NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Elizabeth Ganga of the Journal News has written a feel-good story about a New Rochelle woman with a troubled past who currently owns and operates Suggarplums, a soul-food restaurant across from City Hall at 534 North Avenue.
The article New Rochelle restaurant a soul food success story tells how LaChonne Williams is fulfilling her dream to run a soul food restaurant like her grandfather did in New Rochelle decades ago. Suggarplums opened last May.
The story is told as a tale of triumph over adversity. Reading her story, one can only wish Williams well in her endeavor.
It was hard not to notice, however, that Ganga’s account of Williams’ troubled past includes elements that raise a lot of questions about the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority and the New Rochelle Board of Education.
Ganga reports that Williams has a significant criminal record which includes four felony convictions ranging from drug trafficking to welfare fraud. She served one and a half years in prison on the welfare fraud conviction in the late 1990’s, according to the Journal News.
Of course, everyone deserves a second-chance. That a person was convicted of crimes 15 to 20 years ago, is no reason not to patronize a restaurant. The quality of the food and service should be all that counts. And by all accounts the food is good. Yet anyone who knows the fictional account of the rise and fall of Freddy’s BBQ Joint in the Netflix series House of Cards knows that while one should have nothing to do with the other that does not mean there is not a story there.
The questions are less about LaChonne Williams and more about how people in positions of authority in New Rochelle used those positions to bend (or break) the rules and, in at least one case, enrich themselves at taxpayer expense.
The first issue with the story is how did it come to be in the first place.
In the movies, reporters walk around the streets of their local city, stumble across good stories and tell them. But even Woodward and Bernstein had “Deep Throat”. In reality, most reporters are lazy when digging out stories and digging into the backstory. Many, if not most, stories in newspapers and on TV are “pitched” by someone over the telephone or email. The person pitching always has some vested interested in the story, presenting the story from a particular point of view. Often they are pitched by public relations professionals seeking to promote a client.
Elizabeth Ganga did not respond immediately to an email inquiring as to how she happened upon the story of Suggarplums. Nor did Ken Plummer of Kensworth Consulting or Steven Horton, Executive Director of the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority.
Ganga reports Williams says “a friend” told her that a restaurant on North Avenue had closed, that Williams “called the landlord” and the next day “she gave him the money”.
Who is the friend with the inside track on the restaurant location? Who is the landlord?
One of Williams’ close friends is Angela Farrish, an NRMHA employee. She works as the Executive Assistant to Steve Horton.
The New Rochelle Property Portal lists the owner of 534 North Avenue as Maria P. Palermiti of Mamaroneck, NY. The property was purchased from Staffiero Crescenzo. According to an attorney familiar with the matter Steve Horton owns the property. Attempts to contact Palermiti, the number listed for her has been disconnected.
So, one question is whether the Journal News story came about because Steve Horton used the NRMHA public relations firm, at taxpayer expense, to promote the business of a tenant in a building he owns?
Ganga reports that, despite her then-recent criminal history, Ganga reports that soon after leaving prison, in 2000, Williams got an apartment in Hartley Houses.
The question is, how?
Convicted felons, especially those with drug convictions, are typically ineligible for public housing assistance. If they ever are eligible, several years has to pass and steps taken to remediate the conviction.
Williams tells Ganga that she will soon get a three-bedroom townhouse in “a redeveloped section of the Hartley property”.
This is a reference to Hartley Houses which supposedly does not allow tenants with prior felony convictions. In fact, Talk of the Sound was invovled in reporting out a story on one woman who says she was denied housing because she had a single drug conviction and complied with drug court requirements suffecient to get her record sealed; and another who says she was denied housing because she was involved in the theft of a bicycle decades ago. Meanwhile, Kwamaine Dixon, a convicted drug dealer, was given an apartment at Heritage Homes. Several people arrested in the recent Operation City Sweeper II drug raids lived and operated out of NRMHA properties including Heritage Homes.
So, again, how is Williams getting this apartment?
Back in 2000, Williams not only obtained a taxpayer-subsidized apartment but was hired by the City School District of New Rochelle.
Once again, the question is, how?
Ganga credits this to Williams “winning an appeal to work there despite her record”.
What appeals process exists in the New Rochelle school system that allows a convicted drug dealer with four felony convictions to “win” a job?
In New York State, a misdemeanor conviction is not grounds for denying a person a state license unless the conviction is directly related to the job. For example, a person with a misdemeanor conviction for public intoxication or disorderly conduct would not be barred from getting a license as a beautician but someone with a misdemeanor conviction for stabbing someone with a pair of scissors could be barred from obtaining the same license. There is no requirement that a public school system in New York hire convicted felons.
Ganga does not say what position Williams held when she was hired in 2000 but does say that Williams worked for the New Rochelle Board of Education for 11 years, winding up working directly with students as a special education aide. Even if the District was ordered to give Williams a job, why would she be placed in a classroom, working with children?
The New Rochelle Board of Education did not respond immediately to an email inquiring as to the process that would have allowed Williams to “win” a job despite her lengthy criminal record.
Ganga continues, reporting that after Williams lost her job in 2011, she opened up a food business in her apartment at Hartley Houses.
Since when does the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority allow tenants to operate businesses out of their apartment? But officials at the NRMHA certainly knew. One of Williams friend is the Assistant to the Executive Director and, according to the article, her apartment/restaurant was widely known.
As a food business, it would be seem improbable that the Westchester County Department of Health would grant her a license to prepare food or serve customres out of her apartment.
Did they? Were any sort of health inspections done?
Doubtful but we have made an inquiry to the Westchester County Department of Health in any event (we will update the story with any reply)
Perhaps there are good explanation for these and other questions.
But it is the way the Journal News article glosses over them that is troubling. It’s not just that she was arrested and convicted multiple times prior to 2000. It’s that she admits that between 2011 and 2014 she operated an illegal, unlicensed food services business of publicly-funded housing in clear violation of NRMHA policy and her lease agreement. There is also some evidence that Williams may have been involved with the illegal possession and possibly sale of fireworks, explosives that appear to have been stored at her apartment at the Hartley Houses.
Efforts to reach LaChonne Williams were unsuccessful.
UPDATE 3/1/15: Steve Horton replied “In response to your email inquiry please be advised that the Family Services Coordinator for the Housing Authority did contact the Journal News with the recommendation for this article. This was done in his capacity to promote positive accomplishments by residents of the Housing Authority. I have no knowledge of who the “friend” referenced in the article is. I do not own any property in New Rochelle and I am not associated with this business in any way.”
UPDATE 3/1/15: No I did not [play a role in pitching this story to the Journal News], so unfortunately I cannot take any credit. I did previously read it online and thought it was a inspiring story of redemption.