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"I think a lot of people in any neighborhood wouldn't read all the fine print," Harman says, "but especially when he was targeting first-time home buyers, many of whom were, like, right out of public housing; folks were just not familiar with this process at all."
When signing the leases, tenants unknowingly waived their rights to live in houses that met New York's standards and, in some cases, were not made aware of the presence of lead paint in their homes.
Housing officials soon complained that Wizig routinely ignored numerous violations and hired inept and often unlicensed repairmen to do the work.
"He is the biggest slumlord we've ever seen in Buffalo," city housing court representative Frank DeJames told The Buffalo News in January 2002.
By the end of the year, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued Wizig. An AG's report from 2003 stated that Wizig's homes "frequently had failed heating systems, no water or gas, inoperable toilets, leaking roofs, collapsed ceilings and exposed electrical wiring -- all of which are violations of housing codes. Wizig's leases and rental contracts contained illegal provisions that held tenants responsible for repairs he was legally required to make and forced tenants to pay double the cost of repairs he performed."
Wizig eventually settled with the AG's office, agreeing to pay $50,000 in repairs, rental credits, rescinded mortgages, restitution and investigative costs.
But in Buffalo's housing court, Wizig faced jail time as well as fines. Prosecutors had charged Wizig's company, NY Liberty Homes, LLC, with ten violations each on 100 properties, amounting to 1,000 violations.
As the corporation's sole managing member, Wizig himself could be penalized for the violations, according to city prosecutor Lenora Foote.
Buffalo's housing laws allow for 15 days in jail per violation, to run consecutively. Wizig faced 41 years in jail. However, the city's housing court has jurisdiction only in Erie County, meaning Wizig would never spend a day in jail as long as he stayed out of the county.
But Wizig settled with the city in the same way he settled with the state attorney general. His attorneys entered guilty pleas on behalf of NY Liberty Homes on about 200 violations.
Under the terms of the settlement, NY Liberty Homes was required to establish a $200,000 repair fund, Foote says. The city also forced him to set aside an additional $175,000 if the repairs weren't completed within six months (and they weren't).
Harman believes the city let him off easy. She says many residents thought he was worse for the neighborhood than the small-time drug dealers they always fought.
"He did more damage to the neighborhood than a lot of the young kids that get busted for selling once or twice," she says. "And this guy still is a businessman."
But Foote says the penalties encouraged Wizig to get out of Buffalo.
"We don't really object to him selling, because we'd rather somebody else have it than him, because he's been such a detriment to our city," Foote says. "The faster he's out of here, the better."
Wizig started by selling 98 blighted homes for $1 to something called the Nonprofit Training Institute, ostensibly located in an Atlanta suburb, run by Jacquelyn Johnson and Willie Johnson (no relation), a self-described minister who also goes by Willie Muhammad.
The NTI has only a post office box number and a Web site with stock photography and little mention of what the organization actually does. The phone number listed on the Web site rings up an answering service, but when the Houston Press tracked down Jacquelyn Johnson, she refused to explain what, how or who the institute trained. Although the NTI incorporated in 1999, a LexisNexis search on the institute did not turn up any stories other than the institute's relationship with Wizig.
According to The Buffalo News, Willie Johnson provided credentials to the city showing that he previously worked as a high school math teacher and as an exporter of chickens slaughtered according to Islamic rites. He also said he sold herbal supplements.
Buffalo officials say the NTI has done nothing to improve the properties it bought from Wizig.
Here's where things get a little weird: One of the properties the NTI bought from Wizig was a former Catholic church, built in 1928. Last May, an Amherst minister named Perry Davis said he bought the church from NTI and planned to restore it with community donations. But he quickly vanished, and so did 13 of the church's stained-glass windows. Some of the windows ultimately turned up on eBay, where a Miami church offered to buy them for $4,950. Buffalo police confiscated the windows.
A subsequent records check revealed that Davis never owned the church. It was owned by Houston real estate developer Jim Youngblood. Only Youngblood didn't know it.
"What am I going to do with a church in New York?" Youngblood says from his HomeVestors office. "All I did was give a guy a loan for a lien on the church, and the next thing I know, some guy named Reverend Davis is selling off windows."
Youngblood says he lent Willie Johnson $30,000 to take care of the church's lien. Suddenly Johnson had deeded the title to him and skipped town, leaving Youngblood $30,000 short and owning a property he didn't want.