NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- What sort of person claims to be raising money for kids with cancer then pockets the proceeds? Is this person a reputable business owner? A pillar of the community? We think not.
Our investigation into Vincent Mirabile and Cousins Cigars lounge began in earnest in April 2017 when we began to take a look at the BBQ-cum-street festival “fundraisers” Vinny has held annually each September in front of his store since 2012. What caught our eye was a 2014 photo of Vinny Mirabile wearing a St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital t-shirt. We then noticed a number of people at the event wearing “St. Jude’s Volunteer” t-shirts. Also, that there was signage on tents with the St. Jude’s logo and name. It made little sense to us that St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital would permit a cigar lounge to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
In fact, they do not allow that at all.
We contacted St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital’s Charity Fraud Hotline on April 10, 2017 and June 2, 2017. We learned that St. Jude’s does not allow any business that manufacturers or sells tobacco to raise money for them. Further, they do not allow events that are not legal to be held to raise money for them. Finally, even if the event is organized by an acceptable person or company, and even if the event is legal, the event itself cannot feature tobacco products. For all of these reasons and more, Vincent Mirabile and Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge could not be a registered fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital as they claimed to be.
The same event claimed to be raising money for the Lymphoma Society. There is no such charity as “the Lymphoma Society”. There is a Lymphoma Foundation and the more widely known Leukemia & Lymphoma Society which is based here in Westchester and well-known to many New Rochelle residents for the support of the Verni family with this charitable organization. They are still looking but as of this Friday, they had yet to provide any information on fundraising by Vincent Mirabile and Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge. For similar reasons, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society would not allow a business that manufacturers or sells tobacco to raise money for them.
The annual Cousins “fundraising” event began in 2009 as a “customer appreciation cookout”. By 2012, the event had morphed into what Vinny labeled a "fundraiser"; in that year it was an event in memory of Thomas Casale and ostensibly for the benefit of the Casale Family. Vinny declined to provide any records showing the Casale Family received any money from him or his business.
The 2015 event was ostensibly held to raise money for two organizations: Pet Rescue and the New Rochelle Humane Society. There are many organizations that go by the name “Pet Rescue” so there is no telling what organization is the supposed beneficiary of Vinny’s “fundraising”. The Humane Society of Westchester web site does have a promotion for the event but the tax records for the Humane Society of Westchester, previously the New Rochelle Humane Society, do not show any donations by Vincent Mirabile and Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge. Attempts to reach John Feltdmose, President of the Humane Society of Westchester, were unsuccessful.
The 2016 event was ostensibly held to raise money for “Hope for the Veterans”. Based on a review of IRS tax records and an extensive online search, there appears to be no such organization as “Hope for the Veterans”. There is a group called “Hope For U. S. Veterans” founded by a Mormon business executive in Houston which focuses on providing IT training for veterans. It is hard to imagine that Vinny would be raising money for Mormons in Texas. Regardless he declined to provide any records for this event.
The 2017 event is advertised as a fundraiser for Christopher's Voice, a foundation created in April of this year by Christopher Greco, a friend of Vinny’s and a past sponsor of his events. They have yet to receive a designation as a non-profit organization from the Internal Revenue Service.
There is strong evidence that at least since 2014, and possibly before, Vinny’s events were little more than a sprawling, self-congratulatory outdoor party for Vinny by Vinny all wrapped in a patina of faux- charitable giving with Vinny falsely claiming to be an authorized fundraiser for major charities such as St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and previously unknown or vaguely named charities like “Pet Rescue”, “Hope for the Veterans”, “Thomas Casale Family”, and “Christopher's Voice”.
In fact, it appears, Vinny has been engaged in wholesale charitable fraud. This would go a long way to explain his refusal to turn over records showing he had permission to raise money for the charitable organizations listed on his flyers, or records showing he had in fact donated money to these organizations. Based on our reporting, several investigations by the charities are now underway and the New York State Attorney General’s Office Charities Bureau has been contacted.
Readers are aware that on June 21st, Mirabile called the New Rochelle Police Department to claim that your reporter had engaged in "harassment" by sending him two emails (and "trespassing" for walking on the sidewalk near his store). Neither claim went anywhere with the police, especially when your reporter pushed back, hard. What readers have not known until now is just what those “harassing” emails were about.
The first email was sent on June 8th. In it, Mirabile was asked to produce records to demonstrate that he had obtained a Sidewalk Cafe Permit to set up tables and chairs in front of this store, an open-air permit for his annual “fundraiser” and documentation, including authorizations, accounting and bank records that show payments were made to charitable organizations as a result of his so-called "fundraisers”. The second email was a simple “last chance” follow up in anticipation of our first story in this series which ran a few days later. Soon thereafter, Vinny called the police.
The first email concluded:
I am working on a story. At this point, based on my reporting to date, I am of the belief that you are unable to produce most of these records, likely because they do not exist. However, if my information is wrong and you wish to produce such records I would be happy to review them. Outside of that, I will operate in the belief that you do not have all proper permits, insurance and made payments for sidewalk cafe permits, fundraiser permits, insurance and payments and that you have not actually raised money for the charities as you claim or, if you did, you did not register to do so and/or that the payments to them were small token payments. I am prepared to be convinced otherwise through the production of records.
Why would Vinny call the cops upon our asking for records related to his supposed charitable activities? Why would Vinny fail to produce any records? In some cases, we know the answer for sure; the records do not exist.
Perlman said that for anyone raising money in New York State there is an affirmative filing obligation, requiring full disclosure and an explanation of how those funds are being spent or distributed.
“A fundraiser is required to state the amount of money going to the designated charity on the tickets purchased for the event,” said Perlman. “Also, the fundraiser must contract with the charity and be formally permitted to raise money for that charity.”
These requirements do not appear to have been met by Vincent Mirabile of Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge.
Perlman also commented on the 50/50 raffle offered by Vinny.
“The prize has to be specific,” said Perlman. “A 1099 tax form must be issued to the winner.”
Perlman said the failure to abide by state law may indicate charitable fraud and could possibly be a criminal matter.
When we ran our first story on this subject, Vinny's supporters rallied to his defense but, in some of their comments, appear to have inadvertently confirmed that Vinny has been illegally soliciting money for supposed charitable purposes.
Posting on Facebook, they stated Vinny had solicited money and donations from them, donated thousands of dollars to charity and is, generally, an important figure in New Rochelle who runs a well-regarded business operation at this store. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
“It's a reputable establishment and pillar to the community,” said Peter Parente, referring to Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge. “The gentleman at Cousins do nothing wrong.”
“I have been approached numerous times by the proprietor of the lounge to donate to local charities and help with providing entertainment for charitable events at the lounge on a yearly basis since its inception in 2008,” said Anthony Pirico.
“You are way off base on this one,” said Andy Gee
“Cousins is a great place with very reputable people who go there,” said Jeanine Marroccoli.
“This establishment has done more for this community then (sic) any other in new (sic) Rochelle,” said Benito DiZenzo. “We here at Cousin (sic) Cigar Lounge have donated thousands to different organizations”.
The reality is a bit different than Vinny and his apologists would have you believe.
We have documented the many questions about Vinny’s supposed charity events. We have obtained police records and our own photos which show that the law regarding parking in loading zones and on street corners was routinely not enforced when it came to Vinny and his store. We have heard numerous reports of high-stakes gambling in Vinny’s store run by Johnny Valenti (and a falling out between Valenti and Mirabile that led to the termination of illegal poker games at Cousins). We have a police report from last June 14 (the week before Vinny called the police on this reporter) claiming that Johnny Valente drove his jeep onto the curb in front of Vinny’s store and “stopped his car inches away from where the COMP was sitting” According to the police report, Mirabile took Valenti inside his store while the complainant left the scene.” A few weeks later there was another alleged incident where one of Vinny’s employees had a physical altercation with a retired police officer. No police report was filed related to that alleged incident.
We have already documented why Cousins Cigars is ineligible for a Sidewalk Cafe Permit yet, for years, Vinny not only operated a sidewalk cafe but extended the tables and chairs in front of other neighboring businesses, failed to pay fees or insurance, and served food and alcohol at his “cafe”.
There is more.
In New York State, a liquor license is required for any establishment to sell, serve or giveaway alcoholic beverages and, contrary to popular belief, to allow patrons to bring their own alcoholic beverages into the establishment. Likewise, permits and inspections are required to prepare or serve food to the public on the premises of an establishment in New York or, for catered events the food provider must have a catering license. Given New York State Law, there should be no events at or in front of Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge that involve alcohol or food. A review of Cousins’ Facebook Page (see photos above) shows that Vinny has flouted these laws and others from the very beginning. In New Rochelle it is illegal to block sidewalks and, in particular, to cook on an open flame on the sidewalk. Cooking without water to clean cooking implements is a violation of the Westchester County sanitary code.
So, how then to explains dozens of Facebook posts on the Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge Facebook page featuring an outdoor cafe and serving food and alcohol at or in front of Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge?
Examples of Advertised Events at Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge Featuring Alcohol (see photos above)
- 6/30/17 Rock A Feller Cigar Event and Scotch Tasting
- 5/10/16 Wine and Spirit Discount Warehouse Scotch Tasting
- 2/7/15 Jim Beam Bourbon Tasting
Examples of Advertised Events at Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge Featuring Food (see photos above)
- 7/4/14 Hamburgers Hot Dogs
- 12/19/13 Ashton Event Deep Fried Turkey Dinner "with all the trimmings"
- 12/2/13 Venison Dinner sponsored by "the best hunter around Bonito DiZenzo"
- 11/27/13 Thanksgiving Dinner
- 9/20/13 BBQ and pastries from Morris Park
Examples of Facebook Postings Featuring Alcohol, Food and/or Outdoor Cafe (see photos above)
- 7/4/14 - BBQ - “We are bbqing in front of the lounge come down and enjoy a FREE hamburger or hot dog with the purchase of a cigar”
- 10/14/13 Columbus Day - photo shows wine bottles on outdoor table, multiple tabled extending to deli next door, post lists food including pasta, meatballs, sausage, salad, bread, cappuccino, espresso.
- 10/10/13 - Cigar Rolling - set up on outdoor table
- 9/6/13 - BBQ - “This is what we do at Cousins every Friday night” with photo of Weber Grill, hamburger (and a patron staring at woman bent over in front of the neighboring nail salon).
- 8/23/13 - BBQ - “This is how we do it at Cousins every Friday” with photo of Corona beer, wine, cookout.
- 8/23/13 - BBQ - “Grilling up some steak and chicken in front of the lounge” with photo of person grilling chicken on Weber grill.
- 8/13/13 - Outdoor Table - patrons (including Lou Trangucci) hanging out.
- 7/23/13 - Outdoor Table - The boys hanging out in front of the lounge
- 5/21/13 - Outdoor Table - “party at cousins”
- 5/17/13 - Food - “great food at cousins big meal course 2 steak, chicken, pork chops, and potatoes” and “1st course pasta”
- 3/17/13 - Food/Alcohol - “St. Patty's day feast” - food beer
- 3/10/13 - Food/Alcohol - “Pasta Sunday” - food, wine, beer
- 2/17/13 - Food/Alcohol - “Typical Sunday at Cousins” and “more than just a cigar shop” wine, prime rib dinner
- 12/30/12 - Food/Alcohol - wine beer
- 12/22/12 - Food - “plenty of food” and fully stocked bar
- 2/12/13 - Food - “finger sandwiches”
- 10/4/12 - Outdoor Table - “The boys hanging at cousins”
- 9/6/12 - Outdoor Table - “hanging out”
Every event, with photos and descriptions provided by Vinny, are illegal events because they are serving food, alcohol and/or operating outdoors (and many show what appeads to be customer’s consuming alcohol on public property). Hardly the sort of behavior one might expect from a “pillar of the community”.
Many of the Facebook posts reference "fundraisers" held at and around Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge (see photos above). The first Facebook posts that mention a “fundraiser” is from 2012 and continue each year until 2017,
The 2012 event was billed as an “Annual Customer Appreciation BBQ” held on September 9, 2012 offering “Food Fun Music” It was organized by John and Donna Valente who cooked all the food. Benny DiZenzo worked on the grill. Photos from the event show a typical Mirabile event, open flame grills on the sidewalk, illegally parked motorcycles and other vehicles, parts of a public thoroughfare blocked off and serving wine and beer.
The 2013 event is the first was that explicitly billed as "fundraiser", for the Casale family, held on September 9, 2013. A Facebook photo album contains dozens of photos showing attendees with hard liquor and beer seated at or standing near outdoor tables, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, and roast pig on an open flame grill on the sidewalk, open containers of beer, a PA system and live music and police barriers from the New Rochelle Police Department. In one Facebook post, Mirabile admits he is "taking over" the area around his store; he says “the reason we start at 5 pm is because we take over the entire sidewalk and I have stores on both sides of mine and they close at 5.”
The 2014 event was similar to the 2013 event but with newly designated charities, the advertising stated “All monies donated to St. Judes Children Hospital and Lymphoma Society.”
The 2015 event was similar to the 2013 event but with newly designated charities, the advertising stated “All monies donated to New Rochelle Humane Society & Pet Rescue”.
The 2016 event was similar to the 2013 event but with a new designated charity, the advertising stated “All monies raised will be donated to Hope for the Veterans”
There is an event planned for September 10, 2017, the advertising states “All monies raised will be donated to Christopher's Voice”.
In 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, Mirabile failed to obtain an Open Air Permit from the City of New Rochelle, he did not apply, did not get approval, did not obtain liability insurance and did not pay fees. These were all illegal events which no reputable charitable organization would allow as an authorized fundraiser. In 2016, for the first time, Mirabile did obtain an Open Air Permit from the City of New Rochelle.
A supposed beneficiary of the 2014 event, St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital told Talk of the Sound “we do not see any event with Mr. Mirabile as a coordinator in our system”. St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital staff explained that they would never have approved the 2014 event. The matter has been referred to their General Counsel’s office for a charity fraud investigation. There is no organization named “Lymphoma Society” but there is a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society which is based here in Westchester which is investigating whether Mirabile made any contributions following his 2014 event.
While we have no official count on the number of people attending these fundraisers, from past photographs and witness accounts there are appear to be somewhere between 100 and 300 people at these events over the years (it has grown over time).
The “suggested donation” for persons over 12 years of age is twenty dollars. If 300 people (above age 12) attend that is $6,000. By law, all of that money is required to be donated to the designated charities. There is also some proceeds from the 50/50 raffle. If the raffle raises $2,000 then $1,000 is supposed to go to the designated charities. There is also the question of what the sponsors provide, in-kind contributions or cash. Any sponsorship money would also need to be donated. So, where did the money go? Vinny will not say.
Starting in 2016, Vinny’s events began listing corporate sponsors (New Rochelle Chevrolet, Christopher Greco Home Inspection Services, Platzner, UFFA Local 273 (New Rochelle Firefighters Union), New Rochelle PBA (New Rochelle Police Officers Union), Anna & Jack’s Treehouse, Palmieri Landscaping, Discount Warehouse Wine & Spirits, Soundview Service Center, Justus Recycling, Buffalo Wild Wings) and sponsors (Fratelli’s restaurant, Carlo’s restaurant, Spadaro’s restaurant, Metro Pizza and Fratelli’s Pizza, Shannon Beverages, Manhattan Beer).
It is worth noting that Christopher Greco is the President of the New Rochelle PBA. He shows up here multiple times: as Christopher Greco Home Inspection Service, New Rochelle PBA and Christopher’s Voice. The PBA was referenced in the attempt to discourage local businesses from advertising on Talk of the Sound. Vinny has sold cigars at past PBA events. Vinny is a retired member of the New Rochelle Police Department.
Some of these organizations appear to be making in-kind contributions of food and beverages (all for a Cigar Store that is not allowed to cook or serve food or sell, serve or giveaway alcohol). It is not clear from the advertisement what Corporate Sponsors provide but if they are making financial contributions those contributions must be donated to the designated charities.
Then there is the issue of Open-Air Permits.
Under City Code Section 93 (Open-Air Gathering), "the gathering or assembling of persons, the holding of public meetings or the congregating of persons in groups or crowds on public places within the City without a permit to be issued by the City Clerk is hereby prohibited" and "offense against the provisions of this article shall be punishable by a fine of not more than $250 or by imprisonment for not more than 15 days, or both."
Vinny has routinely violated this law and held illegal public gathering but the events have never been shut down by the New Rochelle Police Department nor his Vinny received a related summons or violation notice.
City Code Section 93 (Open-Air Gathering) and the related application form is vague; it states no defined purpose for issuing a permit. The Permit Form makes no reference back to the City Code under which it is issued. The Open Air Permit has checkboxes for "description of business/organization" and lists three specific options (Political, Religious, Social) and OTHER.
In the case of Vinny Mirabile’s 2016 application, his sole application, Mirabile checked a box for organization type to indicated "retail”. The stated purpose of the event was OTHER/"fundraising". An Open-Air permit was issued in 2016.
Based on this approved permit application and what actually took place, any retail business can hold a block party with live music, a cookout, extending out into the street and on the sidewalk and expanding in to the parking lot for businesses that would otherwise be open (or blocking the parking lot/egress from the parking lot). In fact, these events can be held without a permit as has been the case at Cousins going at least back to 2012.
There are more than a few problems with this law and its related permit application form: the 2016 permit granted to Cousins Cigar & Hookah Lounge sets a precedent that any retail business can block off sidewalks and roads (and take up parking and block off other retail businesses and sell or serve or giveaway alcohol, and prepare food on grills with open flames even if that business does not have a liquor license or a food preparation license; the permit allows a retail business to claim it is operating a "fundraiser" without providing any documentation that this is the actual purpose of the event or that funds were raised or donated. One can only imagine how less-favored businesses such as Habitat For Humanity's Re-Store would be treated if they attempted to hold an identical event or what would happen if a business wanted to hold an event more than once a year, even up to once a week.
That Cousins Cigars & Hookah Lounge was issued an Open-Air Permit for a "fundraiser" suggests the need for the City Manager, his staff and City Council members to work together to overhaul this law: (1) reconsider how a retail business can operate a street fair in front of and all about the area in front of their store; (2) determine whether such a retail business can sell products from their store or from the fair (i.e, what is the difference between a fundraiser/ street fair and a sidewalk sale which can only happen in certain locations on certain days; (3) recognize that the laws of the State and County do not cease to exist because an Open-Air Permit is issued by the City of New Rochelle (i.e., Open-Air permits should not be granted to businesses for events offering food and beverage without the business having the appropriate licenses for alcohol or food preparation or licensed caterers.
For any organizations that wishes to obtain an Open-Air Permit where they are claiming that the purpose of an event is a fundraiser they should have several requirements:
Provide documentation that the permit application is authorized to raise money on behalf of a particular organization and that the organization itself is a legitimate registered charitable organization
Provide a simple accounting that shows revenue and basis for that revenue (e.g., tickets were $20 and 100 tickets were sold) and show costs (line item of funds spent on supplies, equipment rental, performers, food/beverages, decorations, "administrative cost" and so on. Provide documentation including cancelled checks that demonstrate that charitable contributions were made as proposed using the funds raised at the event per the simple accounting.
POST-EVENT/WITH 12 MONTHS
Provide tax documentation from the IRS confirming promised and claimed charitable contributions.
As of this past week, the City of New Rochelle stated they had yet to receive an application of for an Open-Air Permit for the "fundraising" event Vinny has been advertising scheduled for Sunday September 10, 2017. Our hope is that if such a permit request is received by the City of New Rochelle it be rejected for the many reasons cited above and if not received that the event not to be allowed to proceed.
Sponsors might want to re-consider the wisdom of supporting such an event until such time as Vincent Mirabile produces records documenting that he has complied with New York State law for charitable fundraising, that he had permission from every charitable organization he claims to have been raising money for over the past five years, and that he can provide documentation as to how much money his events generated in revenue and how much of that revenue was turned over to the various charitable organizations.