Meet the HFZ exec accused of taking mob bribes
Feds say John Simonlacaj let the mob use HFZ's XI condo project as a cash cow
UPDATE: Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, 5:20 p.m.: As an executive at HFZ Capital, John Simonlacaj had overseen some of the city’s top developments.
Now he’s been charged with accepting bribes to let the mob siphon off hundreds of thousands of dollars from projects, including his company’s most ambitious one: the XI along the High Line.
The 50-year-old Scarsdale resident has been fired from HFZ, where he was managing director of development, a spokesperson for the company said.
Simonlacaj pleaded not guilty Friday to wire fraud conspiracy and tax fraud and was released after posting $250,000 bail, The City reported.
Simonlacaj could not be reached and his attorney, Glenn Colton of Arent Fox, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Simonlacaj’s social media pages, including his LinkedIn profile and a personal website, have been taken down.
This isn’t Simonlacaj’s first brush with the law. In 2016, while running an unnamed company, he was charged with instructing someone who did business with the company to file a false tax form five years earlier. The filing was in connection with the award of contracts by the New York Power Authority.
Simonlacaj pleaded guilty, paid a fine and was sentenced to three months in jail, court records show.
Nir Meir, a managing principal at HFZ who helped to found the firm in 2005, penned a letter to the court on Simonlacaj’s behalf in 2016. Meir wrote that he had known him for more than two decades, and when Meir and his partner started a new venture, they took Simonlacaj with him as “a key member of our management team.”
In the letter, Meir said Simonlacaj had expressed remorse. “He has always been forthright with me and my partner and and has a reputation for being fair and honest within the industry,” Meir wrote.
A sentencing memorandum from his attorneys at the time said because of Simonlacaj’s client-facing role, he would lose his position if his work were interrupted by incarceration.
Meir and Zeil Feldman, HFZ’s chairman and founder, did not return requests for comment.
Simonlacaj is the son of Yugoslavian immigrants who settled in Brooklyn in 1967 to escape ethnic oppression and who went on to own apartment buildings in the Bronx. He grew up around New York — from Westchester to the Bronx to Washington Heights — and lived “modestly,” according to the memorandum and other letters on Simonlacaj’s behalf.
The filings describe Simonlacaj as a hard worker and a family man; he married in 1993 and has three children. He was also portrayed as an active member of the local Albanian community, helping scores of immigrants settle into life in America.
At HFZ, he has had a hand in major projects, including its 34-story under-construction NoMad office tower at 3 West 29th Street and Bryant Park’s first residential tower, The Bryant.
The latest indictment charged a dozen defendants, including alleged members of the Gambino crime family from the Bronx and Westchester.
Simonlacaj’s cousin Mark “Chippy” Kocaj and the alleged mobsters ran a carpentry firm, CWC Contracting, that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and bribes to employees of numerous construction and development companies — Simonlacaj among them, prosecutors allege.
The firm worked on multiple HFZ projects, including the XI, public records show. The bribes were paid in the form of free labor and materials to renovate Simonlacaj’s home in Scarsdale, according to the indictment.
In a statement, HFZ said it, along with other developers in NYC, learned of the investigation into CWC months ago and removed CWC from its projects. “HFZ immediately terminated Mr. Simonlacaj’s employment upon learning of the allegations against him, which run contrary to the values of the firm and how its business is conducted,” HFZ said.
Prosecutors allege that Kocaj, an alleged associate of the Gambinos, and Vincent Fiore, an alleged Gambino soldier, bragged about the connection.
“This director, John. There’s a beautiful ‘in’ there,” Fiore allegedly said. “There’s things we can do with [Kocaj] there, he whispers what he needs to whisper and we get things done.”
Update: This article was updated to include a statement from HFZ and additional information about Simonlacaj’s first conviction.