TRD Special Report: In the summer of 2014, a New York landlord with a modest portfolio received a letter from a certain Raphael Toledano, Esq. In the letter, Toledano allegedly identified himself as belonging to Truman & Wildes LLP, a Park Avenue law firm. He claimed to be representing real estate investor Josh Zegen in a 1031 exchange, and assured the landlord that his client was interested in one of his buildings and would “pay above market value” for it.
The issue, however, is that Truman & Wildes LLP is bogus. It is not a licensed law firm in the tri-state area, and isn’t even a registered entity in Delaware, Connecticut, New Jersey or New York. Its website, which was taken down shortly after The Real Deal began making inquiries, appears to be a basic web template with language lifted verbatim from legitimate law firms. Misrepresenting oneself as a lawyer is illegal.
For his part, Toledano, a former broker and now a prominent local real estate investor, denies any connection with the law firm. But property records and interviews with his former employees, business associates and industry players indicate otherwise.
The landlord who provided TRD with the letter, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed that Toledano called him pretending to be a real estate lawyer and followed up the call with the letter. Brokers, furiously canvassing for deals, “tend to get screened out” by owners who aren’t looking to sell, the landlord said, adding that he believed Toledano masqueraded as an attorney to get better access. A broker’s calls may not be returned, he said, but a lawyer’s will.
Zegen told TRD that though he has been a lender to Toledano, “we have never hired him in any capacity to represent us in any which way.”
The letter stated that Truman & Wildes operated out of an office on the 25th floor of 125 Park Avenue, an SL Green Realty-owned building in Midtown. But no such tenant ever existed at the property, according to building records and CoStar data. The firm’s website was taken down on Dec. 9, two days after TRD reached out to Toledano to inform him of the allegations. An archive of the website made by TRD shows that the contact number for the law firm matches Toledano’s phone number. And an alternate address for the law firm, 2329 Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, matches the address of Truman Realty Group, a brokerage where Toledano was president. According to state records, Toledano is not currently licensed as a real estate agent.
Behind the story:
In a statement, a spokesperson for Toledano said that “this is yet another example of Mr. Toledano’s competition, including former partners, attacking him and trying to malign his reputation – while hiding behind a guarantee of anonymity. Mr. Toledano will continue to run a first class real estate company which conducts its business with integrity.” The spokesperson did not comment on the timing of the website being taken down. The identity of the individual who registered the website domain in April 2014 is cloaked behind an LLC, and hence could not be verified.
It’s true that Toledano has his share of enemies. Just 25, the former broker has rapidly built an enviable multifamily portfolio in New York, with at least 19 properties and over 350 apartments in hot neighborhoods such as the East Village, city records show. And that ascent has been peppered with allegations of cheating his partners and harassing his tenants.
In May, rent-stabilized tenants at 444 East 13th Street, a Toledano building, claimed he was coercing them to move out. Toledano put the blame squarely on the building’s property manager, the Paulius Skema-led Goldmark Property Management, and said he had fired the firm.
“Stay the f— away from my building,” he said in a note to Goldmark, according to investigative news website City Limits. “Your services and work is no longer of interest.”
In August, Toledano was sued by Aaron Jungreis, his uncle and a top multifamily broker in New York, who alleged that Toledano squeezed him out of a 16-building East Village acquisition (the suit was settled in September). And earlier this month, a Flatiron District landlord brought a $6.4 million suit against Toledano, accusing him of defaulting on his office lease.
Several interviews with those who’ve worked with Toledano paint the picture of a driven, bold dealmaker, who could sometimes cross the line to achieve his goals.
“The unauthorized practice of law can be a felony,” said Carl Schwartz, the co-head of the real estate practice at Hunton & Williams. Practicing law includes activities such as holding oneself out to be a lawyer or giving legal advice, several attorneys said.
Mark Weissman, who on LinkedIn claimed to be an employee of “Truman & Wildes Law Firm / Truman Realty Group,” said he believed the company was both a real estate brokerage and a law firm. (Editor’s Note: The Weissman that TRD interviewed is not to be confused with Mark D. Weissman, a licensed attorney and president of Lawrence, N.Y.-based Weissman Realty Group)
“I was just helping out, running deals,” he said, adding that he was only at the firm for a brief period and worked out of the Nostrand Avenue office. “I believe it’s real estate law. Rafi [Toledano], I’m pretty sure he runs the real estate part of it.”
Kenneth Scharf, who on LinkedIn identifies himself both as a “real estate specialist” at Truman Realty and a “real estate consultant” at Truman & Wildes, couldn’t be reached for comment.
And a third agent, who requested anonymity, said that he was once affiliated loosely with the firm and helped out on acquisitions. Apart from Toledano, he named two other principals, the aforementioned Paulius Skema and his partner Ralph Hertz. Both are co-founders of Trifecta Equities and alums of Truman Realty. Calls to Trifecta weren’t returned.
“He’s a good man,” the third agent said of Toledano, “but he plays with some very big boys.”
Kyna Doles, Adam Pincus and Mark Maurer contributed reporting.