WEST PALM BEACH — West Palm Beach city officials are under siege this week after black activists started flooding the phone lines of the mayor and commissioners with requests to deny New York City builder Charles Cohen the opportunity to develop one of downtown’s most sought-after vacant sites.
Cohen, the powerful billionaire owner of the old Carefree Theatre site on South Dixie Highway, is among a half dozen builders, lined up for a crack at the city-owned “Tent Site.”
That’s the large empty lot at the corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and North Dixie Highway that could translate into hundreds of millions in revenue for whoever the city picks to develop the land earmarked for offices, condos and stores.
But with the competition for downtown lots becoming cutthroat, Cohen’s background – including allegations of old-fashioned racism – has whipped up the city’s black community into a political frenzy.
Among the concerns raised by those who called City Hall were worries that Cohen would not hire minority contractors and workers if he wins the right to develop the land.
“I can confirm there have been phone calls made to the city asking elected officials to reject any proposal made by Cohen,” said a city employee who asked to remain anonymous.
Ever since Cohen proposed a controversial plan for the now-leveled Carefree, The Palm Beach Post has been enamored with his business sense, including his Manhattan-based Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation and a successful, Oscar-winning movie company that bankrolls independent films.
Cohen recently appears to have wined and dined a Postie who has written at least two glowing profiles of the guy within the past year.
One of the stories included great details about the 65-year-old’s expensive clothes: “It’s no surprise Cohen’s attire is selected with precision. For the business lunch, he wore a conservative Gucci blue pin-striped suit. For dinner, he donned a Loro Piana double-breasted sports jacket, transforming himself into the consummate Palm Beacher.”
While it might be easy for a second-rate reporters to fall under the spell of the polished Cohen, there’s the flip side of the coin.
And Gossip Extra, of course, has done the city’s residents the favor of taking a more professional, more in-depth, more jaundiced look at Cohen: We dug up a slew of court records from around the country that show Cohen in a not-so-Hollywood light.
Among other things, we found several of the items that concern black leaders. At least three federal lawsuits include references to Cohen’s alleged dislike of minorities, mostly African-Americans but also employees who become ill or disabled.
In one case, a civil rights violation lawsuit filed against Cohen and other defendants in a Los Angeles federal court in 2003 involved rapper Snoop Dogg and a party in a building owned by Cohen, the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.
According to the paperwork, the party was to be held by Mantra Films on Sept. 5, 2002, at Astra Pacific, a restaurant inside the Center.
Two days before the event, the lawsuit reads, the restaurant owners allegedly told Mantra Films, a company founded by Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis, that it couldn’t allow the event to take place because the landlord, Cohen, “doesn’t like black people.”
In the lawsuit, Mantra said it took the comment from the restaurant’s manager as “a blatant and unlawful reference to the race of the guest of honor, Snoop Dogg, and other attendees.”
The federal judge sent the case back to the Los Angeles’ state court system, where it was dismissed.
Still, there’s more.
In 2002, another federal action was filed in New York City where Cohen’s former driver and chief of security, Ansil Williams, claimed Cohen and Cohen Brothers Realty canned him because he, a black man, was dating a white woman who also worked for the company.
According to that lawsuit, Williams was fired in May 2000. Williams said he was discriminated against because of his dating habits. Cohen Brothers said he didn’t do his job.
In 2006, the lawsuit was dismissed after a judge decided Williams couldn’t prove racial discrimination.
In 2014, however, the R word was associated with Cohen’s name again in a third federal action, this time a white former top employee who said he was fired because of a slew of health problems.
Within that lawsuit brought by Barry Bernstein, a Cohen Brothers Realty general counsel from 2008 and 2012, Charles S. Cohen is accused of having no black employees in upper management.
“During the four-year period Mr. Bernstein was employed at Cohen Brothers,” the lawsuit reads, “Cohen Brothers did not employ any African Americans in its executive office.”
Gossip Extra called Cohen at his NYC office Monday, but he has not returned the call 24 hours later.
If you believe several other lawsuits filed against Cohen and Cohen Brothers, Cohen has no tolerance for workers who become ill and seek medical treatment, or become disabled.
Bernstein, for example, claims a pattern of harassment from Cohen and other top managers after he was diagnosed with a heart condition.
In his complaint, Bernstein cited a senior vice president telling him Cohen is “illogical” when it comes to his treatment of ill employees, including firings.
In time, Bernstein and Cohen reached an out-of-court settlement that remains confidential and the case was dismissed.
In 2010, former senior accountant Antonio Giglio sued Cohen Bros. for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Giglio was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four months after he was hired by Cohen Brothers in 2009, and claimed in the lawsuit Cohen Brothers made his life a living hell until he quit.
Among a slew of allegations, Cohen Brothers refused to lighten Giglio’s load when he underwent treatment. He, too, was fired.
The lawsuit was settled a few months after it was filed. The terms are confidential.
A Cohen Brothers vice president, Robert Harwood, also sued in 2013 after he was replaced upon his return from surgery for brain cancer.
The case also settled, but Harwood died just days before the settlement check was cut.
With city officials hearing from the community over just the past few days, it’s unclear whether Cohen, who owns several condos at The Breakers in Palm Beach, can remain in the running.