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Co-op board at ritzy Upper East Side building is mob-style ‘racket,’ couple claims in explosive RICO lawsuit

A mafia-style war is brewing at a swanky Upper East Side co-op whose rich and famous residents include Hollywood royalty, a sports legend’s scion and one of the Rockefellers.
Two longtime residents of the soaring pre-war building on Museum Mile claim in a new lawsuit that the co-op board runs the place with mob-like tactics — including allegedly “conspiring” to hire its president’s cousin for a $500,000 shoddy elevator facelift and freezing out dissenters.
“A racket has been operating for over a decade in plain view and with impunity on a tony stretch of upper Fifth Avenue,” states the suit filed by Elizabeth Sawyer, who has lived at the 15-story tower overlooking Central Park with her husband, Clifford Press, for three decades.
“Hidden behind the limestone façade of a Museum Mile neoclassical is a corrupt group of entrenched cooperative directors who are exploiting the corporation by their criminal and other bad acts,” the lawsuit alleges.
The Manhattan Supreme Court filing aims to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) — the law designed for prosecutors to use to go after the mob — to oust the board of ritzy 1120 Fifth Avenue, where apartments have been sold in recent years for $4-$15 million.
“Racketeering enterprises are not confined to the docks of Brooklyn or the markets of the Bronx,” the couple claims in the theatrical suit, filed Tuesday.
The suit names 13 current and former members of the board as defendants, including its ex-president John Breglio — an entertainment attorney who once represented legendary Broadway choreographer and “A Chorus Line” writer Michael Bennett.
Others include Steve Greenberg, a powerhouse sports dealmaker and the son of Jewish baseball legend Hank “The Hebrew Hammer” Greenberg, and Mary Morgan, a psychotherapist and the daughter of former New York governor and US Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller.
The board has since 2012 run the classy doorman building as their “personal fiefdom” and hand-picked new members without holding open elections — ensuring that “any dissenters are frozen out,” the suit claims.
4 A mafia-style war is brewing at a swanky Upper East Side co-op whose rich and famous residents include Hollywood royalty, a sports legend’s scion and one of the Rockefellers. Robert Miller
Among the litany of other claims in the 48-page suit is that Breglio allegedly pushed a “wasteful and unnecessary” elevator repair project — which cost about $500,000 — to a company owned by his cousin in September 2018. In return, the then-board president allegedly got a kickback of more than $1,000, the suit claimed.
But things didn’t work out as planned — and the lifts now break down “on such a frequent basis that they have become a hazard to families and children,” the suit alleges.
The board also allegedly tried to extort a separate resident into returning a $300,000 settlement he’d received from it — after he’d sued them for stopping renovations on his apartment — to help pay for the building’s ballooning insurance costs, the suit claims.
Press, 70, told The Post in an interview Thursday that he “was shocked, completely, by the extent of the venality and self-dealing” at his building.
But an attorney for the board fired back with a statement calling the lawsuit “frivolous” and a form of harassment.
4 Clifford Ross (pictured) and his wife Elizabeth Sawyer claim their co-op board is run like the Mafia. Robert Miller
“This meritless lawsuit was brought by a disgruntled co-op resident for the sole purpose of harassing her neighbors, who voluntarily serve the building on the co-op’s board,” attorney Michael Pensabene, of the firm Rosenberg & Estis, told The Post.
“This is a flagrant abuse of judicial process and we are confident that this frivolous complaint will be promptly dismissed.”
The 44-unit co-op at Fifth Avenue and East 93rd Street, built in 1923, is “one of Manhattan’s most desirable residences” and boasts “elegant entrance ways” and “distinguished moldings,” real estate listings say.
Actor Michael J. Fox and his wife, the actress Tracey Pollan, own a unit in the building as well, and the late Oscar-winner Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward once lived together in the complex’s sprawling penthouse.
A four-bedroom four-bathroom unit on the eighth floor — featuring spectacular views of the Central Park Reservoir — sold last month for $13.7 million, according to the real estate site StreetEasy.
4 The 44-unit co-op at Fifth Avenue and East 93rd Street, built in 1923, is “one of Manhattan’s most desirable residences” and boasts “elegant entrance ways” and “distinguished moldings,” real estate listings say. Robert Miller
But within the building’s posh exterior, the bad blood between Press, Sawyer and the board has been bubbling for years, the suit states.
The board tried in vain to boot the couple, who met at Harvard Business School and both once worked at Morgan Stanley, from the building during the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2021 — claiming that Sawyer had blocked a fire exit by storing water jugs in a stairwell and that Press had kicked another resident’s dog, drawing blood, the suit claims.
The dog assault claim was “knowingly false” and “in fact, Mr. Press is well-known in the building for his commitment to, and affection for, dogs,” the suit states of the business executive, who owns a Jack Russell terrier named Willa.
The board also “conspired to hire a private investigator to try to dig up evidence that Mr. Press, who was raised in South Africa, was a racist who engaged in unethical business practices,” claims the suit, filed by attorney Christopher Milito of Morrison Cohen LLP.
“Our client did not undertake this action lightly, but will not stand idle any longer in the face of organized and systematic shareholder oppression,” Milito said in a statement.
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Court records show that Press has been embroiled in a series of legal tussles over the years.
In December 2022, a press release issued by investment firm Acacia Research Corp, where Press had been serving as CEO, claimed he resigned after an internal probe found that he “misused corporate funds for personal use” and “made substantial charitable donations in his own name using corporate funds.”
But Press fired back against Acacia in a suit filed in Delaware court. Acacia agreed in September 2023 to pay him $1.25 million as part of a settlement, a Securities and Exchange Commission filing shows.
Press also sued United Airlines in 2012, claiming that he was wrongfully detained for 30 minutes at LaGuardia Airport after getting into a scuffle during a flight from Denver with a Black flight attendant who described him as “disruptive” and a “security threat” — but who he claimed “became aggressive and domineering” towards him after identifying him as a “white South African.” The case was settled in 2013, and the terms were not disclosed.
4 “We have a very nice, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful building here and we’re very proud of it,” said David Clossey, the board’s current secretary, who is named in the suit. Robert Miller
In the late 1990s, Press and Sawyer were swept up in yet another legal imbroglio after their neighbors at a Pennsylvania housing complex complained about 20 chickens they kept as pets on their property, including “their ceaseless clucking” and “foul odor,” according to court records. The case was later settled, Press said.
Sawyer and Press are seeking an unspecified amount in damages, as well as attorney fees in their claim against the co-op board. They also want the court to order that all the defendants must abdicate the board — and be barred from holding future positions.
“This is all nonsense. I’m one of a group of volunteer directors who devote their time to making sure the building is run correctly and that’s what we do. We have a very nice, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful building here and we’re very proud of it,” said David Clossey, the board’s current secretary, who is named in the suit.
“Totally, totally absurd,” he told The Post about the claims that the board is run like a racket.
Breglio, the former board president, did not return messages Thursday. Greenberg said he couldn’t discuss pending litigation and Morgan was unavailable for comment.
RICO has been used to go after co-op boards before. In 1994, then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau charged more than 80 real-estate managers and companies — including at luxury buildings lining Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue — with racketeering laws for allegedly accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks from contractors and suppliers, records show.
Additional reporting by Steve Janoski

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