PARK SLOPE — Mayor Bill de Blasio, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, state Sen. Jesse Hamilton and several other local politicians have hosted fundraising events at a controversial restaurant that felons operate and that owes hundreds of thousands in unpaid city, state and federal taxes, court and city records show.
The operators, twin brothers Robert and Zhan Petrosyants, pleaded guilty in 2014 in Brooklyn Federal Court to a money-laundering scheme. The twins are part owners and operators of three Brooklyn restaurants, including Woodland, a Flatbush Avenue restaurant and nightclub that has drawn the ire of neighbors over the past several years for loud music and rowdy patrons, court records show.
Despite the brothers' criminal records and bad blood with locals, Woodland has been a popular stop for elected officials to court campaign donors. Nineteen political fundraisers have taken place at the restaurant since 2012.
Campaign Finance Board records show that de Blasio hosted a fundraising event at Woodland on Nov. 23, 2016, paying $689.48 to use the venue. A de Blasio campaign spokesman said the mayor has no relationship with the twins, nor did he know of their criminal past.
Brooklyn's borough president has hosted at least four fundraising events at the Petrosyantses' restaurants, including one at Woodland.
Adams and the Petrosyantses have been friends since before he became the borough president, sources said. In fact, Robert Petrosyants donated $1,000 to Adams in June 2013 — a year after prosecutors indicted the restaurateur in the money-laundering scheme.
Although Petrosyants identified himself as the owner of Woodland restaurant in the campaign contribution form, a spokesman for Adams said the borough president wasn't aware that the twins were partners in Woodland or any other restaurant.
The spokesman, Stefan Ringel, said that Adams' relationship with the Petrosyants brothers "is no different than any relationship he has with anyone that lives or works in the borough."
Adams has been a frequent booster of the brothers' restaurants. In an October 2016 interview with the website Crain's 5 Boros, he said Wallabout Seafood, a restaurant the brothers co-own in Clinton Hill, was one of his favorites before he became a vegan. Adams has hosted three fundraisers for his re-election campaign at Wallabout, records show.
Adams also hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony and put out a press release when the brothers opened up Forno Rosso, a pizzeria in Downtown Brooklyn.
"Borough President Adams is happy to host ribbon-cutting events, upon the invitation of local business owners and community stakeholders, for a considerable number of businesses boroughwide," Adams' spokesman, Stefan Ringel said.
A pal of Adams who's a convicted felon, Bishop Lamor Whitehead, has also been a supporter of the Petrosyantses.
In November 2014, Whitehead wrote a letter of support to a federal judge on behalf of Robert Petrosyants before the restaurateur's sentencing for the money-laundering scheme, according to a court filing. Whitehead asked the judge for leniency, saying Robert had partnered with Whitehead's nonprofit, Leaders of Tomorrow Brooklyn, to teach kids about cooking and healthy eating.
Whitehead — who got out of prison in 2013 after serving five years for identity theft and grand larceny — has been scrutinized for his close ties to Adams.
He has used his chummy relationship with the borough president to promote his nonprofit, but some of the organization's youth programs were bogus, according to an October 2016 New York Post story. The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office sent a cease-and-desist letter in November 2014 to Whitehead because he falsely claimed that his nonprofit had partnered with the DA's office on a justice initiative.
The Petrosyantses have been accused of making false claims as well.
In 2016, four investors sued the Petrosyantses and their business partner, Akiva Ofshtein, for allegedly swindling them out of $1 million. The plaintiffs said in court filings that the twins and Ofshtein presented themselves as experienced restaurateurs who claimed they would use the investors' money to start a catering business in Sunnyside and a seafood eatery in Brooklyn.
Instead, the plaintiffs said, the Petrosyantses and Ofshtein "illegally diverted" the investors' money to Woodland and their other restaurants, and failed to mention that the twins were the subject of a federal criminal case involving money laundering charges.
The Petrosyantses, who are 35, are Armenian immigrants whose family came to the United States to escape religious persecution in Turkmenistan, according to court documents. Robert is a father of three daughters. Zhan, also known as Johnny, has three children, too, according to court documents.
The Petrosyantses and Ofshtein did not respond to requests for comment.
In June 2012, a month after Woodland opened, the twins were indicted on 11 counts for their roles in a nationwide check-cashing scheme involving medical billing companies. They ultimately pleaded guilty in February 2014.
Zhan was sentenced to five years of probation and 150 hours of community service and isn't allowed to cash checks at a check-cashing business without permission from authorities. He was ordered to forfeit $667,446.
Robert Petrosyants was sentenced to six months in federal prison, which he served in Fort Dix, N.J. He was released in July 2015. He also was ordered to forfeit $667,446, according to court filings.
The investors in the lawsuit against the Petrosyantses and Ofshtein accused the twins of using investors' money to pay part of that forfeiture.
The twins and Ofshtein have other money problems as well. Both the Petrosyantses and Ofshtein are tax deadbeats.
Robert has owed New York State $22,000 since 2014 and Zhan owes more than $14,000, according to state records. As a business, Woodland owes $800,000 in unpaid taxes to city, state and federal authorities.
Woodland has filed for bankruptcy twice. After a judge dismissed a 2015 bankruptcy in October 2016, Woodland filed again for bankruptcy earlier this month.
Court filings say the business owes some $1.4 million in debts. Woodland's landlord says in filings that the restaurant owes more than $300,000 in back rent and other debts.
The twins and Ofshtein have been close-knit friends and business partners for years, according to sources.
Documents filed in bankruptcy court describe the Petrosyantses as managers of Woodland and Ofshtein as the owner.
However, the investors' lawsuit said the Petrosyantses have a financial stake in Woodland. Robert Petrosyants is the majority owner of Forno Rosso with Ofshtein and Zhan Petrosyants has an ownership stake in it, according to the lawsuit. Ofshtein is the majority owner in Wallabout and the brothers have financial stakes in that restaurant too, the lawsuit states.
Woodland has been a thorn in neighbors’ sides since before it even opened. Originally planned as a club called Prime Six, locals protested when they heard the operators wanted to offer bottle service. The operators rebranded the business as a “farm-to-table” restaurant, but it regularly hosts parties in a private basement room.
Politicians who have come through Woodland's doors include Councilman Jumaane Williams, who hosted two fundraisers at the restaurant, ex-state Sen. John Sampson, who raised cash at an event there in 2014, and New York City Civil Courts Judge Cenceria Edwards, who hosted two fundraisers at the venue. Comptroller Scott Stringer hosted an event at one of the other restaurants co-owned by the Petrosyantses, Forno Rosso Pizzeria, in 2016.
The restaurant touts its political connections on its Facebook page. One photo on the page shows de Blasio and Adams posing with Zhan Petrosyants in February 2015. Another shows then-mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn mugging with Robert Petrosyants in August 2013.
Along with Rob Petrosyants' donation to Adams, the restaurants' holding companies gave $2,500 to state Sen. Jesse Hamilton, who has hosted five fundraisers at Woodland. The holding companies also contributed to the campaigns of state Assembly candidates Shirley Patterson and Karen Cherry.
Two of the investors suing the Petrosyantses and Ofshtein also donated a total of $6,000 to Adams and $3,000 to Hamilton.
The investors also gave $12,000 in donations to David Storobin, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2012 and City Council in 2013. Storobin hosted a fundraiser at Woodland in July 2012.
While candidates see Woodland as a vital venue for their campaigns, locals frequently complain about loud music, rowdy patrons disturbing neighbors when they leave at night, and occasional fist fights outside.
Many of the critics have voiced their concerns to the nearby 78th Precinct and at Community Board 6 meetings, but have not made much headway.
A spokesman for Hamilton, who said the state senator knows the Petrosyantses and Ofshtein as local business owners, said he sent his director of community affairs to hear locals' "serious concerns" about Woodland at precinct and Community Board 6 meetings, although the restaurant is one block outside of Hamilton's district.
Ringel said that the borough president recently intervened on the community's behalf to see if criminal activity was taking place at the restaurant.
"He worked with the 78th Precinct and the North Flatbush BID to convene a closed-door meeting Oct. 12, 2016 that also included Brooklyn Community Board 6 and local stakeholders," Ringel said. "Following that meeting, the NYPD determined there was no criminal activity occurring inside the restaurant or stemming from it."