Tracey Siesser, former board president
Forest Hills, Queens
When the board president tells you that the co-op bounced a $10 check, you know you’ve got trouble.
It was 2010, and Tracey Siesser, a longtime shareholder at The Forester in Forest Hills, Queens, had completed a kitchen renovation. As required by the rules of the 79-unit co-op, Siesser had sent the manager a $500 renovation deposit. When the work was done, she asked for her deposit back. The co-op sent her a check. It bounced. She complained, and the board said, “No problem. ”
“They sent me another check for $10 for the bounced check fee,” recalls Siesser. “That bounced. A $10 check bounced.” Uh oh. Siesser soon found out why: Michael Richter, principal at Charter Management (the co-op’s property management company), was a crook.
Siesser’s cousin Jim Samson, a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow, just happened to be the attorney for the building. After he heard about the bounced $10 check, Samson began an investigation and discovered that the National Cooperative Bank wouldn’t take checks from Richter anymore. He had bounced so many of them that the bank now insisted on wire transfers. In addition, the employees’ union had been complaining because the co-op hadn’t been paying required benefits for its unionized employees. There were also two or three cutoff notices from the gas company.
“Later on, I found out that Richter had bounced the checks on the insurance and had gotten the insurance canceled,” Samson says. “It was a horror show. He had stolen every penny of the operating funds.”
In the aftermath of that scandal, the board was voted out of office. A new board, helmed by Siesser, took over, and immediately collected the bounced checks from the shareholders – Richter had destroyed or “lost” all of the building’s management and bank records – and turned them over to the district attorney’s office. “We laid out all our stuff,” Samson recalls, “and they indicted the little bastard. He served three to five [years in prison].”
Siesser, who says she “was never intending to be on the board, and was certainly never intending to be board president,” admits that she took on the task because of the problems in the building and her concern for the future of her investment.
Her feelings are understandable. She has lived in the Forester for 30 years. “It was my first apartment when I was out of college,” she says. “It was a nice one-bedroom. And I could afford it.”
Her board tenure began with a mopping-up operation. “We had just gotten rid of Richter, and then I came on the board and we had to clean up a lot of problems that were left behind.”
One important point, says Siesser: “We were able to prove that he stole from us. We were actually fairly fortunate. Since we were able to prove it, we also got the money back on our insurance.”
But that wasn’t the only issue. “We had other problems. We had an ongoing lawsuit that had to be worked on. Then we had various capital projects in the building.”
Siesser left the board recently and notes that “it was a very interesting experience. You learn a great deal about what’s involved in the building’s operations. Anyone who doesn’t understand just how complicated it is and how many moving parts there are and thinks that things aren’t going well should join the board. Maybe they can make it better, or maybe they can just get a better understanding of why certain things are the way they are.”
Siesser, who works in software engineering, feels that “experiences in business in general are helpful, because the co-op is a business. One nice thing is camaraderie with the other board members. Getting to know people in the building. It feels more like a community.”
The most frustrating thing about board service? “The shareholders don’t recognize how much work we do. They think that we’re management, like in a rental building. There’s not enough heat, they blame us for that, [as though] we’re trying to do something terrible to the people in the building. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute. We live here, too. It’s not our fault.’”