CHARLESTOWN — A federal complaint was filed Friday against multiple individuals, Charlestown officials and city boards, citing extortion against residents to be able to redevelop the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood.
Filed by nine homeowners, the complaint is for “a deprivation of civil rights and conspiracy...and a civil complaint for racketeering,” against the defendants. It states that there has been a “scheme of extortion” to attempt to get plaintiffs to sell more than 100 rental properties in the neighborhood for $10,000 each to the private company Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment, LLC, owned by John Neace.
It further states that the defendants imposed these sales under threat of “several million dollars” in fines.
The fines are already part of a preliminary injunction granted by special Judge Jason Mount in a separate case in late 2017. None of the plaintiffs are the same in either case, but the City of Charlestown and the Charlestown Board of Public Works are defendants in both cases.
The counts from Friday's claim are as follows: A claim for violation of equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; a claim for conspiracy to deprive plaintiffs of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and a civil claim for racketeering for conspiracy to violate the Hobbs Act.
They are filed against G. Robert Hall, M. Anthony Jackson, Eric Vaughn, Ted Little, Mike Vaughn, Brian Hester, George Roberts, City of Charlestown, Charlestown Board of Public Works and Safety and the Charlestown Redevelopment Commission.
Count two alleges that John Neace, John Hampton, Pleasant Ridge Redevelopment, LLC and Neace Ventures, LLC, conspired with the city defendants “for the purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly … equal protection of the laws” for plaintiffs.
“Today's lawsuit is the inevitable consequence of the illegal scheme that the city and developer concocted to strip rightful owners of their property,” Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents the Pleasant Ridge homeowners, said in an email.
“The Pleasant Ridge homeowners proved this scheme in state court in September in their own suit against the city, and their victory forms the basis for today's separate federal lawsuit by the landlords. Mayor Bob Hall, the city itself, and Neace are reaping what they sowed by using illegal and unconstitutional extortion to take property that didn't belong to them.”
Plaintiffs include F & J Apartments, LLC; Brown Rental Properties, LLC; Cooley Property Management, LLC; Gregory Development, LLC; Josh Gregory, Greg Yeager, Michelle and Kenneth Westmoreland Jr and Mathew Schultz.
"These people don't live in Charlestown; these are landlords," Mike Gillenwater, attorney for the City of Charlestown, said. "Most of their houses were substandard; they were slums. The city gave them notice that in about six months, they were going to start enforcing the property maintenance code and not one of them did a single thing to fix their things up."
He said the property owners had a choice — fix up the properties, tear them down or sell.
"These are the very people who have led to the ruin of this neighborhood and they're trying to profit from it," he said. "This will be resolved. Some of the truth will come out as the process goes on —this is a process, not an event."