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That Expensive Bourbon You Bought May Be a Fake

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“I saw one collection that was in its entirety fake, and it had all been gathered 20 to 30 years ago,” she said. “There are some really well-known fakes that keep popping up.”

Reliable statistics on the size of the problem are hard to come by. Ms. Graham-Yooll dismissed as hyperbolic a 2018 study claiming that up to one-third of all rare single-malt bottles were fake. But she conceded that fakery is a sizable problem, and growing worse.

There is no shortage of anecdotes like the encounter at Acker. In 2017 a Swiss hotel drew notice for selling the world’s most expensive dram to a Chinese tourist. Subsequent analysis of the liquid, which was purported to be a single-malt Scotch made by the Macallan distillery in 1878, showed that it was a blended Scotch made sometime after 1970.

Like the Acker bottle, the fake Macallan had flaws obvious to an expert eye: the wrong cork, modern glass. In part because the field of counterfeiting is so new, Mr. Herz said, it’s not hard to spot counterfeits — drip stains on a paper label, for example, are a good indication that the bottle has been used before.

“Most people are lazy and impatient,” he said.

The whiskey trade has yet to see its version of Rudy Kurniawan, the prolific, highly skilled counterfeiter whose 2013 conviction for making and selling millions of dollars’ worth of precisely detailed fake Burgundy and California Cabernet rocked the wine world.

But it may be only a matter of time. Experts say they have seen an increase in the quality of counterfeits; Mr. Herz suspects that at least a few counterfeiters have inside connections at Kentucky distilleries, allowing them to build fake bottles from scratch, with pristine labels and expertly crafted closures.

A cottage industry has popped up in response, especially in Britain, promising high-tech countermeasures like through-the-glass chemical analysis, which allows sellers and collectors to assess a bottle’s authenticity without having to open it. But those are still in development, and years away from widespread use.



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They Need Legal Advice on Debts. Should It Have to Come From Lawyers?

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The Rev. John Udo-Okon, a Pentecostal minister in the Bronx, has a lot of congregants who are sued by debt collectors and don’t know what to do.

Like most of the millions of Americans sued over consumer debt each year, Pastor Udo-Okon’s congregants typically cannot retain a lawyer. When they fail to respond to the suit, they lose the case by default.

“They don’t know how to fight back; they just give up, only they find out that their credit has been destroyed,” Pastor Udo-Okon said.

Pastor Udo-Okon would like to become a volunteer counselor and help people defend themselves against these suits by participating in a training program created by Upsolve, a financial-counseling nonprofit. The program would teach him how to walk people through the first steps of contesting a consumer debt lawsuit.

But there’s a catch: Offering tips on how to fight a suit would probably be illegal. Rules in New York, as in most states, forbid practicing law without a license, and giving individualized advice on how to respond to litigation is generally considered practicing law.

On Tuesday, Upsolve took a step aimed at undoing the catch: It filed a lawsuit against the state attorney general’s office in federal court in Manhattan, arguing that barring nonlawyers from giving the kind of basic advice Upsolve would teach them to offer would violate the First Amendment. Pastor Udo-Okon is a co-plaintiff.

Upsolve says a ruling in its favor would clear the way for thousands of lay professionals — social workers, clergy members, community organizers and the like — to help correct a gigantic imbalance in the legal playing field.

According to a 2020 Pew Charitable Trusts report, at least four million Americans a year are sued over consumer debt. Less than 10 percent retain lawyers, and more than 70 percent of cases end in default judgments against the defendant.

In 2018 and 2019, a total of 265,000 consumer debt suits were filed in city and district civil courts in New York State. Over 95 percent of the defendants were not represented by a lawyer, and of those, 88 percent did not respond to the suit, according to figures from the state court system.

Upsolve’s founder, Rohan Pavuluri, called the situation a “fundamental civil rights injustice.”

“What we have isn’t legal rights under the law,” he said. “What we have is legal rights if you can afford a lawyer.”

The office of New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, did not immediately respond Tuesday morning to a request for comment on the suit and to a question about whether the help Upsolve wants to offer would violate rules on the unlicensed practice of law. The New York State Bar Association, which represents lawyers, said it would not comment on pending litigation.

In America, consumers are served with suits alleging failure to make payments of all kinds, whether for phone bills or fish tanks. The most common subjects of debt collection suits include medical bills, credit card balances and auto loans.

Americans do not legitimately owe most of the debt they are sued for, according to consumer advocates. A 2010 report by the Legal Aid Society found that in more than one-third of debt-collection cases reviewed, the debt had already been paid or had resulted from mistaken identity or identity theft; the statute of limitations on collecting the debt had expired; or the debt had been shed in bankruptcy. ACA International, a trade group for debt collectors, did not immediately respond on Tuesday to a request for comment on the Legal Aid Society’s report.

Marshal Coleman, a veteran consumer lawyer in Manhattan, said that most consumer debt suits were over matters of a few thousand dollars. “Typically, if a client like that comes to a lawyer,” he said, “a lawyer’s not going to be able to help them because the fees will exceed the value of the services.”

There are legal aid organizations that offer free representation to low-income people, but they tend to focus their very limited resources on other matters, like domestic-violence protection orders, evictions and foreclosures. Legal Services NYC, the city’s biggest provider of free civil legal services, has 450 lawyers on staff. Only one concentrates on consumer debt suits.

Faced with the daunting prospect of fighting a suit on their own, many people simply ignore it and hope it goes away.

A New York State law requires a summons announcing a lawsuit to include a statement containing no fewer than 14 exclamation points: “THIS IS A COURT PAPER — A SUMMONS! DON’T THROW IT AWAY!!” it shouts. It later continues, “IF YOU CAN’T PAY FOR YOUR OWN LAWYER, BRING THESE PAPERS TO THIS COURT RIGHT AWAY. THE CLERK (PERSONAL APPEARANCE) WILL HELP YOU!!”

The summons does not include information about a multiple-choice form that you can fill out with 24 possible defenses. Some, like “I dispute the amount of the debt,” are simple. Others are more lawyerly and contain terms like “unconscionability” and “laches.” The form is available only in English.

This is where Upsolve hopes to come in. The nonprofit has produced an 18-page “justice advocate training guide” for volunteer counselors. The guide includes a script that explains each of the boxes on the state form in plain language and instructions for helping the defendant fill it out.

New York’s judiciary rules make it a criminal misdemeanor for someone who is not a registered and licensed attorney to practice law. Upsolve’s suit argues that coming together to provide and receive free legal advice is a form of speech and association covered by the First Amendment.

The suit does not seek to overturn the rules. Rather, it asks the court to evaluate Upsolve’s volunteer-counselor program and carve out protection for it. The suit notes that New York lets nonlawyers who pass an exam represent workers’ compensation claimants.

Upsolve also argues that applying the unauthorized-practice-of-law rules to its volunteer counselors would “impede the very interests” the rules are meant to advance: protecting consumers from being fleeced and safeguarding the integrity of the justice system.

Laurence Tribe, the liberal legal icon who headed an access-to-justice initiative in President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, said in an interview that demanding a law degree to help someone fill out a simple form serves largely to protect lawyers from competition. He said of Upsolve’s suit, “If you want a test case to bring sanity as well as constitutional values to a process in which the legal profession has edged out both, this is it.”

Upsolve’s suit contains affidavits from people who say they would have benefited greatly from free legal help.

Liz Jurado of Bay Shore, N.Y., received a notice in 2019 from the Suffolk County sheriff’s office concerning a bill for an epidural she had been given during labor more than a decade before.

Ms. Jurado, 45, who works at DoorDash, said she had never been served with a lawsuit, yet the notice said there had been a default judgment against her and that she owed an anesthesiologist over $12,000.

When she gave birth, doctors “didn’t give me an option and say, ‘Oh, by the way, this is not covered’ — there was no talk about insurance,” she said.

The debt forced Ms. Jurado into bankruptcy. She said that even if she had known about the suit before the default judgment was entered, she could not have afforded the thousands of dollars a lawyer would have charged to help her fight it.

“If I could afford the lawyer fees, I would have just paid the bill,” she said.

Christopher Lepre, 48, a technician at a power plant on Long Island, sent “multiple emails to many lawyers” seeking help after he received a default judgment demanding nearly $16,000 for a loan for a used, warranted S.U.V. he had bought.

None called back, he said.

His wages have been garnished by over $1,000 per month since early last year for the S.U.V., which stopped working three months after he bought it.

“In a couple more months, it’ll be paid off, but I’m still out all that money,” Mr. Lepre said. “I’ll never get it back.”



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OSHA withdraws its workplace vaccine rule.

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The Biden administration is withdrawing its requirement that large employers mandate workers be vaccinated or regularly tested, the Labor Department said on Tuesday.

In pulling the rule, the Labor Department recognized what most employers and industry experts said after the court’s ruling — that the emergency temporary standard could not be revived after the Supreme Court blocked it earlier this month.

“It’s their admitting what everyone had been saying, which is that the rule is dead,” said Brett Coburn, a lawyer at Alston & Bird.

The Supreme Court’s decision, which was 6 to 3, with the liberal justices in dissent, said the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, did not have the authority to require workers to be vaccinated for coronavirus or tested weekly, describing the agency’s approach as “a blunt instrument.” The mandate would have applied to some 80 million people if it had not been struck down.

The Labor Department’s decision to withdraw the rule means that the outstanding legal proceedings will be dropped. The case was headed back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati for further consideration, though that court most likely would have followed the Supreme Court’s lead and struck it down.

OSHA could still try to move a version of the vaccine-or-test standard forward through its official rule-making process, such as one focused on high-hazard industries like meatpacking, but that would likely still face legal challenges, according to David Michaels, a former OSHA administrator and a professor at George Washington University.

Without the Labor Department’s standard in effect, employers are subject to a patchwork of state and local laws on Covid-19 workplace safety, with places like New York City requiring vaccine mandates and other governments banning them.

“OSHA continues to strongly encourage the vaccination of workers against the continuing dangers posed by Covid-19 in the workplace,” the Labor Department wrote in the notice of its withdrawal.



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Recent Commercial Real Estate Transactions

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$8.425 MILLION

91 Bruckner Boulevard and 402-406 East 134th Street (at Willis Avenue)

The Bronx

These two one-story commercial buildings in the Mott Haven neighborhood are on separate but connected lots and have one unit apiece. The 14,500-square-foot building at 91 Bruckner Boulevard was built in 1927, and the 10,000-square-foot building at 402-406 East 134th Street was built in 1990. Both were delivered vacant.

Buyer: Anshel Fridman of 91 Bruckner Blvd L.L.C.

Seller: Jeffrey Fiedler of Jescan Realty

Broker: Michael Saidian of Capital Property Partners

Credit…Brax Realty

$15 MILLION

10 Fifth Avenue (at West Eighth Street)

Manhattan

Built in 1849 by Henry Brevoort as a single-family mansion, this five-story, 12,648-square-foot building in Greenwich Village consists of 14 apartments — one studio, 10 one-bedrooms and three two-bedrooms, all occupied — and three commercial units, occupied by Le Pain Quotidien, a cafe and a Covid-19 testing provider.

Buyer: REDA 10 Fifth

Seller: Benchmark Real Estate Group

Broker: Michael J. Ferrara of Brax Realty

$11 MILLION

29 Brooklyn Avenue (between Herkimer Street and Atlantic Avenue)

126 Herkimer Street (between Nostrand and New York Avenues)

Brooklyn

These two buildings in Bedford-Stuyvesant, built in 1910, are two blocks apart and are being sold together. The five-story, 15,440-square-foot building at 29 Brooklyn Avenue has 20 apartments: 11 two-bedrooms and nine three-bedrooms; six of the apartments are rent-stabilized, two are rent-controlled and two are vacant. The four-story, 10,508-square-foot building at 126 Herkimer Street has 13 apartments: one one-bedroom, 11 two-bedrooms and one three-bedroom. Two apartments are vacant, and two are rent-stabilized.

Sellers: 126 Herkimer Residences and 29 Brooklyn Residences

Brokers: Lev Mavashev and Daniel Aminov of Alpha Realty



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