Keeping the powerful in check

In and out of court, before juries or judges alone and on appeal, Jeffrey D. Buss of Yonkers-based Smith, Buss & Jacobs LLP has taken on the complexities of everything but business fraud to environmental and real estate law. As general counsel for the Riverbay Corp. – as Co-Op City on the Pelham Bay side of the Bronx is formally known – he has once again helped refinance the middle-income housing development’s mortgage to the tune of $621.5 million.

Ask Jeffrey D. Buss, founding partner of Yonkers-based Smith, Buss & Jacobs LLP, why he became a lawyer and he’ll tell you, “I like to help people. I find when you help people, you become a bully beater. You take on someone who has power over someone else. I like to bring that person down to earth. The law lets you do this.”

Buss’ high-profile clients have included a Jordanian hotelier, who filed claims against the U.S. government for violating his due process rights under the Afghan Constitution when American plans to have him build a hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, fell through; Rhona Silver, who claimed her real estate developer-boyfriend bilked her out of proceeds from the sale of her Huntington Town House catering business on Long Island; and graduates of the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, who sued the Hershey Trust Co. for its alleged failure to meet its obligations to the charitable institution.

In and out of court — and most cases, Buss says, don’t go to trial — before juries or judges alone and on appeal, he has taken on the complexities not only of business fraud, First Amendment and constitutional law, the governance of religious corporations, commercial bankruptcy, civil rights and public health but also environmental and real estate law. As general counsel for the Riverbay Corp. — as Co-Op City on the Pelham Bay side of the Bronx is formally known — he has once again helped refinance the middle-income housing development’s mortgage to the tune of $621.5 million. (See story on Page 40.)

“Buildings, like people, age,” he says. “Co-Op City is (54) years old. It looks good for its age. But the buildings’ (infrastructure) needs an upgrade.” 

With its own zip code, 10475, Co-Op City has 15,372 units housing some 45,000 residents, whose average income, Buss says, is about $54,000 a year. It has three shopping centers, 150 businesses, 107 armed peace officers and its own sanitation and energy facilities. At a time when cities like New York are under the microscope for high crime, higher rents and racial tensions, Co-Op City — the largest cooperative housing development in the world — is a racially diverse community with the lowest crime rate in the Bronx except for the area of the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo near Arthur Avenue, he adds.

While most of the money to run Co-Op City comes from shareholders paying mortgages, the refinancing will give it $124 million for such capital improvements as façade maintenance and upgrades to the heating, ventilation, electrical and air conditioning systems.

Such energy concerns are near to Buss’ heart. He’s guided the legal aspects of Co-Op City’s construction and operation of an on-campus co-generation facility that supplies all of its energy while selling excess power to Con Ed. He is also the founding CEO of Energy for the Future Inc., a start-up that is developing 12 utility-scale solar farms in the Northeast. The first of EFFI’s projects, a 20- megawatt solar farm in Greene County in upstate New York, has been recognized by the governor’s office and awarded renewable energy credits by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

“They’re separate,” he says of his legal career and energy venture, “and I try to keep them from overlapping. To date, they never have.”

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, the first in his family to go to college (New York University before earning his Juris Doctor at Brooklyn Law School), Buss says the law was “something I was always drawn to,” with the public interest being a particular passion.

He began his career as a Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellow, working with the disadvantaged, and as staff counsel for the Public Utility Law Project (PULP). Under Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, Buss served as the governor’s appointee and chair of the New York State Low Income Energy Assistance Block Grant Advisory Committee, the New York State Weatherization Assistance Program Advisory Council and the Social Security Act Title XX Block Grant Advisory Council.

A member of the American Bar Association, the New York State Bar Association and the Association of Corporate Counsel, Buss has also served as general counsel for several public and private boards, including the Yonkers City Council; the city of Mount Vernon; the Mount Vernon Industrial Development Agency; TaherInvest, a multinational development corporation; and Silo5 Energy. In 1991, he helped found Smith, Buss & Jacobs, which also has offices in Manhattan and Garden City, Long Island.

Buss is a northern Westchester resident, a husband and the father of a radiation oncologist working with a Nobel Prize winner. Talking about his accomplished daughter could fill another story, he says with a laugh and more than a little pride.

For this story, he adds that he has found the pandemic era’s need for working remotely to be a transformative ally in the legal profession. Thanks to Zoom, he can appear in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware one moment and the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Brooklyn the next, as he did recently. But Zoom helps in other ways.

“You can see faces more clearly and read the emotional responses to the statements being made, which is important in representing your clients.”

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