PATERSON, N.J. (AP) — A small businessman says New Jersey Transit owes him more than $1 million after the agency reneged on a promise to let him run a restaurant in Atlantic City's bus terminal.
Russell Graddy says NJ Transit compounded the indignity by continuing to charge him rent for space he wasn't able to use and failing to give him access to equipment removed from the restaurant in 2004 and put in storage.
Graddy currently runs Mr. G's diner in Paterson and says the long-running dispute has cost him millions of dollars in lost wages and other costs and forced him to sell some of his other properties just to pay his bills.
"I did everything right," Graddy told transit board members at their meeting last week. "It is unconscionable what they did to me."
Ten years ago, Graddy won an arbitrator's recommendation that he be paid $1.3 million. But he says he hasn't seen a dime since a state Superior Court judge ruled his agreement was with the Atlantic City Alliance and the Casino Redevelopment Authority and not directly with NJ Transit, which is owned by the state and operates buses and trains throughout New Jersey.
Graddy contends that amounts to legal doubletalk so NJ Transit can avoid paying him.
The agency once offered him $183,000 to settle the complaint but Graddy declined the offer.
An NJ Transit spokeswoman said Friday that Executive Director Steven Santoro would discuss the matter with the board.
"The board and the executive director have asked for a complete briefing on this matter, and as a result we will review all aspects of this issue," spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said.
Friends and supporters who spoke on his behalf at the NJ Transit meeting described the Georgia native as a revered figure in the black community.
"He is an American success story," said Stan Matthews, a business consultant who has become close to Graddy. "Very little education, coming to Paterson from the Deep South at a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land, buying his first house at 17, going into business for himself at 20. He's never been late on his taxes, never had a brush with the law.
"The guy was a poster child for doing it the right way," Matthews continued. "This is what galls me. It is unnecessary, and that board has a chance to do the right thing by a good guy."
Graddy's diner in Paterson is within a few minutes' walk of two of Paterson's most famous addresses: the spot where three people were murdered in a bar in June 1966, leading to the conviction and, 20 years later, exoneration of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter; and the Community Baptist Church of Love, where Martin Luther King spoke in 1968, eight days before he was killed in Memphis. The 85-year-old Graddy said he played a key role in facilitating King's visit.
Graddy's dispute with NJTransit began in the late 1990s while he was operating a souvenir and snack shop in the old Atlantic City bus terminal, a 1930s-era art deco building owned by the city. Through a tangle of contracts, promises, an aborted remodeling and a takeover of the terminal by the state, Graddy says, NJ Transit eventually promised him it would relocate him in a new terminal it was building, as well as pay him for lost business for the estimated four months he would be inactive.
Graddy handed over his keys, and away went his equipment to storage — stoves, refrigerators, grills and the like, worth about $900,000, he estimated. It's the last time he has seen them. Worse, he said, NJ Transit billed him about $2,500 per month in rent for more than two years for the restaurant space at the terminal he couldn't use.
"They murdered me; I was a well-off man before this," Graddy said Thursday as he sipped coffee at Mr. G's. "This has cost me at least $5 million. They destroyed me."