AG James had no authority to charge Joseph Makhani: court

A Manhattan developer accused by Attorney General Letitia James of stealing two $4 million Harlem brownstones is now off the hook after a state appeals panel found the embattled prosecutor lacks jurisdiction to take the case.

Under the law, James was not allowed to press charges of deed and mortgage fraud against alleged fraudster Joseph Makhani, the Supreme Court’s First Judiciary Division found – because the case was referred to them by an official in the New York court system.

Instead, referrals to the attorney general must come “from only one agency” within the state’s executive branch, the five-member panel wrote Nov. 17.

It is the second time this year that James – who is already under fire from critics for allegedly covering up allegations of sexual harassment against her own chief of staff for political ends – has thrown out a high-profile criminal case of hers on legal grounds.

Joseph Makhani has been accused of stealing two Harlem Brownstones.
Joseph Makhani has been accused of stealing two Harlem Brownstones.
Maple Street Community Garden/Fa

In February 2021, James filed a lawsuit against Amazon, alleging the e-commerce giant failed to protect its workers from COVID-19 and also hit out at those who had raised safety concerns.

That case was thrown out by the First Department of Justice on the grounds that it should have been tried in federal court, not the Attorney General, because it involved federal labor laws.

Jaime Lathrop, a Brooklyn-based criminal defense attorney, said the latest appeals decision shows that James’ office — along with the state court system — went too far in handling the Makhani case.

“It’s not just a step across the border; it’s that they clearly exceeded their authority in pursuing this,” Lathrop said.

One of the brownstones is now worth $2 million.
One of the brownstones is now worth $2 million.

Peter Tilem, a former Manhattan prosecutor who is now a criminal defense attorney, said: “They seem to be stretching, or trying to stretch, the boundaries of their jurisdiction. … She’s the top attorney in New York State and should be aware of which cases she can and can’t bring.”

The decision indicated that lawmakers should expand the jurisdiction of the attorney general’s office, said another Big Apple attorney.

James’ “heart was in the right place trying to protect people whose homes were being stolen,” said Ravi Batra.

One of the Kings Point, Long Island brownstones, Makhani, is accused of stealing the property of an elderly woman named Veronica Palmer, who was left homeless by the alleged dirty deeds. Makhani is accused of using forged deeds and other fraudulent paperwork to bring West 118th Street home – and only offering her $10, which she never got.

The house is now worth more than $2 million.

Palmer returned home one day to find the doors locked. She was believed to be living in a homeless shelter at the time the Attorney General indicted her.

A successful prosecution of Makhani could help Palmer, who would likely have to sue in civil court to get her house back.

This isn’t Makhani’s first run-in with the law. In 1998, he and his brother were among 25 real estate agents who pleaded guilty to a massive foreclosure bid-rigging scheme in Queens.

A lawyer for Makhani welcomed the appeal decision, saying the case was “rightly dismissed”.

“The Attorney General went well beyond her jurisdiction to bring a case based on events that happened a decade ago. Virtually all key witnesses have died and there was extreme prejudice against Mr Makhani when he indicted him on the basis of these very old allegations. We hope that the Attorney General in New York will move on to more topical issues,” said Attorney Susan Necheles.

Messages with James’ office were also not answered.

The Manhattan Attorney’s Office “is aware of the decision and is monitoring developments in the case,” said spokeswoman Emily Tuttle. AG James had no authority to charge Joseph Makhani: court


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