- Associated Press - Friday, September 21, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) - The former president of the prestigious National Arts Club mismanaged the institution and used its resources to finance a luxurious and eccentric lifestyle that included cramming club-owned apartments with vast quantities of thrift store purchases, state regulators said Friday.

In a civil lawsuit that followed 15 years of public squabbling and legal battles, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said longtime club president O. Aldon James essentially lived off the organization for years while maintaining rigid control and squelching critics who questioned him.

While James took no salary for running the club, he got it to pay for about $250,000 in personal expenses since 2006, according to the lawsuit. The charges included $94,000 worth of free meals in the club’s dining room, $20,000 in charges at restaurants and $52,600 in limousine company bills.

James, his brother and one of their associates lived in apartments at the club’s Manhattan headquarters, paying rents dramatically below the norm for their coveted Gramercy Park location, the lawsuit said. The group also got eight other apartments in the building for their personal use at no cost, according to the lawsuit.

The suit said James also used tens of thousands of dollars club money to go on repeated shopping sprees at flea markets and Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries thrift shops. The items he purchased were then crammed into space he commandeered at the club _ creating conditions that, for years, have led his critics to accuse him of being a compulsive hoarder.

James‘ lawyer, Gerald Shargel, called the lawsuit “frivolous and insulting.”

“Everything Aldon Jones did, he did to benefit the club,” Shargel said. He credited Jones with turning the club around and making it relevant on New York’s cultural scene again after becoming its president in 1986.

“Twenty five years, and he never put a dime of club money in his pocket,” Shargel said. James was removed as president in 2011.

As for the hoarding allegations, Shargel acknowledged that Jones had purchased “decorative arts” objects for the club, but he said any suggestion that doing so was malfeasance is wrong.

“Is this a lawsuit about management style or taste?” he said. “People are now going to second-guess what he thinks is beautiful?”

The attorney general’s lawsuit said that if the club’s apartments had been rented out, rather than used for personal living space and storage, it could have brought in at least $1.5 million in the last six years.

“Our message is loud and clear: You serve your organization; the organization isn’t there to serve you,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

Founded in 1898 by an arts critic for The New York Times, the National Arts Club has occupied a mansion adjacent to Gramercy Park since 1906. Its mission is to promote public interest in the arts, and its membership list has included luminaries from Mark Twain to Theodore Roosevelt to Martin Scorsese.

The district attorney’s office in Manhattan said that after an investigation, it had concluded that Jones’ actions did not constitute “provable criminal conduct,” and that the matter was best handled in civil court.