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National Arts Club's Expulsion of Aldon James Stands Again, For Now

By Amy Zimmer | April 12, 2012 10:37am
A room known as the
A room known as the "Bird Room" at the National Arts Club before and after a cleanup.
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Miguel Serrano; DNAinfo/AmyZimmer

MANHATTAN — What goes around comes around at the National Arts Club.

The board of the 113-year-old Gramercy Park institution had voted to expel its ex-president O. Aldon James in February after holding a hearing on the matter only to see its decision overturned by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Carol Edmead last month.

The board’s expulsion is in effect once again — at least for the time being. Justice Richard Andrias, of the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, First Department, issued a stay on Edmead’s March 22 decision as the club’s appeal on that order is pending. Both parties, in the meantime, will be submitting further briefs.

The board had decided to oust James after holding a closed-door hearing on his actions at the club. In that decision, the board said the James, his twin brother, John and  their friend Steven Leitner “committed conduct that is seriously prejudicial to the Club and which violated the rules and policies of the Club.”

James, who was president of the club for 25 years, along with his brother and Leitner used club apartments to hoard flea market junk and antiquesbelieved to have been purchased with the organization's money. They still control four of the organization’s roughly 40 apartments, down from an estimated 20, according to the club.

The board’s lawyer, Roland Riopelle said, “I am both relieved and gratified that a stay was granted.”

He believed Edmead had overstepped her boundaries in her ruling on the matters of a private club.

“The Club believes, with all due respect to the lower Court, that issues of Club governance and membership are uniquely issues that should be decided by the Club itself,” Riopelle wrote in an email. “If a Club is not permitted to decide for itself issues of who may be a member and who may not, it isn’t really a Club any more, is it?”

But James' lawyer, Adam Gilbert, doesn’t believe the appeal has legs.

"Once the full Panel receives and reads our opposition, I think it unlikely that the Panel will continue the stay pending the Club's appeal,” he wrote in an email.

He agreed with Edmead’s decision that the club’s board members shouldn’t decide James’ fate since many were involved in a countersuit seeking financial damages from him.

“Here, the Board of the Club filed counterclaims against Aldon, John and Steven which are based largely upon the charges against these men,” Gilbert said. “Justice Edmead was correct when she concluded that the counterclaims created an appearance of bias that tainted the entire Board from sitting in judgment of these men."

As the legal fight continues, James remains the focus of investigations by the New York Attorney General and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which current president Dianne Bernhard told members was coming to a close.

After Edmead's decision, members said James returned to the club in full force, hanging out in the atrium and trying to talk to people as they came in.

The bitter battles have taken a toll on many at the club, including Bernhard  — once James’ No. 2 and now someone he has vilified, saying she was acting like a dictator and ruining the club's decor.

"This has been one of the most difficult years in our Club's history, and at times very painful for me personally,” Bernhard wrote in a recent letter to members. “But the rewards are well worth our angst and hard work."