Harendra Singh, the Long Island restaurateur indicted on federal charges of bribing an Oyster Bay official, donated thousands of dollars to Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign and won appointments to join business leaders and celebrities on three mayoral committees as well as the advisory board of a city-led philanthropy.
But Singh and his wife, Ruby, are battling city lawyers who are trying to evict the couple's Queens waterfront restaurant from city property, alleging it owes $1.4 million in rent underpayments and late fees.
Singh's family and associates also gave tens of thousands of dollars to de Blasio for his 2013 election campaign. De Blasio representatives declined several times to answer questions about the mayor's relationship with the concessionaire. They won't say whether Singh ever sought help from the administration to protect the business.
The Water's Edge along the East River in Long Island City, which has been transferred to his wife's name, has been a sought-after setting for weddings and political events, including two de Blasio campaign fundraisers. The mayor's 2013 campaign spent a total of $2,613 there on March 2, 2011, and Oct. 12, 2013, records show.
Move to evict
The city is moving in state Supreme Court in Queens to evict the Singhs' company, Quinn Restaurant Corp., before its lease is up in 2017. A 2014 audit by the city found the rent payments, which are based on a formula using revenue, had been improperly calculated since 2009.
Joseph Goldberg, a Singh attorney in the Water's Edge case, argued in legal filings that the city's calculations are incorrect and that the restaurant has made a good-faith effort to pay back rent, but negotiations with the city over the alleged arrears broke down early this year.
Goldberg and a criminal defense lawyer for Singh, Anthony La Pinta, declined to comment.
Singh, 56, of Laurel Hollow was arrested last month on charges of using checks made out to cash and a luxury-car lease to bribe a then-Oyster Bay employee, identified by several sources as former Deputy Town Attorney Frederick Mei, in exchange for the town's guarantee of $20 million in loans for two businesses that provide food concessions. He also is accused of fraudulently collecting nearly $1 million in federal disaster aid by falsely reporting superstorm Sandy damage to Water's Edge. Singh pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Newsday stories have chronicled how Singh cultivated relationships with Long Island public officials, including paying for trips to the Caribbean and Asia and allegedly providing free meals for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and others. A Mangano aide and lawyer dispute that he got free meals or travel. Mangano has not been charged with wrongdoing.
Singh's food service business is centered on H.R. Singletons in Bethpage, which he has also transferred to his wife's name. Additionally, he operates concessions at a town golf course and beaches.
A Newsday analysis of campaign finance data found at least $54,651 in donations to de Blasio's mayoral campaign and transition committee made by Singh; his wife; his father, Rajesh; his mother, Rajeshwari; and people Singh bundled contributions from as a fundraising intermediary.
The Singh-linked donors also include a son and a daughter of close friend Kamlesh Mehta, the Mangano-appointed Nassau director of business and economic development, and two Mehta family members. According to city records, the 39 contributions were made between December 2010 and December 2013.
A Nov. 6, 2013, photo album, posted on the Water's Edge Facebook page and since deleted, congratulated de Blasio on his election and said the restaurant was "privileged to host one of his fundraising events."
Prime committee spots
Singh was named to prestigious posts by de Blasio's team: the committee to finance and plan his January 2014 inauguration, the committee backing the city's ultimately failed bid to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention and the UPKNYC campaign committee, supporting universal prekindergarten. He served among dozens of VIPs such as actress Cynthia Nixon, developer Bruce Ratner and Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein.
Singh also was recruited to serve on the advisory board to the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, a public-private partnership that is chaired by first lady Chirlane McCray. Its members include Nixon, Ratner, Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon and developers Jerry Speyer and Rob Speyer.
Mayor's fund spokeswoman Elizabeth DeBold said the nonprofit immediately suspended Singh upon learning about his Sept. 9 arrest and indictment.
Asked whether Singh's donations to de Blasio will be returned, a spokesman for the campaign, Dan Levitan, said the 2013 account is already closed. The campaign is raising funds for de Blasio's 2017 re-election bid.
Levitan declined to comment on the mayor's relationship to Singh. Mayoral spokeswoman Ishanee Parikh had referred questions about the relationship to the campaign.
Singh and his network of donors also gave $1,750 to the 2013 and 2017 campaigns of Public Advocate Letitia James, and $2,200 to the 2009 and 2013 campaigns of City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer.
James has "no relationship" with Singh, spokeswoman Anna Brower said. Her team is looking into a $500 donation for 2017 from Mehta.
Van Bramer said in an interview that he met Singh at events at Water's Edge, which is in the councilman's district. Singh talked with him by phone and in person in December or January about the unpaid rent, but did not ask anything of Van Bramer and never contacted him again, the councilman said.
The restaurant has been struggling since Singh acquired it in 2009. Sales dropped by half within three years, from $5.5 million to $2.7 million, a city audit showed.
'Always had a problem'
In court papers, Singh lawyers attributed the declining revenue to Sandy and the city's demolition of a pier popular as a photo backdrop for wedding parties and a docking point for boats and ferries.
An employee who left Water's Edge after Singh's arrest told Newsday that lately, the restaurant was being run by a skeleton crew, food purveyors weren't being paid, necessary maintenance wasn't being done and paychecks were late and sometimes bounced.
"They've always had a problem with paychecks here and there, but it wasn't as bad as it was this year," said the former employee, who requested anonymity because of continuing work in the food industry.
The troubles surrounding Water's Edge have upset couples who booked weddings there. A woman who planned to marry early next year told Newsday she is seeking to recoup her $5,000 deposit and has booked another venue. The bride, who spoke anonymously because she doesn't want to jeopardize her refund, said a restaurant manager told her he couldn't guarantee that Water's Edge would still be open. Ruby Singh emailed the bride to say they were doing everything they could to make her wedding a great day.
"I've been going to this restaurant all my life," said the bride, a Queens resident. "I was fuming when this first happened. I want my money back."