Developer, tax delinquent lawyer are leading Brown Clarke backers
One of Lansing’s biggest real estate developers and a top property tax scofflaw and his associates provided nearly one-fifth of mayoral candidate Judi Brown Clarke’s campaign donations.
Campaign finance reports filed Friday with the Ingham County clerk show Paul Gentilozzi and family members donated $8,000. That represents 13 percent of Brown Clarke’s $60,420 take. Company executives Paul, Debbie, John and Anthony Gentilozzi each gave $2,000, the maximum individual donation under state law other than by a candidate’s family members.
That’s despite Paul Gentilozzi owing an undisclosed sum to Ryan Hunter-Reay, a race car driver. Hunter-Reay sued Gentilozzi after he was let go in 2005. Ingham County Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk signed off on a $2.7 million judgment in Hunter-Reay’s favor in 2009, but he’s still working to collect the payment, according a detailed report from the Lansing State Journal in May.
Another 6 percent of Brown Clarke’s campaign cash came from local attorney Edwar Zeineh and family members and business associates. Zeineh, either personally or through limited liability companies, is one of Ingham County’s leading property tax delinquents.
Contributions by Zeineh, family members and business associates totalled $3,707, according to campaign finance records.
Those records show Zeineh paid $1,207 as the host of a fundraiser for Brown Clarke on Feb. 23 at the University Club. He shared the expenses for invitations and food with Lana Karandsheh, an attorney for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
As of Monday, Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing said 18 properties the attorney owns outright or tied to companies in which he is involved owed a combined $117,918 in taxes from 2015 and 2016. His father, Faeik Zeineh, owes $17,931 on two other properties for the same period. One of those properties is a liquor store on Baker Street that made headlines earlier this year when there was a shooting there.
“They are paying a lot for the debt to the County,” said Schertzing by email of the Zeineh tax situation. “Not sure how the business models works. Making political donations instead of paying taxes is a bad business model in my book.”
Brown Clarke declined to answer specific questions about Zeineh or other questions about her fundraising reports. “I remain focused on my campaign and serving the citizens of Lansing,” she said by text Tuesday morning.
The tax issue is not a new one for Brown Clarke and Zeineh. She was informed of the back taxes issue four days before her Feb. 23 fundraiser.
“And as far as the back taxes, I’m sure I’ll bring it to his attention and I’m sure he will make good on it,” Brown Clarke said in interview with City Pulse before her fundraiser.
She told City Pulse on Feb. 27 the event raised over $20,000 for her campaign committee a week before she officially announced her bid for mayor.
The fundraiser garnered only $16,225 in donations, her report says, with a cost of $2,612 shouldered by Zeineh and Karandsheh. It represented 25 percent of Brown Clarke’s $60,420 haul in direct cash contributions and in-kind expenses.
But Brown Clarke’s issues don’t stop there with the Zeineh tie. Twenty-five percent of what was raised by the Feb. 23 fundraiser came from immediate family members or attorneys who work directly with Zeineh. Attorneys Issa Haddad and Edward Bajoka each cut checks for $1,000 during the fundraiser, while attorney Brian Morley put in $100. Haddad and Bajoka both have interweaving law practices with Zeineh’s, including Bajoka listing the Law Firm of Edwar Zeineh as his Lansing office on a website. Haddad identifies Zeineh as one of his southeast Michigan firm’s “people.”
Haddad represented Zeineh when he sued the city over the 2013 towing of two of his cars from behind the 2000 block of Michigan Avenue. Brown Clarke’s husband, 54-A District Judge Hugh Clarke, Jr. ruled in his favor — ordering the city to pay him $7,200.
Deepening the ties, Haddad and Morley represented Zeineh’s brothers, Simon and Saied, when they were prosecuted in Ingham County Circuit Court in 2008 for running a criminal enterprise. Simon’s case was dismissed, but Saied was convicted.
Court records and a Lansing Police Department report show Saied, while managing Capitol Motors car dealership on Michigan Avenue, was involved in a scheme to take cars that still had outstanding loans on them in on trade-in. As part of the deal, Saied would agree to pay off the loan on the car he was taking in on trade and provide the owner with the necessary documents. Instead, in at least three instances, he didn’t pay off the loans, but resold the cars and ultimately improperly repossessed them.
The criminal investigation into this enterprise also involved the FBI, the police report shows. According to the report, detectives received eight boxes of files and two envelopes of other evidence from the FBI office in East Lansing. LPD is no longer in possession of those files, and an FBI spokesperson had no comment.
The criminal charges are not the only time Zeineh’s brothers appear in court records related to improperly obtaining cars for a dealership. In 2004, Capital Area School Employees Credit Union and its insurer won a judgement against Saied Zeineh for running a “fraudulent loan scheme” while he was a loan originator at the credit union. The credit union alleged that Zeineh created “fraudulent and/or fictitious loan applications and/or misrepresented information on loan applications,” and “sheperded these fraudulent and/or fictitious loan applications through” the loan approval process.The proceeds it alleged, benefited his father and a used car dealership to the tune of over $108,000. The lawsuit alleges Simon Zeineh was involved in the car dealership with the twins’ father at the time.
Campaign finance records show the two brothers, who are twins, each made donations of $250 to Brown Clarke.
At-Large candidate Alexander Rusek accepted a $150 donation from Zeineh on May 10, campaign finance records show. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
I have known Mr. Zeineh for many years as a fellow attorney. However, I am not personally aware of the status of his businesses, properties, and taxes, but will contact him to urge him to rectify any outstanding matters he may have with the City,” Rusek said.