How Eric Adams Started Mentoring a Con Man

    A few days before Christmas, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan announced that Whitehead had been arrested. Prosecutors in the office’s Public Corruption Unit said they’d caught him claiming to have influence at City Hall while trying to shake down Belmonte. Adams was not accused of any wrongdoing; prosecutors said that Whitehead, while making his overtures to Belmonte, “knew” that he could not obtain the city-government “actions” he was promising. But it’s not clear how the government reached that conclusion. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan declined to comment. When I asked a City Hall spokesperson whether Adams or anyone on his staff had been interviewed or subpoenaed as part of the investigation, the spokesperson referred me to comments the Mayor made after Whitehead’s arrest. “I have no comments on the federal investigation,” Adams said. He called the allegations “troubling,” but he wasn’t ready to wash his hands of Whitehead, as a politician might be expected to do upon hearing that an associate dropped his name while trying to extort someone. Adams said he would let the investigative process play out.

    Whitehead is forty-four years old. He has bright brown eyes and a wide, engaging smile. He often spends several hours a day live-streaming on Facebook and Instagram, where he promotes his church and his luxurious life style, and denounces his enemies. “Designer for days,” he once said, giving his followers a virtual tour of his walk-in “prayer closet,” which was stuffed with clothing from Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton. Whitehead, who lives in a multimillion-dollar house in Paramus, New Jersey, advertises himself as an ascendant community leader in a multiplicity of realms: business, politics, religion, and entertainment. He has said that one of his missions is to serve as an emissary between “the streets” and “the church.” In 2018, after the rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine pleaded guilty to making sexually explicit videos of a thirteen-year-old girl, Whitehead spoke in court on behalf of the rapper. “The bishop had to come through,” 6ix9ine said in a video he posted on Instagram. “We had a situation.”

    There are people all over the city who claim to have been conned, burned, harassed, lied to, or otherwise hurt by Whitehead. Many have reported Whitehead to the authorities, and several have come away feeling that Whitehead was protected by his relationship with Adams. “I could tell he was name dropping again using Eric Adams again and trying to discredit me,” a pastor named Robin Brown wrote in an e-mail to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, in 2014, describing her attempts to report Whitehead to the N.Y.P.D. “I have lost all faith in the system.” (Brown declined to comment for this article.) “I’ve tried to report him on several occasions at the local precinct, but to no avail,” the Reverend Benny Custodio, of Immanuel–First Spanish United Methodist Church, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, wrote in a comment on a blog post about Whitehead in 2017. “This cardboard bishop is currently at my church doing the same thing he has done in the past, using the church to fatten his pockets. He knows the system very well and uses it to his advantage based on the close relationship he has with our borough president, Mr. Eric Adams.” (Custodio declined to comment when I contacted him several months ago; he died in November.)

    Many Brooklyn church figures, business associates, and former friends of Whitehead’s refused to speak to me for this article, because they said they feared him. “When he got angry, you could feel that menace,” a man named Brian Etta told me recently. Etta showed me documents indicating that, in 2006, while Whitehead was working for a mortgage broker, Whitehead helped sell Etta’s house in Brooklyn and then pocketed proceeds from the sale. City records show that the property was later transferred to a company controlled by Whitehead. In 2013, Etta volunteered for Eric Adams’s first campaign for Brooklyn borough president, and, at Adams’s inauguration, he spotted Whitehead at Brooklyn Borough Hall. “I thought, This is brazen,” Etta said. “A guy who wants to have an image of being squeaky clean, and this guy who is an actual criminal?”

    Not long after Etta met him, Whitehead was convicted of a startling fraud on Long Island. Using information that he’d obtained from a girlfriend, an employee at a Honda dealership in Patchogue, Whitehead stole the identities of more than a dozen of the dealership’s customers. He used those identities to purchase luxury vehicles. A prosecutor called it one of the largest identity-theft cases Suffolk County had seen. During his trial, Whitehead got ordained as a pastor, and wore clerical collars to court appearances. “I don’t fear you,” he told the judge at his sentencing, in June, 2008, after being found guilty of more than a dozen counts of identity theft. “I fear God.”

    One of Whitehead’s lawyers was André Soleil, a former Republican political operative. Soleil, who has lived abroad for the past several years, was disbarred in absentia in 2019, after being accused of bilking a Harlem nonprofit, and of stealing from escrow accounts he set up during real-estate transactions. “I will note that I’ve been merely accused,” he told me, when I called him recently.

    Soleil spoke with regret about the role he played in Adams and Whitehead’s relationship. “I introduced them,” he said. A City Hall spokesperson disputes this, claiming that Adams and Whitehead met at “an anti-violence event with rappers” on an unspecified date “around” 2014. But there are videos and photographs available online of Adams and Whitehead together as early as 2013.

    Soleil claims he is also a friend of the Mayor’s. “Eric and I were close,” he told me. According to Soleil, they met in the nineteen-nineties, when Soleil worked as an aide to Rudy Giuliani in City Hall and George Pataki in the governor’s office, and when Adams was still a cop—and, for a time, a Republican. Soleil helped organize fund-raisers during Adams’s first run for Brooklyn borough president. An e-mail invitation to a fund-raiser during Adams’s first Brooklyn borough-president campaign lists Soleil as a “co-chair” beside Tiffany Raspberry, a current senior adviser to Adams at City Hall, and Jesse Hamilton, who succeeded Adams in the state senate.

    Soleil’s legal specialty was real estate. He played both sides of Brooklyn’s gentrification boom, representing both working-class homeowners and the aggressive real-estate companies that flipped their homes. Whitehead, who for several years in the aughts worked as a branch manager for a real-estate company called Custom Capital Corporation, was one of the few criminal defendants that Soleil ever represented. Whitehead was sentenced to at least a decade in prison, but he got out in the summer of 2013, after just five years. He would later tell people that his convictions had been overturned. He also said that he planned to get into politics.

    Soon after his release, Whitehead looked up his old lawyer, and began hanging around Soleil’s law office. Whitehead would visit Soleil at his office and ask him about technical legal and real-estate matters. A few times, Soleil told me, he came back to his office to find Whitehead there, without permission, reading documents on his desk.

    Soleil remembers a holiday party that he threw the year Whitehead came home. In a restaurant in Cobble Hill, Soleil’s Hasidic real-estate-investor clients and his Black political-world friends mingled. Soleil had invited Adams, who gave a speech. Whitehead, in Soleil’s telling, had more or less invited himself. Halfway through the night, Soleil became aware that Whitehead and Adams were engaged in what Soleil remembers as an “intense” conversation. “Shortly after that,” he said, “it appeared that they had become best buddies.”

    Soleil, along with others I spoke to for this story, believes that Adams saw something of himself in Whitehead. They were both charismatic, ambitious, and brash. They had both been raised by single, working-class mothers in the outer boroughs: Adams in Jamaica, Queens, Whitehead in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Both had also experienced early run-ins with the law. Adams was beaten in the basement of a Queens police precinct when he was fifteen years old. Years before his identity-theft conviction, Whitehead was charged with two counts of forgery in the third degree in New Mexico. (The case was dismissed after he made full restitution to the victims.) People close to Adams say that he’s conscious of how easily his life could have been different, had he not joined the city’s police ranks. “Lamor is like his id,” Soleil said. “We all like our id.”

    Early into his friendship with Adams, Whitehead was living with a friend named Aurora Gordon, who had an apartment in an affordable-housing tower in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Gordon, a decade older than Whitehead, had escaped from the World Trade Center on 9/11, and worked in the office of a tech company. In her spare time, she ran a small organization called Battered 2 Beautiful, for survivors of domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Gordon helped Whitehead found a youth-outreach ministry called Leaders of Tomorrow Brooklyn. They soon spun it out into an independent church. “She thought that it was really going to be something big, and she thought he was an honest person,” Gordon’s sister told me.

    Whitehead, who in his early twenties had worked small jobs in the music business, and modelled streetwear, had a knack for getting close to the famous and the powerful. He referred to the rapper Foxy Brown, a Brooklyn icon, as his cousin. On Facebook and Instagram, he began chronicling his encounters with musicians, boxers, actors, radio personalities—and with Adams, the new borough president. Publicly, Whitehead referred to Adams as his mentor. Privately, he called him E. In one YouTube video from 2013, Whitehead interviews Adams at an event in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “We’re going to be doing a lot of things together,” Whitehead tells him. “Thank you for being a patriarch for our Black community. . . . Thank you for being an advocate for men.”

    Whitehead and Adams met up at concerts, bars, and red-carpet events. Gordon told people she knew that Whitehead often got out of bed in the middle of the night, to go see Adams. With Adams’s help, Whitehead connected with other politicians, people in the business world, and N.Y.P.D. officials. Whitehead and Adams got together at Woodland, a restaurant on Flatbush Avenue where Adams liked to hang out after work hours. Woodland was the first restaurant run by the Petrosyants brothers, who now run La Baia. “This clique didn’t exist when the Mayor was in the state senate,” a consultant who worked for one of Adams’s rivals in the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary said, talking about the scene at Woodland. “It formed around 2013.” That was the year that Whitehead got out of prison, and when the Petrosyants brothers were indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, for conspiring with others to launder phony insurance payouts through shell companies. (They later pleaded guilty to lesser charges.)

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