There’s a creepy link between the tangle of scandals swirling around City Hall and one of lower Manhattan’s longest-running real estate mysteries and his name is Jona Rechnitz.
Rechnitz, the “developer” who’s at the center of the scandals, was long involved with 23 Wall St. the triangular marble landmark at the corner of Broad Street that has sat vacant for 13 years, an embarrassing black hole amid teeming apartment and office towers.
Rechnitz was the head of acquisitions and dispositions for real estate giant Africa-Israel USA, owned then as now by diamond king Lev Leviev, when it sold in 2008 the 103-year-old former home of JPMorgan & Co. to an octopus-like combine of companies called China Sonangol.
After I wrote about 23 Wall St.’s curious condition in November 2014, Rechnitz, whom I did not know, called me to share “the story of your career” — namely, the “explosive truth” about the 2008 sale.
I was skeptical. For starters, Rechnitz reportedly won $75,000 on two Super Bowl bets that involved not merely picking the winner but predicting actual plays — such as a safety on the first play from scrimmage in Super Bowl XLVIII earlier that year.
And then there was JSR, the so-called development firm Rechnitz founded after leaving A-I that didn’t seem to have developed anything.
My alarm bells rang loudest when Rechnitz warned that “another New York paper” was ready to run the story he was hot to share with me.
That’s an old trick to stampede novice journos into writing a story before it’s sufficiently nailed down.
I agreed to meet Rechnitz nonetheless. I was surprised to find his real estate office at 580 Fifth Ave., a second-class diamond-industry tower with elevators that took me 20 minutes to reach his eighth-floor suite.
The rooms were filled with sports memorabilia plus photos of Rechnitz with Mayor de Blasio, with athletes and with high-ranking NYPD officials, including former Chief of Department Philip Banks.
When I mentioned that Banks had recently unexpectedly resigned, Rechnitz cryptically said, “You’ll be hearing more on him soon.”
Yup the same Banks who’s being probed for allegedly accepting money from Rechnitz in exchange for favors and travel fees.
Rechnitz proceeded to spin a cloak-and-dagger tale. He said Sam Pa, a shadowy mega-billionaire believed to control Sonangol, directed Sonangol to buy 23 Wall St. plus a chunk of an adjoining building for $150 million as a favor to his then-friend Leviev, who needed cash.
Yup — the same Leviev who supposedly enjoyed a police escort through the Lincoln Tunnel via a closed lane as part of the current scandal, and from whom cash was swindled and funneled to de Blasio’s election campaign in a scheme allegedly controlled by Rechnitz.
But, Rechnitz told me 18 months ago, Sonangol was somehow tricked into thinking it was actually buying, not the five-story 23 Wall St., but the 50-story Madison Square Park Clocktower — another landmark that is today the Edition by Marriott Hotel. The hocus-pocus was successful because Pa never saw the title papers until years later.
But wait, there’s more.
To make the story stick, Rechnitz staged a carefully choreographed floor show for me wheeling in a parade of characters to corroborate various strands of the yarn. He next made a series of speaker-phone calls to guys who weren’t supposed to know I was listening.
For further corroboration, he urged me to call some well-known New York dealmakers with unblemished records. Among them: Richard Marin, a former Bear Stearns investment banker who was for a time the CEO of A-I USA and is today the developer of the New York Wheel on Staten Island.
I tried to confirm this bizarre yarn but almost nothing Rechnitz told me held water.
Investment-sale brokers said it was impossible for Sonangol not to know which building it was buying. Marin did not even join Africa-Israel until after it had sold 23 Wall to Sonangol.
Rechnitz’s speaker-phone pals ran for cover when I called. And from that point on, so did Rechnitz. So the truth about 23 Wall remains a mystery to all except, perhaps, Sam Pa, the alleged victim of a world-class scam. But he’s in no position to talk. He was arrested by Chinese authorities last year on corruption charges and hasn’t been heard from since.