CLINTON HILL — A convicted armed robber who started a nonprofit to house homeless veterans and provide job training scammed $300,000 out of a vulnerable former serviceman who had won the lottery and has been illegally evicting other vets, court records show.
Michael Erber, who served 15 years in prison for robbing a check cashing store and currently faces misdemeanor charges for driving a car with a fake license plate, has been accused of persuading ex-U.S. Army vet John Pickett to donate $200,000 to his nonprofit, MAG-V.
Pickett told DNAinfo New York — and has said in a court deposition — that the money was part of an $800,000 jackpot he won from a scratch-off ticket in 2015 while enrolled in MAG-V's program and living in one of the nonprofit's residences in West Farms.
Pickett, who receives monthly compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for mental and physical disabilities, said he gave the donation because Erber promised to make him a board member, get him a job, help him with housing and "also establish an account on the side for me so I wouldn't have to worry about having money again."
Pickett also said that MAG-V's chief operating officer, James Payne, then persuaded him to hand over an additional $100,000 under a deal to help Pickett purchase a home in The Bronx.
Pickett said since he transferred the $100,000 he hasn't heard from Erber or Payne and never got any help with housing or a job.
"I think he is a con artist," Pickett said of Erber. "He has taken advantage of those who are weak, who are humble, who have nothing. He finds people at their lowest point and promises them a dream."
Pickett said he had also been paying $800 in rent each month to MAG-V to live in a room in the West Farm residence from October 2014 to July 2016, when he learned the nonprofit — which leased the property — had not been giving the money to the landlord.
Pickett and three other veterans who live in the West Farm residence are now being evicted in Bronx Housing Court and will likely have to leave by the end of February, court filings show.
"Everything [Erber] said and did was a bald-faced lie. And then he left everybody high and dry," said Darrell Coaxum, 52, a U.S. Navy veteran who also faces eviction from the West Farm residence.
Coaxum and Pickett aren't the only ones slamming Erber, who claims he has helped 4,200 veterans find housing.
Farm Development LLC, the real estate firm that owns the West Farm residence, has filed a lawsuit in Bronx Supreme Court against MAG-V, claiming it is owed more than $55,000 in rent that hadn't been paid since 2015. Farm Development is also seeking an order of ejection, which, if granted, would notify the public that MAG-V solicits funds but does not pay rent.
Last month Daren Gratts, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in a room in a MAG-V residence in Clinton Hill, filed another lawsuit against Erber and MAG-V in Manhattan Supreme Court, accusing them of placing veterans in dilapidated housing and evicting them without going through the proper legal channels.
The lawsuit includes five affidavits from veterans who say they have either been illegally evicted by MAG-V or have been paying rents only to find out that the nonprofit had not been giving the money to the landlord.
Gratts said in the lawsuit that more than two years ago he sought help finding low-income housing. The Department of Veterans Affairs referred him to the nonprofit Jericho Project, which referred him to MAG-V and paid his security deposit. The Clinton Hill building doesn't have a fire escape on the second, third and fourth floors, and the rear exit is padlocked, according to the lawsuit.
Gratts said in the lawsuit that he paid $700 a month in rent to MAG-V, which then tried to evict him for violating a house policy of no smoking on Nov. 18, 2016, and gave him 72 hours to get out.
The lawsuit also said that MAG-V also makes false promises of helping veterans find permanent housing and obtain job training.
Peter Kempner, Gratts' lawyer and the director of the Veterans Justice Project at Brooklyn Legal Services, said that his organization has represented many veterans who have been victims of MAG-V. He said Erber has exploited programs put in place to assist veterans.
"MAG-V has taken advantage of them and has taken advantage of the veterans homelessness crisis," Kempner said. "We hope that the proper authorities get involved and stop MAG-V and others like them from dishonoring our veterans."
Erber denied that he was illegally evicting veterans, saying that they were enrolled in his nonprofit's program — and, therefore, not subject to the same landlord-tenant legal proceedings.
He told DNAinfo that he stopped making rent payments to Farm Development because the residence didn't have a certificate of occupancy, but he kept collecting rent from the veterans at the West Farm residence as payment for their participation in the program.
Erber, who claims he is a veteran, said he founded MAG-V in 2012 after starting a veterans program for the DOE Fund — the nonprofit that helps homeless individuals find work. THE DOE Fund said Erber did not start or run its veterans program.
Homeless vets pay MAG-V rent through income they get from the Department of Veterans Affairs or through funding from other nonprofits.
"I built a name for myself by taking veterans on the spot when I meet them and putting them in places that are better than shelters," Erber said.
"Out of 4,200 vets we have maybe six who are not happy with having to move," he added.
State prison records show that Erber was convicted in 1991 of robbery, attempted aggravated assault of a peace officer and criminal possession of a weapon. He was released from prison in 2007 and finished his community supervision on Dec. 21, 2015.
Erber was arrested on Aug. 6, according to the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office. A criminal complaint says that he was driving a BMW with a fake license plate and with a suspended license. The license had been suspended for not paying child support, according to the complaint. The owner of the BMW, a former MAG-V employee, told the arresting police officer that Erber did not have permission to use the car.
He faces misdemeanor charges for aggravated operation of an unlicensed vehicle and possession of a forged instrument, as well as several violation infractions. His next court date is Jan. 10.
Another MAG-V employee, whose position is compliance officer, was released from state prison in February 2015 after serving nearly four years for criminal possession of a weapon and criminal possession of a controlled substance.
Erber acknowledged the $200,000 donation from Pickett but accused him of not paying rent and of having a gambling problem.
"I know that these depositions make these veterans look to be angels but we know different," he said. He denied having a role in the $100,000 deal between Pickett and Payne, MAG-V's chief operating officer.
Pickett said he learned of MAG-V in 2014 while living at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated individuals find work. Pickett had recently been paroled for manslaughter after serving 10 years in prison.
He said he responded to a MAG-V flier and met with Erber, who told him his program could help him get a job and find permanent housing.
Pickett said he received no help from the program. He said after taxes and giving money away to relatives and friends, he has no money left from his lottery winnings.
But his main concern, like the other veterans at the West Farm residence, is finding a place to live if they're evicted on Feb. 28.
"I don’t give a damn about the money. I just care about the people in this building," Pickett said. "We are veterans who have been abused and we are being thrown out of this building for something we didn’t do."