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Judge Reverses National Arts Club Expulsion of Aldon James

By Amy Zimmer | March 22, 2012 9:42pm | Updated on March 23, 2012 1:54am
Former National Arts Club President O. Aldon James with his lawyer, Adam Gilbert, after a court hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011.
Former National Arts Club President O. Aldon James with his lawyer, Adam Gilbert, after a court hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011.
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DNAinfo/Olivia Scheck

MANHATTAN — O. Aldon James is getting a second chance.

Although the National Arts Club voted in February to expel its embattled former president, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ordered the 113-year-old institution Thursday to hold a new hearing conducted by a neutral party.

Justice Carol Edmead said the club's board, which approved James' expulsion from the club on Jan. 23, no longer appeared unbiased in light of new facts that emerged since she called for the board to hold a hearing on the matter.

Those included a countersuit the club filed in December seeking roughly $3 million in damages they charged James had caused. The claims in that suit, filed in December — such as allegations that James used club checks without approval and deprived the club of revenue by secretly using club apartments — were similar to the claims made after the hearing held the following month.

The board's vote in favor of filing that those claims before the hearing was held may have tainted the process, according to the judge.

"The court finds that the board's 'counterclaim' position in this action (as voted on by its members), together with the various board members' roles as hearing officers to judge the merits of the statement of charges, deprive the board, and its members 'of the necessary neutrality to arbitrate the claims,'" Edmead wrote in her decision.

The board voted to oust James, his twin brother John, and their friend Steven Leitner from the venerable club at 15 Gramercy Park South on Feb. 16 after the January hearing, the guidelines for which were established by Edmead last year.

The expulsion after the hearing — which the three tried to stop in a lawsuit filed last August —  stripped the men of membership as well as the club apartments they controlled.

In that decision, the board said the James brothers and Leitner “committed conduct that is seriously prejudicial to the Club and which violated the rules and policies of the Club.”

As first reported by DNAinfo, the James brothers and Leitner used club apartments to hoard flea market junk and antiques — believed to have been purchased with the organization's money.

The James brothers and Leitner control six of the club's roughly 40 apartments, down from an estimated 20, according to the club. For their prime real estate — with a key to the exclusive Gramercy Park — Aldon James paid $1,143 a month in rent, his brother paid $356 a month and Leitner paid $858 a month, according to recent tax filings.

The National Arts Club board had hoped this would be the trio's last month in the club after more than 25 years, but its decision no longer stands under the judge's ruling.

"This is precisely what we were looking for," James' lawyer, Adam Gilbert said.

His client didn't even show up to the January hearing because Gilbert thought the board was biased, he said.

"We will have our opportunity to demonstrate to the world, in front of a neutral arbiter, that we are not the people the club describes us as being," Gilbert said.

Roland Riopelle, the club's lawyer, said, "The Club is reviewing its appellate rights at this point and has no other comment at this time."

James is under investigation by the state Attorney General's office and the Manhattan District Attorney's office.