By CASEY CROUCHER
Amsterdam officials are questioning the credibility of a local Buddhist organization that has sold a volume of properties to a mysterious corporation in the past several the years.
Mayor Ann Thane said she and other city officials suspect the World Peace and Health Organization created a "shell corporation" known as Sunlight Recycling Co. Ltd. to avoid tax payments and court proceedings.
In 2010, the WPHO purchased 48 properties during a city-wide auction. The group intended to renovate them and improve the city, spokeswoman Jennie Wong said.
However, after a series of copper pipe burglaries in the structures, the organization decided to abandon its original plan, and sold a majority of the properties for $1 each to Sunlight Recycling Co. Ltd. in 2011.
Thane said the corporation uses addresses of abandoned buildings; properties that should be demolished, and city officials have not been able to contact the corporation's owners.
Currently, the corporation owns 36 city properties, while the WPHO's leader, Master Ziguang Shang Shi, whose legal name is Lucas Wang, owns two.
Because city officials have speculated that the Buddhist organization created Sunlight Recycling Co., Thane said she has inquired multiple times to find out who runs it.
"I've tried to find out who they are, but the WPHO won't give me any information in that regard," Thane said. "They tell me 'well, we don't know the guy' so it's just very suspect."
Controller Matthew Agresta said Sunlight has never paid any taxes on any of the properties it owns. Of the 29 properties Agresta identified this morning, he said there is at least $20,000 in back taxes owed.
"Every bill we send out comes back to us," he said.
The group denies knowledge of the issue, and after being questioned about the allegations, it scheduled a press conference at its headquarters in Auriesville Tuesday.
Among other things, it references an ongoing legal issue over road access with the nearby Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs.
"The purposes of this press conference are to express our urgent needs of help, enable the public to understand our unfavorable condition, and how our future plans of blooming local tourism and economy will be adversely affected because of the unexpected road damages and roads blocking recently made by our Jesuit neighbor," the release said.
Thane said there have been a number of suspect actions by the group since it purchased the properties, half of which were on the city's demolition list.
She wants the public to know the city tried to help advise the organization on how to renovate the properties so they could achieve their goals.
She said staff from multiple departments were involved in the effort -- code enforcement officers, staff from the engineering department, plumbing inspectors, members of the assessor's office, and her own office.
Thane said the auction instructions were very clear: that people should have done a walk-through of the properties, and they should have understood what they were getting into when they purchased the properties.
However, both Thane and code enforcement officer Thomas McQuade said the group didn't do its due diligence in terms of researching the properties before they were purchased.
"All of the information was available and the properties were open for that, but this group bought a bunch of property without checking them out closely," Thane said. "The city has done backflips to try to address their questions and concerns and to be of any assistance with this as we could to them. We really tried to help."
McQuade said his department prepared paperwork for buyers during the time of the auction. He said he urged people to view the properties they were thinking of buying "not just from the exterior, but from the interior, so that they full-well knew what they were getting into."
McQuade, however, doesn't think Wang looked closely at the properties he bought.
The deeds of buildings on the city's demolition list detail a specific amount of time to either get a building permit to renovate, or to obtain a demolition permit, and have them completed one way or another within one year, McQuade said.
In one of the letters written by Thane and the Codes Department, dated Oct. 13, 2010, they advised the organization to hire an experienced contractor "for technical assistance with [their] properties to help save [them] time and money in the process of rehabilitating [their] properties."
The letter said each property would need to meet the state's minimum code requirements and "it would benefit [them] to have this experienced contractor also coordinate the rehabilitation on each of the properties, given their numerous and various deficiencies."
A month later, Nov. 18, 2010, Thane and the Codes Department sent a similar letter to the organization again, advising them to get a contractor, and reminding them that a lot of the renovations they planned to do required permits and licenses.
Thane said they never hired a contractor, and McQuade said because a lot of the properties weren't being maintained properly, he started court proceedings with the group.
Thane said they couldn't keep up with the taxes on the properties so they sold them to Sunlight Recycling Co.
"In the end, they threw their hands up and started complaining about the properties, and then they turned these properties over to what we see as a shell corporation, which is fraud," she said. "It's just very frustrating and disappointing because we really went to bat for them here at city hall and in the media."
McQuade also speculates the WPHO created Sunlight Recycling Co. When he visited the New York Department of State's website for corporations, the addresses that were given as the main office for that corporation's headquarters are some of the vacant properties the WPHO purchased and sold.
On the Department of State website, the corporation's headquarters are listed as 5-7 Vedder St., with the chief executive officer listed as Ming Sheng Mo.
The building is vacant, and there is no contact information for Mo, and no one has been able to contact him.
"In order to not have to go to court anymore, that's when they formed this corporation called Sunlight Recycling Co. Ltd.," McQuade said. "So, essentially they created a dummy corporation, so if there were any notices of violations sent to the headquarters, they come back to us as undeliverable."
McQuade said any court papers sent to those addresses via the Department of State would be returned because those properties are vacant.
"The only thing the city has been able to do with those properties has been getting the Department of Public Works to either secure them, cut the vegetation and clean up debris at the taxpayers' expense until some of those properties are foreclosed on again, because for some of the properties, they've stopped paying taxes and on other properties, they never paid taxes to begin with," he said.
McQuade said the city tried helping the WPHO from the beginning but they "didn't listen."
"From the beginning, we must have had at least seven meetings where we met with Lucas Wang and other individuals that are part of the WPHO," he said. "We essentially told them if they don't know how to read the documents about the structures they should hire a professional contractor that can walk them through these because these properties have so much work that needs to be done and there's a process for plumbing, electrical, heating, structural stuff before you start fixing walls or anything else. The people [Wang] had working on the properties often times were women and other members of the group who probably didn't have any background in construction whatsoever. Even on some of the properties where they had permits to do roofing, the roofing was never installed properly and all the permits are still outstanding because the work never passed inspection."
McQuade recalled a specific moment where the old warehouse at 10 Leonard St., which the organization purchased at the auction, was getting an electrical installation.
"I caught members of the group [at the warehouse], and there was a young man installing a new electric service and he wasn't licensed. They had some electric inspection agency from outside of the area come in and do an inspection over the weekend, where it was unauthorized and they passed," he said. "I had to work with National Grid because where the organization installed the electric service wasn't even on the right street, there was a pole to be connected to for electrical inspection agencies and they have to be approved by the utility company, so I found who the inspection agency and inspector were and I gave that information to National Grid and they went after the inspection agency for passing something that should have never been passed.
"It's been a strain in my department because there's been so many of these properties that are vacant," he continued. "We have a lot of people who are constantly breaking into these properties and since we had other buildings in the past broken into where fires have started that's one of our top priorities, so we've been very busy trying to maintain all of those properties and keep them secure. They're all on our vegetation list."
McQuade said the corporation is not paying taxes on the properties and "it's costing the taxpayers."
"You're not getting any tax out of these properties yet you're continuing to put money into them," he said. "These properties will probably go back on the foreclosed list and when there's another auction they'll be in worse condition and more of them will end up on the demo list."
When asked who runs Sunlight Recycling Co., WPHO spokeswoman Jennie Wong, said it's a "Chinese man." She originally said she didn't know who the man is or what his name is. However, when asked if the name Ming Sheng Mo sounded familiar, Wong said "Maybe, yes."
When asked if Ming Sheng Mo is part of WPHO, Wong said no, and she said she is not sure if he is the chief executive of the corporation.
"We have difficulty reaching [Mo], he's not working here at all," she said. "I try calling him but there's no answer."
Wong said she didn't have contact information and when asked how she contacted him, she replied, "I've no idea."
She said she met Mo "a long, long, long, time ago."
"I don't see him personally, and I think that it's been more than one or two years since I've seen him in person," she said.
Wong claimed the organization never received letters from the city advising on what they should do when they first purchased the properties.
Thane said she's been working with the state attorney general's office and corporation counsel Gerard DeCusatis to take legal action; however, she said officials' hands are tied because of business law.
"Because it's an LLC, there is a veil of secrecy to protect fraud," she said. "You can't pierce that corporate veil of secrecy, because there is no way for me to find out who the individual is that I can go after, because the state protects LLCs."
Thane said the state Conference of Mayors is proposing legislation to address the issue. Thane, who is president of the council, said it's a statewide issue.
"The attorney general's office understands what the problem is. We are developing a code module to help us address these situations," she said.
Recorder editor Heather Nellis contributed to this report.