From the outside, the National Arts Club appears to be one of New York’s most venerable institutions.The private club, known for hosting parties filled with bold-faced names, is housed in a gorgeous brownstone on the south side of Gramercy Park and has been a haven for lovers of the arts since its founding in 1898.
But on the inside, the club is a festering mess — literally.
Click here for incredible before-and-after photos of the National Arts Club >
The NAC’s former president, O. Aldon James, is an eccentric who used the club to hoard massive amounts of junk, and who rented apartments to family members for a small fraction of their market rates.
Then, there was the mystery of the dead exotic finches that started turning up around Gramercy Park in March. It’s probably no coincidence that James bought more than 50 birds of the same species of finch a week earlier, according to The New York Daily News.
After a 25-year reign, James finally agreed to step aside and take a “well-earned vacation” this spring. But the extent to which James wreaked havoc on the club’s finances and physical headquarters are only now being uncovered.
DNAinfo, a website that covers local news in Manhattan, just obtained an internal report documenting James’ use of the club as his “personal piggy bank,” including writing thousands of dollars worth of club checks for his personal expenses and stealing mail from club residents.
The whole tale is sordid, but we’ve gathered the highlights and lowlights.
- Back in 2003, James’ twin brother John James pleaded guilty to using the club’s nonprofit status to buy and sell jewelry for personal profit following a probe by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. He served five years’ probation and three months in a psychiatric hospital, and ultimately paid more than $500,000 in restitution and fines.
- The club also had to pay $150,000 in back taxes on rooms it had rented, and its dining room manager pleaded guilty to sales tax evasion, paying back more than $275,000, according to DNAinfo.
- In January 2010, the fire department issued a citation for obstructed exits and hallways, though the building was not shut down.
- A 2010 independent draft audit by O’Connor Davies Munns & Dobbins found that one employee had racked up $21,000 in personal expenses on the club’s debit card without anyone noticing, and blank checks were left haphazardly lying around.
- The audit also found that the club ignored its own stated financial procedures, including requiring two signatures on checks of more than $10,000.
- Things really started to unravel the following January, when DNAinfo published an article revealing that James had leased apartments in the 40-unit building, which come with coveted keys to Gramercy Park, to his twin brother for $356 a month (a similar apartment next door was on the market for $6,500 a month), and a close friend for $858 a month.
- In the same article, one club member called James “totally crazy.” Several former employees complained that the place was “alarmingly messy” — and provided photographic evidence (via Flickr).
- James’ “erratic” behaviour, including reportedly firing club staff at will, was also starting to become more of an issue, DNAinfo reported.
- In February, James essentially “declared war” against board members who questioned him about the low-rate apartments, writing a scathing letter that singled out board members and made veiled threats against them.
- By March, both the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office had launched probes into the club’s finances.
- That incident with the dead finches took place in early March, though investigators soon hit a wall after no witnesses came forward (James admitted to buying the birds, but not to releasing them).
- James finally stepped aside to take “a well-earned vacation” in mid-March after the club held an emergency meeting. He continued to hold onto his $1,143-a-month apartment.
- The club underwent a massive spring cleaning in April under the watch of temporary president Dianne Bernhard, who brought in dumpsters to deal with the mountains of trash.
- A recent internal investigation revealed that James wrote $1.4 million worth of club checks without any backup documentation, oversight or invoices. He also likely stole cash from the club’s bar and events receipt box, and took items from residents’ apartments and stole their mail, the report concluded.
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