentley (repo), being sold off. I’m not sure where Jones is living at the moment but she’s still actively trying to make living selling high-end real estate.

Here is a list of what the homes sold for:
384 White Oak Shade – $855,751.78
50 Urban Street – $420,000
41 Hillside Ave – $390,000
29-31 Strawberry Hill Rd – $486,000

Ridgefield Bank wins Auction of Ruth Jones New Canaan McMansion: Forcing Vacate

UPDATE 9-13-12:Prices paid at auction by the banks on Jones six properties are at the end of the story

New Canaan’s queen of McMansion sales is being forced by local bankers at Ridgefield Bank to vacate her home of sixteen years. The Connecticut District Court judge denied Ruth Jones appeal for a stay yesterday so the auction of her six homes went forward. According to Ruth’s daughter, Stephanie, no outside parties entered viable bids so banks like Ridgefield Bank, Connecticut Community Bank & Country Bank won the homes using their credit bids. This means Jones lost five rental investment homes that will now sit as REO assets on the books of the local banks. Her beautiful 7,500 sq ft McMansion, that she built in the mid 90’s and raised her three children, is now property of Ridgefield Bank who held two secured loans in total of $3.5 million against the 75 Beacon Hill home.

A court order filed by Judge Shiff today says Jones six-year lease to her brother Alton who is sick with cancer is now null and void. Jones had set up the lease after she filed chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009 so her brother could live in an in-law suite at her primary residence. As result of the court order, Ridgefield Bank got the home free and clear of all liens and leases at yesterday’s auction. The secured creditors, who had not been paid in three years since Jones filed for bankruptcy, get possession of the homes fast. The bankruptcy docket says the closing date for her five investment properties is set for September 28th. And Ridgefield, who started dolling out million dollar loans to Jones in the early 2000’s, is moving fast to kick her out. Court records show next week, September 18th, they’ll hold a hearing for a vacate date.

I previously reported on Jones battle with her bankster creditors last month. New Canaan resident David C. House who invested in one of Jones rental investments was awarded a credit bid in April after he sued Jones for false representation and fraud. Court records show the case settled and the judge wouldn’t allow Jones to discharge the settlement House won in bankruptcy. House picked up Jones beach front vacation rental near tony Watch Hill, RI yesterday for about half of what Ruth paid in 2006.

Richard Coan, the New Haven-based bankruptcy trustee in charge of the bankruptcy assets, can now use the $300k in the DIP account to pay himself and unwind the bankruptcy by dolling out the rest of the DIP cash to the secured creditors (the banks). Coan said the prices Ridgefield bank and others paid will be loaded in public court filings (PACER) by tomorrow. Stephanie Jones wrote me today saying she thinks the banks paid less than what her mother Ruth had offered in her modification plans–plans none of the banks accepted over the course of the three year bankruptcy battle.

Ridgefield Bank gets to play landlord now and spend the banks money to manage maintenance on the large Beacon Hill home till they sell it. So far Ridgefield Bank did not recover anywhere near the $3.5 million they lent Jones but are about to succeed in making Jones and her family homeless.

New Canaan Homes sold at Auction are:

139 – 141 River Street, New Canaan, Connecticut to Country Bank; $393,000
75 Beacon Hill, New Canaan, Connecticut to Ridgefield Mortgage; $2,250,000
279 Old Stamford Road, New Canaan, Connecticut to Residential Credit; $1,564,150
277 Old Stamford Road, New Canaan, Connecticut to Connecticut Community Bank; $1,750,000
42-44 Urban Street, New Canaan, Connecticut to Bank of America; $380,000
994 Charlestown Beach Road, Wakefield, Rhode Island to David C. House; $910,000