The “taxi king” is no more.
Evgeny “Gene” Freidman, an immigrant cabdriver’s son who amassed the largest collection of taxi medallions in New York City and parlayed some of his fortune into real estate before creditors and authorities caught up to him, died Sunday.
He was 50, and the cause of death was a heart attack, sources close to the family told The Real Deal.
“Gene will be remembered for his unique and colossal personality, independent and forthright perspectives, and unyielding willpower to champion his pursuits,” representatives of Freidman’s family said in a statement. He “exhibited conviction, brilliance, and audacious boldness.”
Audacious boldness certainly defined both Freidman’s life and career. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he emigrated with his family to New York at the age of 6 and went on to Cardozo School of Law before moving to Russia to work as an investor, according to a 2019 New York Times profile.
Filled with ideas from his native country, he came back to the U.S. with the ambition to shake up the taxi industry, and went to work on his father’s fleet. He envisioned a model like the one real estate investors used to build wealth: Purchasers of medallions could borrow more money against those assets when they appreciated, with smaller down payments and more time to repay their loans — allowing them to buy more medallions.
Teaming up with a credit union to put his plan into action, Freidman soon amassed more than 100 medallions and eventually controlled more than 800 through deals brokered with other fleet owners. He later acknowledged bidding up medallion prices at auctions to inflate the value of ones he owned, increasing his borrowing power.
At the height of the medallion business, when individual medallions commanded north of $1 million, he had $525 million in assets, according to the Times. Freidman was active in Chicago’s taxi medallion market as well.
Between 2002 and 2012, Freidman went on a real estate shopping spree, snapping up at least 23 buildings. His purchases included a $5.1 million garage in Long Island City, where his Millennium Taxi Meter Shop is headquartered, and he lived for a time in a stately townhouse on the Upper East Side.
As his fortune grew, so did his lifestyle: He spent lavishly on clothing, became a Page Six regular, courted powerful politicians including Mayor Bill de Blasio and counted director Spike Lee and baseball star Mo Vaughn as friends.
He had a longtime business relationship with Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen, for whom he managed 32 medallions, and the men were personally close. Cohen even helped name Freidman’s son, Dylan, Freidman told TRD in a 2017 interview.
But the good times did not last. Uber’s arrival in New York City in 2011 and major expansion in 2014 contributed to a more than 80 percent drop in medallion prices. In 2015, Madison Realty Capital, Freidman’s creditor on an 11-property portfolio in Coney Island, moved to foreclose, accusing him of defaulting on mortgage payments.
His troubles grew from there, with state prosecutors accusing him of failing to pay more than $5 million in cab surcharges from his fleet. He agreed to cooperate in a federal investigation against Cohen, and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of tax fraud, for which he was sentenced to probation in October 2019.
“I’m very humbled by what has happened,” Freidman said at his sentencing. “I have started fresh.”
Freidman is survived by Dylan, his daughter Leyla, and his parents Naum and Elizabeth.