Monica's Victims 

A Chinatown construction magnate may have ripped off taxpayers and workers for as much as $20 million. Now she's trying to evict Le Cheval.

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But at this point, Moscowitz said NBC's former employees have no plans to sue any of the public agencies. "We've been hoping they would do the right thing," she said. Still, she would not rule out future litigation, especially if Ung burns all her cash on high-priced lawyers.

The owners of Le Cheval have been reluctant to go public with their story about what Monica Ung is trying to do to them for fear that customers will stop dining at the restaurant if they think they're being evicted. They're especially worried that people will think they may be a bad tenant. Rumors have been swirling for months in Oakland's Chinatown community about the possible eviction. Court documents, however, make it clear that Ung appears to have no good reason for evicting Le Cheval, and she and her husband, Dennis Chow, appear to be unreasonable landlords.

Le Cheval moved into Ung's building at the corner of Clay and 10th streets in downtown Oakland in late 1993. The restaurant's sole owner at the time, Tuyet Thi Bui, signed a fifteen-year lease with Ung that included three five-year options. In 2003, Bui added co-owners to the business. Then, late last year, Le Cheval's ownership group sent a letter to one of Ung's attorneys, expressing its wish to exercise its first five-year option. But Ung and Chow refused, alleging that Le Cheval had defaulted on its lease, even though the restaurant's owners say they have never been late on a rent payment in fifteen years.

In late December, Minh Tran, one of Le Cheval's co-owners, noticed workers measuring the restaurant's front windows. In a sworn declaration, he said one of the workers told him he was working for Chow and that they were measuring the windows because they planned to board up the restaurant on January 1 after Le Cheval's lease expired. Minh Tran also said that a subcontractor for Direct TV told him that while he was doing an installation for Le Cheval's televisions, Chow said he wanted the restaurant to leave as soon as possible because he "hated those people."

So on December 29, Le Cheval's owners sued Ung and Chow to stop them from evicting the restaurant. In court documents, they also provided convincing evidence that Ung and Chow's claims that they defaulted on the lease were bogus, and that the couple had been harassing the restaurant's employees and owners for years with a series of petty complaints. "It's just been hell," Minh Tran told the Express. Chow has "been harassing us nearly every day, for nitpicky things. Just the most inane complaints ever."

For example, Ung demanded in 2001 that Le Cheval replace a broken door handle that wasn't even on the restaurant's property. Ung claimed that restaurant employees had broken it, although she had no evidence, according to a sworn statement by the restaurant's general manager and co-owner Lan Tran. Later it turned out that the door handle was probably broken by homeless people who had been living in the basement of the building and were vandalizing it. In fact, public records show that the city had fined Ung for the homeless problem in her building. Nonetheless, Ung's attorney cited the broken door handle as an instance of default under the lease.

Ung and Chow also complained that in 2003, when Le Cheval employees had tried to perform routine maintenance on its hood motor for the kitchen. Chow refused them access to the top of the building, so an employee decided to use an extension ladder to get to the roof, Lan Tran said in her statement. But then Chow stopped the worker and demanded that the restaurant hire a licensed contractor and erect scaffolding, saying the ladder was unsafe, Lan Tran added.

That same year, Chow also became angry after Le Cheval employees repaired loose stripping on some stairs by nailing it back into place, Lan Tran said in her statement. The restaurant's managers were concerned that the loose stripping was dangerous for employees who use the stairs to get supplies from a storeroom. But Chow was upset because he wanted the stripping repaired by a licensed contractor, Lan Tran said.

Chow did not respond to a hand-delivered note requesting comment, and he and Ung's attorney in the case, Timothy McInerney, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

For the past several months, Ung and Chow have been trying to get Le Cheval's suit thrown out of court, so that they can evict the restaurant, but they have been unsuccessful. And although they have Ung and Chow as landlords, Le Cheval's owners clearly want to stay. "Le Cheval's location and reputation in the community are extremely important to its success," Minh Tran explained in his statement, adding that if the restaurant were forced to leave downtown Oakland, it would lose its customer base. "This could effectively destroy the restaurant," he said.

Outside the Hayward Hall of Justice on Monday, labor leaders and some politicians held a rally to condemn Monica Ung and NBC's business practices. Among the featured guests were Oakland City Councilwoman Pat Kernighan and Oakland school board President Noel Gallo. Neither, however, mentioned that their public agencies had paid Ung millions of dollars in recent years and had yet to conduct a thorough investigation of her alleged fraud, despite the 48 felony charges lodged against her.

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