Valenti's Goes to Court
If you’re wondering why we’re still following the Valenti’s saga (begun here, with an innocuous takedown of a Janice Okun “review”, updated here, here, here, here, here, and here), it’s because the commentariat has weighed in well over 2,500 times. It’s generally the same 10 – 15 commenters adding details, accusations, and trading barbs, but I’ve received lots of positive feedback from people who remain riveted by how a mediocre red sauce joint could generate so much interest and hatred.
Terry Valenti and Lori Brocuglio took possession of the restaurant property in late September pursuant to a lease that commenced on October 1st. Their landlord, Frank Budwey, agreed to give them two free months’ rent, and also to pay deposits to National Fuel and National Grid to enable Valenti’s to turn those utilities on – they didn’t have the capital to do it.
The restaurant, however, wasn’t in Terry Valenti’s name. Instead, the property was co-owned by Brocuglio and an acquaintance of theirs named Melissa Janiszewski, who has since become estranged from them. There have been allegations made that Janiszewski’s credit and identity were deceitfully misappropriated. In North Tonawanda City Court yesterday, Ms. Janiszewski sat with Mr. Budwey.
Terry Valenti sat in the front row, with three people who were set to testify on the restaurant’s behalf. He was wearing a black button-down shirt, his head was uncovered, and he had shaven off his facial hair, leaving him almost unrecognizable. Ms. Brocuglio arrived soon thereafter, wearing a black specked suit and a red suede fringe jacket. When she sat down, she briefly spoke with their attorney, Mark Carney, and held up some sort of CD-ROM to one of their supporters and seemed proud of it for some reason.
Frank Budwey approached Carney and asked him if he had been paid. Carney replied that it was, “none of [his] business”, and Mr. Budwey retorted that he didn’t want Mr. Carney to waste his time. Under normal circumstances, a lawyer is not permitted to talk with a party opponent in any way, and had I been in Mr. Carney’s shoes I would have simply replied that I was not permitted to speak with Mr. Budwey, remained silent, or advised Budwey’s counsel of the approach.
Judge William Lewis presided over the rather informal eviction trial. Budwey’s attorney, James Rizzo, elicited testimony from Mr. Budwey about the non-payment of rent, now alleged to be $5,200. At one time, Brocuglio wrote Budwey a bad check for $3,000, a crime that is being contemporaneously prosecuted in North Tonawanda Court, and paid Budwey what he says was $500 cash in early January. However, the receipt for that cash shows $1,500 was received – Budwey claims that Brocuglio added the “1”. Judge for yourself:
Budwey testified that Valenti’s paid utilities for October and November, but not since. He testified that they have never been current on owed rent. On January 13th, Budwey terminated the lease by serving a 3-day notice to quit, and he filed the eviction action a week later.
However, Budwey claims that he crafts his leases to enable him to take self-help measures to secure the property and payment of rent if the tenant is 10 days in arrears. Under that provision, Budwey gives himself the right to enter and secure payment without the lease needing first to be terminated, and without any notice.
That’s exactly what Budwey did on January 11th – 11 days after the January rent was unpaid – he shut off the gas, blocked the doors, politely asked patrons to leave and offered to pay them cash, and wanted to prevent Valenti and Brocuglio the ability to destroy or loot the premises. The police were called, and Budwey relented. On cross-examination by Mr. Carney, Mr. Budwey acknowledged that he had recently changed the locks and the alarm codes. Mr. Carney’s questioning and demeanor were often argumentative (not that he was being rude, but that he was improperly making an argument during questioning), and at one point Carney and Rizzo got into a shouting match that was ended when Judge Lewis did a bit of yelling himself.
Carney made the point to the judge that he intended to remove the case to Supreme Court to pursue a claim against Budwey for self-help, seeking treble damages. Since that hadn’t been accomplished or applied for, Judge Lewis continued with the eviction proceeding.
The eviction is a simple action for Budwey to re-take possession of the unit, terminating the lease. There aren’t many defenses available to a commercial tenant in this situation – either the rent is paid, or it’s not. Valenti and Brocuglio’s claims about Budwey’s alleged illegal self-help are not defenses to the eviction, but a separate action for money damages. It is entirely possible that Budwey wins possession, but that he loses a subsequent trial for money damages in another venue. In speaking with Mr. Budwey, he indicates that he’d gladly pay to be forever rid of Valenti and Brocuglio, and he isn’t concerned about their threats of ongoing litigation.
At one point, I observed Mr. Budwey getting rather animated, requiring his attorney to shush him. I observed Mr. Budwey look directly at the seated Mr. Valenti, and ask him to “come on, speak up!” By contrast, Ms. Brocuglio was standing next to Mr. Carney the entire time, at one point looking back at Ms. Janiszewski and shaking her head at her. When Carney asked Budwey if the Valentis had abandoned the premises, Terry Valenti audibly said, “no”, and Ms. Brocuglio turned around and shushed him.
As Mr. Carney’s cross-examination was briefly halted, the judge sustained Mr. Rizzo’s objection over the line of questioning having to do with the lock-out. Rizzo argued that self-help is irrelevant for purposes of the eviction action, and based on the lease language, the judge agreed. However, the judge had to adjourn the proceeding because of a personal matter, and it will again be taken up at 11am on Tuesday.
As I waited to see if anyone would talk to me (unlikely as they’re all represented by counsel), Ms. Brocuglio approached me. She said, “hi, Alan”, adding, “I’m glad that now you’ve heard more of the story.” She told me that much of what people have left in comments here at Artvoice Daily are lies, and that this is all “from a divorce”. She refused to be interviewed on camera, and was whisked away to talk with her lawyer and supporters.
Before the proceeding, Budwey provided me with this document, which he says shows that even if Valenti’s was allowed to re-open, he’d still owe various creditors thousands.
Budwey told me that, when he went away to Jamaica, he offered to give Terry Valenti a second chance – a blank slate – all he had to do was keep Lori Brocuglio off the premises. Terry told Budwey that he would, but when Budwey left, Brocuglio was present at the restaurant every day. Before going COD with Tarantino and SYSCO, Valenti’s stocked up on over $10,000 of food, and supplemented that with Curtze, the last purveyor who would work with them. When the electric was shut off last week, all that food is now rotting, and the foam flame retardant system was deliberately activated by someone. Mr. Budwey clearly likes Terry Valenti and was willing to work with him, but he reserves a special hatred and disgust for Ms. Brocuglio; whenever he mentioned her name he used exquisitely colorful expletives.
If you pass by Valenti’s Restaurant now – a place that Janice Okun awarded 2 1/2 stars just 5 short week ago – a place supposedly run by an Iron Chef winner and CIA graduate, it now looks like this:
And had they not lied to Brian Kahle, Channel 7, and Janice Okun, no one would be paying them any attention.