In September of 2018, Lorraine Grillo, head of the city’s School Construction Authority at the time, received an email from her friend Carlo Scissura, from his email account as leader of the New York Building Congress.
He asked if they could speak on the phone about a shuttering Nathan’s Famous restaurant in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.
The conversation didn’t revolve around hot dogs, but rather Scissura’s idea that the site could be home to a public school, according to the email and others obtained by THE CITY through a Freedom of Information Law request.
“Property is the former Nathan’s site — 86 and 7th Avenue. Address is 650 86th Street footprint I believe is 70,000 sf,” he wrote in one email, telling Grillo that the owner was “Ready to make a deal.”
“He would prefer dealing directly with SCA. Maybe you or one of your deputies can give him an initial call and then pass it off to your team,” he added.
Scissura left out two apparently key pieces of information. One, that “owner,” Tim Ziss, was in contract but hadn’t yet purchased the site, which was still property of Nathan’s Famous.
And Scissura never revealed in the emails with Grillo over three years — and never disclosed to city or state lobbying overseers — that Ziss had agreed to pay him thousands of dollars a month.
Instead, Scissura represented himself solely as a local Bay Ridge do-gooder. “Trust me I don’t want to be involved at all other then (sic) to get schools built in the best district in NYC :),” he wrote to Grillo.
Ziss went on to close on the purchase for $12.25 million on Oct. 23, 2018 — and then resold the property for $25 million to Grillo’s public school construction agency on July 1, 2019, public records show, paid for by taxpayers.
Ziss did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the office of Mayor Eric Adams, speaking on behalf of Grillo, said she “has always made decisions solely on the merits, and this situation was very clearly no exception.”
“At no point did Mr. Scissura disclose that he was being paid to discuss this project, and First Deputy Mayor Grillo was never made aware of that arrangement,” stated City Hall spokesperson Charles Lutvak.
Scissura was more than a familiar name in Adams’ City Hall. Earlier this year, the mayor was on the verge of appointing him to head the powerful city Economic Development Corporation. After THE CITY in January first revealed Scissura’s secret work for Ziss, Adams went on to name a different head for EDC, Andrew Kimball.
While running the Building Congress, a trade group for the real estate and construction industry, Scissura began working with Ziss in July 2018, according to a copy of the contract obtained by THE CITY.
In addition to a $15,000 retainer fee, Ziss paid Scissura $6,000 a month starting that October, the contract shows. The scope of work outlined included meetings with local leaders and elected officials about the development of five properties in Bay Ridge. Staff and the board of the New York Building Congress were not aware of his sideline, according to people familiar with the matter.
The contract specifies that Scissura “shall not be acting in a capacity as a lobbyist as defined by New York State lobbying rules and shall not be acting as an attorney on this project.” Scissura is not a registered lobbyist in New York.
But multiple experts who spoke to THE CITY said that Scissura’s effort to influence a real estate deal fits a classic definition of lobbying.
Those actions include his plaintive emails to Grillo, who is now the first deputy mayor under Adams.
“He’s asking for action on something from a governmental official, that’s lobbying,” said an attorney specializing in lobbying, who asked that his name not be used.
He pointed to the city lobbying law, which prohibits any activity that attempts to influence eight separate actions. The list includes “any determination by an elected City official, a City officer or employee concerning the terms of acquisition or disposition by the City of any interest in real property.”
Under the city and state lobbying laws, a person found guilty of unregistered lobbying work faces civil penalties of up to $30,000, in addition to the criminal penalties associated with a class A misdemeanor. The City Clerk declined to comment for this story and the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) did not return calls.
Scissura continues to defend his work with Ziss.
“As I have said in the past, I was asked by my friend, Mr. Ziss, to consult on some properties, but I made it clear that I would not be his organization’s lobbyist,” he said in a statement to THE CITY last week.
On Monday night, Scissura’s personal lawyer, Claude Millman, said: “We reviewed the e-mails identified by THE CITY and dispute that they reflect any ‘lobbying’ that, under the circumstances, would have to be reported under the law,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
“The law does not deem every communication with government reportable ‘lobbying.’ To claim the contrary, one would have to ignore the detailed definitions and numerous exceptions in the complex regulatory regime.”
In dozens of emails from September 2018 through Feb. 2021 between Scissura and Grillo, he maintained a steady drumbeat of inquiries about Ziss’ properties — while never disclosing his own financial stake.
“He would prefer dealing directly with SCA. Maybe you or one of your deputies can give him an initial call and then pass it off to your team,” Scissura wrote in an email sent Sept. 22, 2018.
Scissura reached out to Grillo about the site weeks later, with more urgency.
“I know he has some other potential tenants and I don’t want SCA to miss opportunities thanks again,” he wrote.
In that same email exchange, Scissura suggested he contact Gayle Mandaro, who ran real estate acquisitions for the SCA. Grillo politely shot it down.
“Carlo, you know I think the world of you but it would not be appropriate for you to speak with Gayle while negotiating,” she wrote on Nov. 14, 2018. “I promise to follow up with her to find out the latest and get back to you.”
District 20 in Brooklyn, which includes the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, is one of the most overcrowded school districts in the city.
Scissura, a former local school board member, has spoken openly about his involvement in getting schools built.
Throughout his emails with Grillo, he also mentions other properties owned by Ziss, including a lot at 7614 4th Avenue, that could be used for schools.
“Different part[s] of District 20 but also great,” he wrote in 2018. “Hoping someone can reach out to him.”
And the emails show that Ziss moved immediately to flip the property.
“Though[t] you should know that we are inches from signing the contract on the Nathan’s site!,” Grillo wrote to Scissura on Jan. 4, 2019, little more than two months after Ziss had bought the site. “Thank you for your help with this.”
Scissura kept going after the Nathan’s deal concluded. In October 2020, he emailed Grillo about a possible Bay Ridge school site. “The owner is really at his last breathe (sic) with holding the site” after other potential buyers showed interest, he wrote. It is unclear which site he was referring to.
“Can we get this moving and at least get him the contracts or even have your team…speak with him to get the ball rolling,” he wrote.
On Aug. 16, 2021, Ziss sold that former bank on 5th Avenue in Bay Ridge to the SCA for $21 million, after purchasing it in 2017 for $15 million, records show.
Demolition on the former Nathan’s building was finished in late December last year, and the school is set to open by 2024, according to the city.
In late 2021, New York Building Congress board members anonymously received a copy of the contract between Scissura and Ziss, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.
The contract was also sent along with a letter from a Building Congress insider expressing concern about the arrangement, those people said.
At a board meeting, Scissura assured the members he was no longer working with the developer, and he remains in charge of the trade organization.
Multiple board members of the Building Congress did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.