Cousins Cigar Illegal Sidewalk Cafe -- Blocking entrance, extending to other storefront


Written By: Robert Cox

First, by way of update since I received a harassing phone call from the New Rochelle Police last week, at the behest of Vinny Mirabile, there has been no resolution.

On June 23, City Manager Charles B. Strome indicated that the New Rochelle Police Department had received my Internal Affairs Complaint and would get me the records I requested under a Freedom of Information request.

“You should get all the stuff you asked for in your FOIL request and a formal response to your Internal Affairs complaint,” Strome said in an email.

On June 26, Captain Costa of the New Rochelle Police Department said I would not get the records I requested from NRPD, at least in the near term.

“As there is an open, active investigation regarding this incident, all materials are part of the investigatory file and are exempt from FOIL,” said Costa in an email. “Upon conclusion of the investigation, and notification to you of the disposition, your FOIL request will be reviewed.”

I have not been contacted by the NRPD Internal Affairs Unit.

I have heard, directly and indirectly, from a number of New Rochelle Police Officers, wishing to defend PO Jose Hued, the police officer who I have alleged was engaged by Vinny Mirabile to harass me in an attempt to suppress my reporting on corrupt practices involving Vinny Mirabile.

Here is one such argument:

“Hued is not in cahoots with Vinny, he’s just not a smart guy and him contacting you was just to tell you not to contact Vinny anymore (we act as a mediator for people quite a bit) nothing more. Unfortunately for him, you ate him up (not unexpectedly).”

I do not accept this line of argument.

First, this sort of defense of Hued goes to the motive behind what he did whereas I am interested in the fact of what he did. And the fact is that Hued acted in a manner that is not consistent at all with my own past experience with the NRPD policy and he did so in the context of providing the basis for a future arrest (I was “warned” so any further “harassment” or “trespassing” could subject me to arrest).

Second, there is no “dispute” between me and Vinny Mirabile any more than I have a “dispute” with my shoelaces when I tie my shoes.

I am an investigative reporter and publisher. I conduct investigations into public sector corruption. Mirabile is a subject of one such investigation. According to the police report and Hued’s own statements, the nature of the call was a “dispute” without any mention of what the supposed dispute was about. In fact, there is no dispute just bogus claims and a police officer improperly using his police powers to amplify those claims, turning them into threats.

To contrast Hued’s call with past NRPD procedure, readers may recall when Jimmy Bonanno and his son, Little Jimmy, made similar complaints to the NRPD — that my investigative reporting on their corrupt practices constituted “harassment” — two police officers took their statements. The reports were turned over to the General Investigation Unit where they were assigned to a Detective. That Detective looked into the matter then contacted me only to notify me a complaint had been filed, that it was determine to be unfounded and the case was closed. These instances are hardly the only ones where subjects of my reporting claim “harassment” when the actual issue is that I am exposing malefactors and they do not want to be exposed. 

This is a simple matter of members of the New Rochelle Police Department “settling scores” on behalf of themselves, their friends on the force or other third parties. In short, it is another example of police corruption and police harassment against me for doing my job in reporting on police corruption.

Things took a new turn last night when a longtime advertiser pulled their advertising from Talk of the Sound. The business owner said they were getting “negative feedback” and experiencing what amounted to a boycott by police officers. This person named specific police officers as the source of these actions and cited a need to maintain relations with the New Rochelle Police Foundation (run by Police Commissioner Pat Carroll) and the NRPD PBA (run by Detective Christopher Greco).

There is something especially pernicious about police officers engaging in this sort of conduct against business owners in New Rochelle who are subject to enforcement actions by these same police officers. It is a form of violence, economic in nature, which impacts not only the target but family members and employees and their families. It carries with it the threat that failure to comply will result in “selective enforcement” designed to use the threat of arrest or fines to coerce business owners or individual members of the public. It is a jackboot mentality that has no place in modern society. That said, it is a well-known part of the police culture in New Rochelle, originating at the top with Pat Carroll, and filtering all the way down to the level of patrol cop. It is why cops who are otherwise supportive of Talk of the Sound dismiss the actions of PO Hued as “just doing their job”; they fail to grasp how it feels to be an innocent person, falsely accused, getting a phone call from a police officer giving out “warnings” that, if ignored, could then be used to justify an arrest for simply walking on a sidewalk, or driving past a particular street corner or sending an email. Suddenly, even looking in the general direction of Vinny Mirabile or his store could result in arrest. 

It is worth noting that all of this aggressive harassment by Vinny Mirabile and members of the New Rochelle Police Department is preemptory.  We are halfway into Part II of this series and have not even begun to publish the results of our investigation and yet they are working aggressively to attempt to prevent Talk of the Sound readers from hearing what we have to report.

So, without further ado, we now turn to the first of several series of complaints involving Vinny Mirabile and his business, Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge.

Here are some basic facts:

Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge opened in 2008.

Photos displayed on the Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge Facebook page depict tables and chairs set up in front of Cousins Cigars, some photos show patrons with open bottles of beer and wine, others show a bar area in the back of the store, still others show catered meals being served or food being cooked on premises. The tables and chairs, on occasion, extended beyond the width of the storefront, and impede access to the front door.

Since Cousins Cigars first opened, it has operated what amounts to an illegal “sidewalk cafe” in front of the store located at 245 Main Street.

The store appears to prepare and sell food and sell and serve alcohol, wine and beer.

At least back as far as 2012, and possibly longer, Cousins Cigars has held what amounts to an illegal block party. 

The email sent to Vinny on June 8 which he cited as “harassment” in his complaint to the police was, in reality, a note advising him of our investigative reporting and offering him an opportunity to tell his side of the story by producing records that might contradict our conclusions, some of which were listed in the email. This is common journalistic practice, one rooted in defamation law, to both be fair and afford a media outlet protection against future claims. As we did not hear back and were preparing to run the first article that same email was forwarded to Vinny with a note that the email was a second request. Of course, that first article was delayed as a result of Vinny Mirabile engaging the New Rochelle Police Department to harass me.

The questions to Vinny were based on a review of municipal records, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, which indicate that since 2008, Cousins Cigars has obtained 1 Public Works permit pertaining to construction work when the store first opened (permission in August 2008 to block off the sidewalk while work was done), two building department permits pertaining to awning signage, one in 2008 when the store first opened and in November 2016 after an article appeared in Talk of the Sound in January 2016 reporting that the signage had changed without a permit. An Open Air Permit was obtained in September 2016, for the first time ever, from the City Clerk’s office for the annual “fundraiser”.

To operate lawfully, far more by way of licenses and permits, were required between 2008 and 2017.

Sidewalk Cafes are governed by Chapter 267 of the City Code of New Rochelle. They are allowed under a permit from the Public Works Department and are required “for the sale to the public of food and beverages, excluding however, alcoholic beverages, and for no other purpose” and limited to the “owner or the tenant of a building occupied and used for the sale of cooked and prepared food, except fast-food restaurants, in a zoned district permitting such use and abutting the public sidewalk adjacent thereto”.

Cousins Cigars is not a restaurant. Even had they sought one, the store is not eligible for a Sidewalk Cafe permit.

Even if they were a restaurant and so eligible they have never applied for a permit, paid the required fees, obtained the proper insurance certificates or complied in any way with the City Code of New Rochelle as it pertains to a Sidewalk Cafe.

A review of public records from the Westchester County Department of Health and emails to the New York State Liquor Authority indicate that Cousins Cigars does not have a license to sell/serve distilled spirits, wine or beer nor a food service license to prepare/sell food. Cousins Cigars does not adhere to the Sanitary Code of Westchester County or the Food Allergy Notification Law.

The City Code says a Sidewalk Cafe must not extend beyond the extension of the side property lines onto the sidewalk which Cousins Cigars often does, encroaching on the front of the deli next door.

The Code also requires there must be clear unoccupied space, not less than three feet in width, from all entrances of the building abutting the sidewalk to the unoccupied portion of the public sidewalk. Cousins Cigars has had various set ups over the year but it can safely be said that this part of the Code is routinely violated.

The Code requires “general comprehensive liability insurance naming the applicant and the City of New Rochelle, its officers, agents and employees as named insured must be provided, with limits of $25,000/$50,000 for property damage and $1,000,000/$2,000,000 for personal injury, effective for the duration of the permit.” Cousins Cigars has never provided the City of New Rochelle such an insurance certificate for a Sidewalk Cafe.

The Code requires all sidewalk cafes to cease operations by 10:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:00 p.m on Friday and Saturday. Talk of the Sound has received complaints that the “cafe” area in front of Cousins Cigars is open late on occasion but we have yet to confirm this directly.

The City Code requires that the “operator of a sidewalk cafe should be in full compliance with the licensing requirements of the State Liquor Authority,” Cousins Cigars is not in compliance with any aspect of the licensing requirements of the State Liquor Authority as it does not have a license at all.

§ 267-7 provides for penalties for an offense against the provisions of the City Code: “a fine of not more than $250 or by imprisonment for not more than 15 days, or both.”

Despite violating every possible aspect of the Sidewalk Cafe law, Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge has never once, in 9 years of operation, been cited by the Department of Public Works for a violation for its sidewalk cafe set up.

The Public Works Permit for a sidewalk cafe has evolved over the past several years but has several basic requirements: (1) the permit is issued upon payment of the required fee and deposit; (2) the annual permit fees shall be $100 refundable deposit and a non-refundable fee (see below), (3) permits may be issued only for the period from May 15th to December 31st; (4) permits may be issued only if the applicant provides an insurance certificate naming the D.P.W. as additional insured – now $1 million but was $2 million in the past; (5) permits shall be issued and renewed annually; (6) applications shall include a photograph or graphic design and detailed sketch of the tables and chairs indicating all dimensions and locations relative to the adjacent building, curb, and obstructions including signs, hydrants and tree pits; (7) the permit must be signed by the Commissioner of Public Works; (8) any violation of terms SHALL RESULT in termination and forfeiture of the permit.

Back in 2008, the City Code provided for an annual renewal fee calculated based on $3.40 per square foot, later raised to $5.00 per square foot. In 2014, a stepped per-chair fee structure came into effect and remains so today (1 – 4 chairs $100, 5 – 12 chairs $200, 12+ chairs $300). Under these various fee structures, Cousins Cigars should have paid an annual renewal fee over the years of anywhere from about $380 to $555 (on a square footage basis) and $200 to $300 (on a per chair basis or about $3,500 in annual fees plus $100 a year for a total of $4,400 plus the cost of general and liability insurance naming the City as the insured.

You can look at it two ways: the failure of DPW to enforce the Sidewalk Cafe law allowed Vinny Mirabile to operate an illegal “sidewalk cafe” and avoid thousands of dollars in fines for doing so or, if the sidewalk cafe were permissible (which it is not) save thousands of dollars in fees and insurance costs.

All of which begs the question, why has the Department of Public Works under a succession of Commissioners — Jeff Coleman, Alex Tergis or Scott Pickup failed to enforce the laws of the City of New Rochelle?

Before answering that question we will look at other examples of the failure to enforce the law in what we have come to call VinnyLand.