GRAMERCY — The Department of Investigation is looking into possibly fraudulent letters of support submitted by a Gramercy private school to the city as part of its successful bid to push forward a controversial $67 million renovation project, according to a councilwoman.
Friends Seminary, a $37,000-per-year Quaker day school at 222 E. 16th St. between Third Avenue and Rutherford Place, submitted eight identical emails printed out on paper bearing the school's logo to the Landmarks Preservation Commission last year, each signed by people claiming to live on the school's block.
Each asked the agency to greenlight the school’s plans to overhaul its campus, which is located in the Stuyvesant Square Historic District.
LPC approved the project last May, but work has yet to begin.
But a search of public records found no one with the names of the people listed on the emails living on East 16th Street — or anywhere nearby.
And at least five of the people who signed the eight letters appear to work or have worked in some capacity for Luigi Caiola, a wealthy real-estate heir and Broadway producer whose children attend Friends Seminary and who has previously taken an active role in fundraising for the school, according to public records and social media profiles.
“Friends Seminary submitted those letters. They know these people did not live on the block and they knowingly handed in false documents,” Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who represents the area, told DNAinfo New York.
“Whether or not the letters factored one way or another into the Commission’s decision, it is a fraud. Certain kinds of misinformation has a criminal impact and hopefully DOI can decide this."
A spokeswoman for DOI confirmed that the agency is aware of the matter but declined to comment further.
Caiola, principal and CEO of real estate firm B&L Management, did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Linkedin, the names on the emails match those of B&L's leasing director, chief financial officer and receptionist, among other staffers.
The other letter writers appear to know each other, based on public Facebook posts, but their connection to the school is unclear.
None of the eight letter writers returned phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Friends Seminary spokesman John Galayda acknowledged that both the school and the city were aware of the emails, but highlighted a volume of letters of support sent to the LPC by students, parents and faculty.
“This is a known matter to both the school and the City,” Galayda said in an email.
"These letters represented a very small fraction of the 76 letters commending the project. Furthermore, while the school appreciates the encouragement it has received from members of the community, the LPC did not cite this support among the 19 factors in its written determination of the project’s appropriateness.”
The private school, which serves nearly 800 students, is planning to add two stories to a trio of three-story townhouses and to a four-story building. A greenhouse and a play structure is also planned for the roof of one of the buildings.
Neighbors, concerned that the changes wouldn't fit with the rest of the area and would bring construction noise to the block, showed up at a series of Community Board 6 meetings and an LPC hearing to oppose the plan.
“Even the revised plan would absolutely destroy the whole image of Stuyvesant Park,” said Adam Jacobs, who lives on East 16th Street and led the charge against the project.
"If you look at the street it’s all old Italian townhouses, and you’re going to be putting in a big bulky building.”
In meetings with neighbors and Community Board 6 and in an April 19 LPC hearing, school officials and parents described the renovations as critical to ensuring a competitive and comprehensive education for students.
Following LPC approval of the project in May last year, residents began collecting information so they could file an article 78 lawsuit against the school. A hearing has been scheduled for April 7.
They filed a Freedom of Information request for LPC’s file on the plans and found the suspicious emails while sifting through the agency’s documents, which included nearly 80 other letters in support of the project — almost entirely from parents, faculty, and students at Friends Seminary.
Jacobs said the so-called neighbors on the emails raised red flags immediately because none of the people who lived on the block had ever met or heard of them, according to Jacobs.
“Out of all the people at those meetings who did support the renovations, there was not a single neighbor,” Jacobs said.
“Everybody was an employee of the school, a parent, or somebody else who was going to make money off of the project.”
Minutes and transcripts from the Community Board 6 full board meeting on April 8 and the first LPC hearing on April 21 also show that no one by those names ever spoke at a meeting.
It is unclear if the emails helped sway the LPC in its decision to ultimately approve the revised plans but an LPC spokeswoman said commissioners take public testimony into account. The commissioners ultimately make the decision based on their expertise, she said.
The LPC spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the emails constituted fraud.
“Fraud is a criminal act and the agency cannot comment,” she said in an email.