From real estate to prison

Agent's conviction shows how state, industry deal with criminal cases

Agent Courtney Wall was slated to meet a client to finalize a rental deal on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, when his life changed forever.

“There’s been a little bit of a problem,” Wall told the client over the phone when city detectives showed up to arrest him. “I’m going to have to send someone else.”

Wall, now 34, had a few minutes to gather his things, and then he was off to jail. The charge: jumping bail on earlier felony burglary charges. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison.

In June, after more than five years in prison in upstate New York, Wall was transferred to a reentry facility in Long Island City. He is now scheduled to be released Aug. 11, with five years of parole. During a two-hour interview with The Real Deal at Wallkill Correctional Facility, where he served the majority of his sentence, Wall, who is married and has a daughter, said he has no plans to return to real estate.

And while he may never have been a high-profile powerbroker, his case illustrates how the state and, to a certain extent, the industry respond to brokers with criminal convictions.

Under the current system for brokers and other licensed professionals, the onus is on the individual to report a conviction to the New York Department of State, the agency that issues and oversees real estate licenses. Felonies result in license revocation; misdemeanors are treated on a case-by-case basis.

The state does not track the number of brokers who have had their real estate licenses revoked because of a criminal conviction. Wall’s license expired in 2006 while he was in prison, but the state was never alerted to his conviction.

Steven Spinola, president of the real estate trade group the Real Estate Board of New York, defended the current law as effective. “It punishes those convicted of a felony, allows an appeal to get a license back based on specific circumstances and [it] gives the state the authority to strip a license for something less than a felony if the circumstances warrant such action,” Spinola said.

Still, some in the industry say the lack of criminal background checks in the system means that they have to do more work to vet the brokers they hire.

“The bar is, in every way, so low for entry into the business that I have long accepted that I am responsible for my own due diligence,” said Frederick Peters, president of Warburg Realty.

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Wall is certainly not the only agent, building manager or real estate executive to face a criminal case. Last month, for example, real estate investor Irving Stitsky, accused of defrauding investors out of $23 million, was sentenced to 85 years in prison by a federal judge in Manhattan who labeled him an “inveterate con-man.”

Wall, who was raised in Elizabeth, N.J., first started in real estate in 2004. After a four-year stint in the navy, five years of modeling, and a short time with a Wall Street financial management and advisory company, he ended up working at Citi Habitats at the office on East 22nd Street.

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He had met Daniel Baum, then at Citi Habitats and later the founder of the Real Estate Group New York, through friends. Baum suggested Wall get a real estate license, although he told The Real Deal he didn’t know Wall was awaiting trial on burglary charges or that there was a warrant out for Wall’s arrest for skipping bail.

When Baum launched TREGNY in 2005, Wall joined him.

“Had I known,” Baum said, “I don’t know if I would have hired him.”

But an arrest is not a conviction.

Spinola said he doesn’t think “it is ethically wrong to hire someone who has only been accused and not convicted of a crime. If the accusations are job-related, it should be taken into consideration. How well you know the person is also relevant. You may believe their innocence.”

In December 2003, Wall was arrested after police caught him inside a Fashion Institute of Technology dormitory on West 27th Street, at around 5 a.m. He had stolen two students’ bank cards and $51 from another student, according to the complaint and the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Wall said he paid off students he knew to let him into the dorm so he could use the school’s powerful computer system to illegally crack credit card codes. The scheme was driven, Wall said, by his “addiction” to money.

Wall missed a court date, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

He eventually pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree burglary for multiple burglaries and one count of second-degree bail jumping, the DA’s office said. After a little over a year as an agent, Wall was sentenced in November 2005 to six years total in prison.

Wall stayed busy in prison. And, he kept abreast of the real estate business. He had a subscription to The Real Deal, and shared the magazine with inmate and former Tyco CFO Mark Swartz, and then the duo chatted about the market. (Swartz’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.)

Upon release, Wall plans to start a talent consultancy, run the New York City marathon, check out the new Limelight Marketplace (where he used to party when it was a nightclub) and “hold my little girl,” Angelina, who was born in 2005 and whose first steps he witnessed in the visiting room in prison.

“Real estate for me is not a passion,” Wall said.

If not for his criminal background, Baum said, “my guess is he would have made a really good career in the real estate business.”