In 2008, the New York Daily News reporter William Sherman highlighted how easy it is for fraudsters to take control of a property by simply showing up at the office of the city register and filing bogus documents. To demonstrate, Mr. Sherman placed the Empire State Building temporarily into his possession, listing Fay Wray as a witness in the transfer paperwork and the famed bank robber Willie Sutton as the notary. The system hasn’t been reformed since Mr. Sherman’s stunt.
“If Bill Sherman wanted, he could probably steal the Empire State Building all over again,” Richard Farrell, a lawyer in charge of real estate cases for the Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, told us. “The recording office has a mandate. If you present a document that is the proper format and you pay the fees, they must record it. If there is fraud thereafter, that’s for other agencies to take care of.”
The loose oversight is due in part to the fact that title fraud is usually a clear-cut offense with an easily traceable paper trail.
It’s remarkable then, that Mr. Herbst, who is in his 60s, has been able to work the system for so long. Mr. Cahill soon discovered that he has a history of such shenanigans. In 2006 for instance, Mr. Herbst helped a man named Barry Chaimovitz sell a property owned by Mr. Chaimovitz’s family and said he would channel the proceeds into another building in Detroit purportedly being sold by a Hasidic man named Mayer Goldberger. Instead, they simply pocketed the money. The incident became known as the Kosher Butcher Case, because Mr. Chaimovitz’s family owns a well-known meat shop in Borough Park.
Attorney Roy Martin, who was hired by Mr. Chaimovitz’s brother Abraham Chaimovitz, eventually forced Mr. Herbst and Mr. Goldberger to return the cash, which amounted to about $1.8 million, to the Chaimovitz family. Mr. Herbst coughed up the money only after he was thrown into jail for 15 days for contempt of court.
Mr. Herbst had a different explanation for his incarceration. “I only went to jail because I made the mistake of being disrespectful to the judge,” he said, referring to a moment when he lost his patience during the court proceedings and referred to the judge as “your highness.”
Court documents and transcripts however clearly show he was caught trying to conceal the facts of the case, including how he and Mr. Goldberger had blatantly withdrawn the Chaimovitz family’s money into their personal accounts.
Earlier this year, Mayer Goldberger was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison in Nassau County for an unrelated mortgage fraud.
“Mayer Goldberger is a piece of shit!” Mr. Herbst fumed, pointing out that Mr. Goldberger’s incarceration has nothing to do with him.
Like in the Mancini case, Mr. Herbst’s account is the mirror image of his accusers’; he was only helping Barry fight for his share of the family’s real estate holdings from greedy Abraham, he said. “You’re going to get people who make these claims when you handle as many cases as I do,” Mr. Herbst said.
The Observer learned of at least two other instances of alleged fraud by Mr. Herbst where he illicitely transferred a property into his own control. In 1999, he took 5001 17th Avenue and placed it in the hands of another of his sons, Richard Herbst, then put a phony lien against the house. He was eventually forced to pay off the rightful owner of the property.
In a more recent incident, which is still winding its way through Manhattan Supreme Court, Mr. Herbst allegedly used phony documents to transfer ownership of the mortgage on a Manhattan office building to his control. “He’s just like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the movie Catch Me If You Can, but with a beard,” Stephen Meister, an attorney involved in the case told The Observer.
Mr. Herbst runs an official-sounding company called the Council for Community Preservation, Inc., that he said has helped hundreds of people restructure loans on their homes and other property and avoid foreclosure. “Not just Jewish people,” Mr. Herbst said. “But everyone, Hispanic, black people, white people. Everyone.”
For a man who spends the bulk of his time sticking up for the little man though, he seems conspicuously deft at bobbing and weaving his way through fraud allegations. Mr. Herbst, whose background is in the rabbinical courts, taught himself about the secular court system by studying textbooks in the Brooklyn Law Library. Even Mr. Herbst’s opponents concede that he has a unique talent.
“He’s like an idiot savant of court procedure,” Mr. Cahill said, echoing the sentiments of several people familiar with Mr. Herbst.
While Mayer Goldberger went to jail for forging documents so that he could draw mortgages over and over on the same property in Long Island, an easily prosecutable offense, Mr. Herbst has been more subtle—even disciplined.
In several situations, the facts have been open enough to interpretation as to leave the burden of proof at least marginally in his favor.
“In the Mancini case, the issue was did [Mr. Mancini] sell it or didn’t he,” Mr. Farrell, the assistant Brooklyn DA said, explaining why he hasn’t gone after Mr. Herbst. “Mr. Mancini can’t tell us he didn’t.”
The whole situation infuriates Roy Martin. “How many people have to get ripped off before something is done about this guy?” he said.
Mr. Martin has had success beating Mr. Herbst in their numerous outings by identifying and grasping onto incontrovertible facts. In the Kosher Butcher Case, for instance, Mr. Martin focused on the way Mr. Herbst had clearly forged documents, allowing him to swipe the family’s $1.8 million. Mr. Herbst offered up endless explanations for how the money ended up with him, but in the end, he couldn’t explain the documents themselves.
Mr. Martin has spent so much time battling with Mr. Herbst, he says he has witnessed fleeting moments when the man momentarily acknowledges of his own culpability.
It happened during the Mancini case. After months of wrangling in court, Mr. Cahill had managed to get the deed back in the hands of Mrs. Mancini and the bogus mortgage that Mr. Herbst had placed on the property removed. From there, Mr. Martin took over and won a restraining order that forced Mr. Herbst to cut down the beams.
Steelworkers did the work one afternoon in 2008 as Mr. Martin and Mr. Cahill watched from the sidewalk. Mr. Herbst came out of his house and looked on as well. The three men eventually sat together on Mr. Herbst’s front steps. Though they were adversaries, for a moment, there was a sense of collegiality.
Mr. Herbst gestured at the surrounding neighborhood, where many of the homes appear to fall on the far side of what is probably permitted by code.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “No Jew-boy in Borough Park ever builds legal.”
Mr. Martin went on to win a $569,000 judgment against Mr. Herbst and his family earlier this year, almost seven years after the whole mess began. The Mancini home, or what’s left of it, was recently sold by Mrs. Mancini for $730,000 to a company called MLSMNDR LLC. Mr. Martin wouldn’t disclose the buyer behind the corporation.
“They don’t want to be known,” Mr. Martin said. “If Mr. Herbst was your neighbor, would you?”