Controversy is swirling uptown, and at the center of it is a landmark restaurant. As the situation spins out of control it seems to echo a storyline from a “Law and Order” episode, as money, drugs and gangsters are part of the backdrop.
But this is not “Law and Order.” It is a real-life drama that has brought forth damaging allegations toward a well-known Harlem business owner, and may be putting lives at risk.
At the center of the dispute is Joseph Holland, an ordained minister, Republican-appointed former New York State housing commissioner, Harlem real estate dealmaker and restaurateur. Holland is a principal partner in Uptown Grand (formerly Gospel Uptown) with Thomas Lopez-Pierre, a Harlem real estate broker and former impresario of the controversial Harlem Club–a club which brought together high-earning Wall Street Black men and eligible young women of color. Articles about the Harlem Club appeared in the New York Times and he was featured in Essence Magazine and on CNN.
The two men are in an ongoing conflict over a $50,000 loan that Lopez-Pierre gave to Holland in May 2010 in order to save Uptown Grand, which was about to go under at the time. Lopez-Pierre has called in the loan, saying it was a real estate-secured loan and the real estate was being sold, but Holland claims that he has two years to pay Lopez-Pierre back according to the terms of their original agreement.
While from the outside the situation would appear to be just another Harlem deal gone bad, there is much more at stake than just money here. According to Lopez-Pierre, the money that he loaned Holland is linked to “Dominican hard money lenders” in Washington Heights, who operate essentially like loan sharks. Lopez-Pierre claims that these lenders–between whom and Holland he has acted as middleman–could take aggressive action against himself or Holland and that it could be a life or death situation for both.
The AmNews interviewed both Lopez-Pierre and Holland about the dispute, which has produced dozens of emails from Lopez-Pierre and a public relations campaign on the internet by Holland that has reached thousands of people over the last couple of months. The campaigns have been the talk of a wide cross-section of the New York Black community.
Lopez-Pierre is blunt and unapologetic in his position. “Joe Holland is a crook, a liar and false prophet,” he said. “The one thing I know for a fact is that Joe Holland is going to return the $50,000 to the Dominicans. The question is how much will it cost to get it returned?”
Holland said that he’s “terribly offended” by Lopez-Pierre and his aggressive tactics to get the money returned. He says Lopez-Pierre’s tactics are nothing more than a smear campaign and an attempt to extort money from him, and he now lives in fear for the safety of himself and family–Holland is married with three children. He is also an active member of Harlem’s Bethel Gospel Assembly Church, and is well known for the real estate deal he put together for the church that used church property to build a combination church/luxury residence at its Fifth Avenue and 120th Street location.
Holland says that Lopez-Pierre is misrepresenting their deal. “I think being afraid is putting in mildly. [Lopez-Pierre] has twisted the truth and made is seem like I have this debt with Dominican hard money lenders. It’s a total falsehood,” Holland said.
Holland and Lopez-Pierre met in April 2010, when Holland’s sister and business partner, Lucy Holland-Harden, and her husband, Robert Harden, hired Lopez-Pierre to rent out their 141st Street Harlem brownstone. Holland-Harden told Lopez-Pierre that she and Holland were looking for investors for Uptown Grand, which was already struggling. Holland said that he had looked at other possible investors to help the business, including the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and Carver Bank, but he couldn’t close a deal.
“Uptown Grand was launched in 2009 during the recession and the business had financial problems which we had been working through,” said Holland. “We put together an investment document and we were active in seeking potential investors from acquaintances, family members and colleagues.”
In order to save the restaurant, Lopez-Pierre said that he informed Holland that he had “Dominican associates” in Washington Heights that could loan him $50,000. Lopez-Pierre admits that the Dominicans likely made their money through the drug trade and that he serves as their broker.
“Think of it as an insurance salesman,” he said. “I have access to a lot of people who will lend hard money for certain deals. Due to Joe’s incompetent business management that was the only way.”
Lopez-Pierre describes the process as similar to “ordering a pizza,” where large sums of money were dropped in a car or picked up in garbage bags and transported to the receiver. But he also relates the dark side of doing such deals. “The Dominicans failure rate on their payback is only 5 percent. 95 percent of loans are paid. If you don’t pay them, they will kill you.”
On May 1, 2010, an investment contract was drawn up explaining the conditions of the loan. The contract, obtained by the AmNews, indicates that the $50,000 loan came from Lopez-Pierre Realty, LLC, and no other sources in the 14 outlined provisions. One of the provisions indicates that Holland’s company had two years to pay the loan back and that Lopez-Pierre would receive 2 percent ownership in Uptown Grand.
But Holland claims that Lopez-Pierre was not completely honest when he lent him the money. “When he made the investment, he represented that it was his own money,” Holland said. “He made no mention of anybody else. No mention of Dominicans or hard money lenders. This is reflected in the agreement where, the only entity is Thomas Lopez-Pierre.”
Holland added that Lopez-Pierre told him that he got the $50,000 from money he made in real estate, having had a couple of good years closing some big deals and wanting to start investing.
Lopez-Pierre tells a different tale, saying Holland knew every detail about the Dominican lenders. He says that he never misrepresented his own personal finances, that his average annual income is only $40,000 and that he lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife and three children and could not produce such a large amount of money so quickly.
“He knew from day one that I had associates in Washington Heights that could loan him the money. He knew what the deal was,” Lopez-Pierre said.
However, according to Lopez-Pierre, the $50,000 was not the only loan Holland asked for. Lopez-Pierre said that Holland asked for an additional $12,000 to pay the mortgage on his tony Yonkers house and his children’s private school tuition. Lopez-Pierre presented a document to the AmNews he said was written by Holland outlining payments for that loan.
Holland denies ever taking more than $50,000.
Lopez-Pierre said that while the original investment agreement contract does outline that Holland’s company has two years to pay back the $50,000 loan, another provision states that two liens filed by Lopez-Pierre were secured by two properties; a brownstone owned by Holland-Harden and her husband on Lenox Ave and a condo owned by Holland, Holland-Harden and her husband.
The contract also states that no additional debt could be placed on the condo and brownstone without prior written consent and that the $50,000 had to be returned once one of the properties were sold. Lopez-Pierre said that, since the contract was signed, the brownstone was sold for $1.1 million and that he has not received any of the money.
After Lopez-Pierre and Holland made their original loan deal, Holland also hired Lopez to help manage the nightlife at Uptown Grand. Holland said that Lopez-Pierre worked there only six weeks before being let go for what he called “obnoxious behavior” toward customers. However, Lopez-Pierre said that while he did work there as a paid employee for six weeks, he stayed on as an interested investor and was up at the restaurant/nightspot several times a week, and worked to steer events toward the venue.
During that time, Lopez-Pierre said that he observed illegal activities going on at Uptown Grand, including underage drinking, drug sales and use, fire code violations and a number of fights. While planning events for clients who wanted to use Uptown Grand, he said Holland–who is an ordained conservative minister–didn’t allow any homosexual events and referred to people as “hood rats.”
Lopez-Pierre also accuses Holland of not reporting liquor sales on taxes and violating liquor license laws which require that receipts of alcohol are provided for all purchases. His allegations also include that several employees at Uptown Grand were not paid, including one who is currently suing Holland in civil court. A final and explosive allegation by Lopez-Pierre is about an alleged taped conversation between Holland and a former employee, in which Holland asks her to abort a baby that she claims Holland had fathered. Holland denied the last charge, but Lopez-Pierre claims he has access to the tape.
Lopez-Pierre gives a simple explanation for his outspoken tactics in the case. “Joe thinks he’s special,” he said. “People need to know who this man is. My aim is to publicly inform the community.”
In his interview with the AmNews, Holland denied all of Lopez-Pierre’s allegations about any shenanigans going on at Uptown Harlem, recalling only a few times that police were called to his venue over typical incidents for any nightclub. As far as drug use goes, Holland said that anyone seen using drugs was immediately escorted out. Holland firmly stated that any claim of an affair with an employee is false.
Holland said, “It’s so outrageous to make allegations and have no basis for it at all. He talked to someone that has a tape–not only did I not have an affair with an employee, but there was never a discussion with an employee about an abortion and a cover up.”
On Nov. 26, 2010, Lopez-Pierre, Holland, Holland-Harden and Harden had a meeting in which Lopez-Pierre alleges he was told that Holland was selling the company and wanted to buy him out. Holland alleges that at the meeting Lopez-Pierre demanded the $50,000 and was then informed for the first time that the Lopez-Pierre’s money came from Dominican hard money lenders.
In the days following the meeting Lopez-Pierre began his internet barrage, sending out a series of e-mails chronicling the events as they unfolded from his perspective that he says went to 50,000 people. Reports of the emails came to the attention of the Amsterdam News editorial staff, and the ages of those involved in the discussion ranged from 20-somethings to 60-somethings. Lopez-Pierre kept no details secret in his accounting of the events, including the involvement of the Dominicans. He also warned people not to invest with Holland.
Holland brought the e-mails to the attention of the Manhattan DA who has been monitoring the situation and has contacted Lopez-Pierre three times, according to Lopez-Pierre. Holland also went to the NYPD.
An e-mail sent out on Feb. 14 by Lopez Pierre titled: “I killed Joseph Holland at His Church, Bethel Gospel Assembly (In My Dream)” prompted the DA’s office to arrest Lopez-Pierre the next day. He was placed in central booking for 24 hours before he made bail. He was charged with two counts of third-degree stalking and six counts of second-degree aggravated assault. Lopez-Pierre believes that Holland’s political connections led to his arrest.
Holland denies having any connections with the Manhattan DA’s office or the NYPD, stating that he feared for his and his family’s lives. Holland and his family are currently suing Lopez-Pierre for $1 million for defamation, harassment and intentional infliction of emotional harm. Holland has filed a temporary order of protection against Lopez-Pierre.
Lopez-Pierre, in turn, is suing Holland for fraud. Both men appeared in court this week concerning the arrest.