TAMPA — A St. Petersburg landlord has backed out of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors and will not admit to falsifying records related to an Environmental Protection Agency investigation of lead contamination at one of his many rental properties.
Michael Moshe Shimshoni was supposed to enter a guilty plea Monday morning but notified the court just hours beforehand he had changed his mind.
Shimshoni, his lawyer and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa did not want to talk about what happened.
“No comment,” said Matthew Farmer, the lawyer who helped forge the plea deal and signed it on July 8, along with Shimshoni and federal prosecutor Matthew Mueller.
After Monday’s canceled hearing, a federal court clerk said it would be up to prosecutors to seek a federal grand jury indictment if they want to move the case forward.
Shimshoni is in trouble for backdating disclosure forms he submitted under subpoena to a federal grand jury.
The documents made it appear he had warned tenants about the danger of lead contamination before they signed lease agreements with him at the aging multi-unit building he owns at 1075 17th Ave. N. in St. Petersburg, according to court documents.
Shimshoni “spoke with his tenants and had them sign the disclosure forms only after he became aware of the EPA investigation and was served with the grand jury subpoena,” court documents state.
Stephanie Lowney isn’t part of the case because she moved into one of Shimshoni’s apartments on 17th Avenue with her 2-year old toddler only five months ago, long after the EPA in 2011 began investigating lead contamination found on the ground and in the soil of Shimshoni’s property.
In March, a representative of Shimshoni’s property management company showed her pamphlets about the danger of lead but said it was not a concern at that location, Lowney said.
“I asked her if there was lead in the house because I couldn’t live somewhere with my baby that had lead, and she said there’s nothing to worry about; it’s already been removed from the house,” said Lowney.
“Just recently I found out there is lead all over the apartment, and I’ve been here since March, “ Lowney said. “That’s not cool.”
Lowney said she never would have moved into the apartment had she known.
Neighbors have long complained about the condition of the 17th Avenue apartments they consider an eyesore on their street.
“It’s embarrassing to actually have people come over,” said Suellen Glover, who lives across the street.
“When he bought it he made some promises that he was going to fix it up and what not, and obviously that has not happened.”
Shimshoni’s troubles with federal prosecutors comes as no surprise to city authorities, who have been pestering him for years to maintain his properties and eliminate rampant drug use and prostitution at several of his properties.
“He has paid over $41,000 worth of fines,” said Elizabeth Ledbetter, St. Petersburg’s nuisance abatement coordinator.
Those fines stem from problems with drugs and prostitution at some of the 120 or so properties that Shimshoni owns or controls in or around St. Petersburg.
Shimshoni’s properties are responsible for 20 percent of the cases handled by the city’s Nuisance Abatement Board, Ledbetter said. Some of the violations go back as far as 1998.
“Usually, when someone is brought before the Nuisance Abatement Board it’s a one-time thing,” said Ledbetter.
Not so with Shimshoni.
“You can’t claim lack of knowledge when you’ve been warned and warned and warned,” said Ledbetter.
City code enforcement officers also have thick files on many of Shimshoni’s properties because of his failure to properly maintain them.
In a letter to the federal prosecutor handling the EPA violation, City Councilman Steve Kornell pointed out that Shimshoni has faced city liens totaling $66,861 for numerous code enforcement violations, ranging from failing to obtain proper permits and required inspections to property maintenance.
The city has also assessed Shimshoni $19,000 for grass cutting and landscaping work to “avoid rat and snake infestations” on his properties, Kornell said in his letter.
“The reoccurrence of code violations and nuisance activity has a direct negative impact on our community” Kornell said in his letter.
If convicted, Shimshoni could spend as much 20 years in prison and faces $250,000 in fines. In the plea agreement signed last month, though, federal prosecutors said they wouldn’t oppose a sentence at the low end of the sentencing guidelines.
Whatever happens, Glover said she hopes something will change at Shimshoni’s property across the street.
“If you went a block over you’d find it’s a completely different world, she said. “They don’t have an eyesore like this.”