Vicious War Divides a NYC High-Society Apartment Tower

The swanky co-op is home to Wall Street tycoons, Michael J. Fox, a Rockefeller scion, and heirs to massive fortunes.Published Mar. 02, 2024 9:07PM EST Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images/Yoni KirschIn the foyer of his 12-room co-op overlooking Central Park, financier Clifford Press is hunched over, trying to persuade his 14-pound Jack Russell to

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The swanky co-op is home to Wall Street tycoons, Michael J. Fox, a Rockefeller scion, and heirs to massive fortunes.

Noah Kirsch

A photo illustration of 112src Fifth Ave split in half with pictures of Clifford Press and John Breglio in between.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images/Yoni Kirsch

In the foyer of his 12-room co-op overlooking Central Park, financier Clifford Press is hunched over, trying to persuade his 14-pound Jack Russell to stop showing her belly. Behind him, sunlight streaks through the cavernous living room, adorned with gold mirrors, hardwood floors, and a working fireplace.

The building, 1120 Fifth Ave., is a dense nexus of wealth, home to Michael J. Fox, Nelson Rockefeller’s daughter, and heirs to the Sears and Toys “R” Us fortunes. It should be a respite from New York’s loud streets.

But Clifford Press is a man at war. His enemies, he tells The Daily Beast, are the relative peasants on the “B and C” side of his building who sit on the 11-person co-op board. “They’re in the sort of cheaper apartments,” he said. (Those units are generally worth $5 million to $10 million, while his is worth at least eight figures.)

Last week, Press’ wife, Elizabeth Sawyer, filed a lawsuit accusing the board of extortion, bribery, and racketeering—a charge often employed against gangsters and mafiosi. “Hidden behind the limestone façade of a Museum Mile neoclassical is a corrupt group of entrenched cooperative directors who are exploiting the corporation by their criminal and other bad acts,” the suit alleges.

“We were shocked by the extent of corruption,” Press, 70, added in his deep Johannesburg accent. He is not listed as a plaintiff because the apartment is in Sawyer’s name, owing to an “estate-planning gimmick” from the 1990s. He is, however, the more vocal combatant.

According to the lawsuit, board members have enriched themselves while violating the co-op’s bylaws in order to remain in power. Meanwhile, they have spent heavily on litigation, including against building residents.

In 2019, the suit says, the board spent $7,390 on premiums for “directors and officers” insurance, a standard expense to protect itself in case of lawsuits. The next year, because of the board’s alleged legal problems, the bill went up, to $33,902. Then it climbed further, to $44,000, $75,000, and finally $134,000. The deductible also skyrocketed 40-fold, to $200,000. Residents of the co-op share the burden of expenses, so in effect, fed-up owners who file lawsuits against the board are hurting themselves.

Sawyer, who has been critical of the board for years, alleges in her suit that its members retaliated against her during the pandemic by attempting to evict her. Then, the board “conspired to hire a private investigator to try to dig up evidence that [Press], who was raised in South Africa, was a racist who engaged in unethical business practices,” the lawsuit says. “That venal strategy also failed, but Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Press have been forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt merely to remain in their home of over thirty years.”

In a statement, Michael Pensabene, the co-op’s outside counsel, disputed the accusations against the board: “This meritless lawsuit was brought by a disgruntled co-op resident for the sole purpose of harassing her neighbors, who voluntarily serve the building on the co-op’s board. This is a flagrant abuse of judicial process and we are confident that this frivolous complaint will be promptly dismissed.”

Stan Stein, who lives on the 11th floor, blames many of the problems on poor communication. “This pandemic has affected how people relate to one another,” he told The Daily Beast. Stein, a retired investment banker, agrees with Press, “100 percent, that there needs to be governance changes in this building,” though he thinks the claims of outright corruption are unfounded. (Stein’s wife, Linda, a former board member, is listed as a defendant.)

Another resident, who asked to remain anonymous, applauded Press’ campaign. This isn’t some work of a crazy person,” the resident said. “My personal opinion is that this is a very proud, very intelligent man who they’ve humiliated.”

On Friday, after The Daily Beast visited the co-op, and after the New York Post reported on the lawsuit, the board sent a letter to owners asking them not to speak with the press.

Almost immediately, a resident called The Daily Beast to gripe. “We’re literally being told not to talk to you, that there’s nothing to see, and that this will all be dismissed, which is categorically a lie,” the person said. “Many of the board members seem to believe they can keep gaslighting the shareholders.”

The front of 112src Fifth Avenue.

The facade of 1120 Fifth Avenue.

Yoni Kirsch/The Daily Beast

One afternoon last week, as Press traipsed past the uniformed doormen in his lobby, a middle-aged blonde woman sat by a window, averting eye contact. “We have a problem now. She’s on the board, so we’ve had to sue her,” he explained outside.

Things used to be warmer. For the first 15 years of their time in the building, Press and Sawyer had an “extraordinary” experience, he recalled. The couple, who met at Harvard Business School, happily raised three children there and got along well with the board.

Just under a century old, 1120 Fifth Ave. has 45 units, meaning that its 11-person board holds significant influence over building-wide votes when its members stick together. “It sounds very, if you will, democratic,” Stein said. “But when you have a large board like that, it can often go in the other direction…if the board coalesces around one point of view.”

Sawyer’s lawsuit claims the dysfunction at 1120 intensified in 2012, when resident John Breglio “started his takeover of the Board.” Breglio, a lawyer turned theater producer who worked with the creator of A Chorus Line, became president that year, and he “solidified his core group [of loyalists] and pushed out any directors who wavered in their support,” the suit alleges. (Reached by phone, Breglio said, “I don’t really want to discuss the lawsuit in any way because, for obvious reasons, it’s being dealt with by the lawyers.”)

Sawyer’s complaint claims the defendants formed a nominating committee to select new candidates for the board, which she viewed as a ploy to restrict membership to applicants they had “hand-selected.”

For a time, she says in her complaint, she was stonewalled in her effort to determine who was even on the nominating committee and how the application process worked, forcing her to file a “special proceeding.” Members of the board also kept such sloppy records that they weren’t definitively sure how long they had served, she claims.

“All kinds of documentation keeps getting lost after about five years,” a current resident attested to The Daily Beast. “Everything should have been on emails.”

Linda Stein, who previously served as treasurer, expressed concerns about the electoral process in a 2022 note to a board member, Sawyer’s lawsuit recounts. “Importantly, in the course of all this litigation mess, I have reviewed how the election of directors has been handled over the past few years, and it is quite possible that significant electoral errors have been made and they were never brought to the attention of the shareholders, nor ratified by them,” she wrote.

Stein resigned as treasurer in 2021; the suit claims she stepped down after losing patience with Breglio’s “overbearing” behavior. Speaking to The Daily Beast, Stan Stein said the resignation centered on a disagreement about budgeting.

“I will say John expresses himself, [or] can express himself, loudly,” he said. “If it amounts to yelling, I don’t know.”But in a 2022 email to a board member obtained by The Daily Beast, Stein was more direct: “I can’t sit idly and experience with horror the verbal abuse of Linda, by John Breglio. This simply will not do, as I’m sure you understand.”

Photos of building residents John Breglio and Clifford Press.

Building residents John Breglio and Clifford Press.

The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Residents of 1120 Fifth Ave. are well-acquainted with legal peacocking. For 21 straight years, the co-op has petitioned the New York City Tax Commission and the commissioner of finance, arguing that its property value assessments have been too high.

Other residents have endured their own controversies. In 2022, Press resigned from the publicly traded financial firm Acacia Research after he was told about an investigation into “potential instances of misconduct that could qualify for a termination for cause,” a press release said at the time.

The next year, the company wrote in a public filing that an independent legal investigation had confirmed that Press “provided inaccurate information regarding certain corporate expenses and misused corporate funds for personal use, including travel and entertainment expenses.”

Press told The Daily Beast that Acacia “put out very disparaging information about me” and noted that he settled the dispute in September 2023 and received a payment of $1.25 million from the firm.

Inside the co-op building, the legal bills have piled up, as well. In 2017, for instance, residents Larry and Anouk Berger filed a lawsuit claiming that leaks from the building had caused water and mold damage to their newly purchased unit. They informed the board, which responded “with contempt and hostility,” their complaint alleged.

Later, amid a dispute about whether the board had signed off on the Bergers’ renovation plans, then-president Breglio “falsely accused [the couple] of ‘fabricating’ stories,” they claimed, adding that they “immediately refuted” the allegations with “unequivocal evidence.”

Sawyer’s lawsuit references the Berger litigation, arguing that the “board’s failings were so obvious” in that case that it paid the couple a $300,000 settlement. (As a result, the board’s then-insurer refused to renew its directors and officers policy, she said.)

Subsequently, Sawyer claims, Breglio pressured Larry Berger to contribute “his settlement money to underwrite the insurance premiums,” claiming that he “and his wife would be ‘pariahs’ if they did not return the money.” (An independent lawyer hired by the board did not find evidence that Breglio had made such threats.)

Berger declined to comment, but Sawyer’s lawsuit claims the exchange “rises to the level of extortion.”

A photo of Press' dog, Willa.

Press’ beloved dog, Willa.

Clifford Press

Officially, Press’ war with the co-op board began in 2019, when he suggested a building-wide vote to establish term limits for board members.

Almost instantly, he and Sawyer were subject to a “retaliation campaign,” Sawyer alleged in a 2021 lawsuit.

The first tussle, she wrote in her complaint, centered on the board’s claim that she was illegally keeping propane tanks in her apartment (They were small camping canisters, she said.). Around the same time, she “began to regularly receive notices that she was in arrears in her financial obligations,” though the notices were not accompanied by evidence, she claimed.

Sawyer said in the lawsuit that the board “surreptitiously” sent a letter to her mortgage lender in January 2021 alleging that she was more than $45,000 in default on maintenance payments and other dues, and that the board intended to “commence a non-payment eviction proceeding.”

Two months later, a lawyer for the co-op told Sawyer about a special meeting to determine whether to terminate her lease for “objectionable conduct.” According to her 2021 lawsuit, Sawyer’s alleged infractions included allowing her “family’s (since deceased) dog to be ‘unleashed when in the lobby and public areas of the Building’” and letting the dog bark excessively “on unspecified dates and times during a fifteen year period running from 2004 to 2019.”

Press was also accused of kicking another resident’s dog, “causing it to bleed,” after an altercation between the pets in 2012. Sawyer shot back in her complaint that the kicking incident never happened and that Press was renowned “for his commitment to and affection for dogs.”

In her new lawsuit, Sawyer says the special meeting in 2021 went nowhere after she methodically refuted the board’s accusations. The matter was adjourned, she recalls, supposedly to hold a vote on whether to evict her, but no vote was ever taken.

The new lawsuit reiterates many of the same allegations as the earlier one, though Sawyer has added additional details and claims. She accuses the board of diverting coop funds into “personal renovation projects” and obscuring legal expenses. She also devotes significant time to Breglio, whose cousin Kenny was awarded a $500,000 elevator modernization contract in 2019, painting the bidding process as corrupt, despite John Breglio’s insistence that he recused himself.

Moreover, she says in the lawsuit, the elevators now “break down on such a frequent basis that they have become a hazard to families and children.”

“My apartment is on the second floor, so often… the fire department will come into my apartment, open the door, and extract the family,” Press told The Daily Beast.

Stein acknowledged that “it’s not a great look to have a cousin do the elevator work, even if he comes in at the best price,” but he sees no evidence of impropriety.

In general, Stein said of Press, “some of the things he says are actually not entirely off the mark. But I think the way he says them, he gets very caught up in the emotion and the allegation for which there is very little if any substance.”

The board has yet to respond to Sawyer’s latest lawsuit, which seeks to oust most of its current members. The co-op’s attorneys previously denied many of the accusations in the 2021 complaint and cast Sawyer and her husband as difficult tenants who refused to clean up after their dogs, “consistently” fell behind on their financial obligations, and harassed other members of the building. The independent counsel hired by the board also found “no evidence of any conspiratorial cabal to maintain the entrenched power of longtime board members.”

But by declining to speak on the record, board members have let Sawyer and Press steer the narrative. Press’ biggest hurdle may be convincing his neighbors to care about his grievances. “Many of the people in the building do have multiple properties,” one resident said. “They’re just going about their lives. They’re not paying attention.”

To Stein, those lamenting the loss of camaraderie on the board are missing the point. “It’s a small real estate business, nothing more, nothing less. To view it otherwise is a mistake,” he said. “But there are people who see it as kind of, if you will, a community.”

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