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The unusual case of Franciszek Kulon

Local artist may lose his house

By FRITZ MAYER

PARKSVILLE, NY — Franciszek (Frank) Kulon’s rambling house on Aden Hill Road is full of paintings, some of them quite recognizable as being controversial depictions of local officials. Now that home may be taken away and put up for auction at the Sullivan County tax sale on June 9.

Kulon admits that he has not paid all of his taxes. In May of 2009, he thought he paid the taxes that were due for 2008. But according to county treasurer Ira Cohen, state law dictates that if a person owes back taxes for multiple years, the most recent bill must be paid first. Therefore, because the overdue tax bill was two years old, the county began foreclosure proceedings and took title to the house.

Kulon claims that he was not properly notified that this was happening. In an affidavit filed with Sullivan County Supreme Court, Kulon said that he received a form letter about the foreclosure in November 2009, but when he called the treasurer’s office, he was told “it must have been a mistake and I should not worry about it.”

Cohen disputes this and says that the foreclosure process was explained in May 2008, again in November 2009, and Kulon was notified in numerous ways.

After February 8, 2010, a five percent surcharge fine kicked in, which is about $5,000. So a tax bill that would have been about $800 in 2008 has now, with fees and penalties, ballooned into an amount that is about $9,300, which Kulon must pay if he is to save his house.

Kulon said that this came as a surprise to him and that if he understood how the process worked, he would have acted differently. He does not believe he should not have to pay the $5,000 penalty, but Cohen said the fine is the result of a local law and, as treasurer, he does not have the unilateral power to forgive it.

The matter is now before Judge Burton Ledina.

Kulon’s view of some county officials has been colored by his unique experiences here, which started when he bought his house 15 years ago.

He had a neighbor named James D’Ambrose with whom he had a strained relationship. Early on, D’Amrose brought Kulon a rifle wrapped as a present. Kulon refused the gift, but the same thing happened a year later. This time, Kulon accepted and gave the rifle to another friend for safekeeping. D’Ambrose then reported that Kulon stole the gun.

Kulon spent four days in jail over a holiday weekend, and the charges were dismissed. D’Ambrose filed several other complaints against Kulon, followed by more arrests and dismissed charges.

Ultimately, according to court records, in 2004 D’Ambrose was accused of firing a shotgun at Kulon, and some of the pellets struck the tire of the tractor Kulon was riding. But it was Kulon who was detained at his home. Kulon’s lawyer, Michael Sussman, threatened to bring an unlawful arrest suit.

D’Ambrose then pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and left the area.

Kulon complained that D’Ambrose had been allowed to get away with attempted murder, and he was dissatisfied with the way the matter had been handled.

Prior to that, Kulon went to Liberty Justice Jeffrey Altbach to try to get some information about his case, and had no success. Kulon then painted a picture of Altbach, showing him with horns and naked except for a tie and a bit of shirt. He also used a picture of Altbach from the phone book to promote the painting.

Altbach sued for $1.5 million for defamation. Ultimately, the appellate court dismissed the suit, though Kulon had to pay a small fine for violating a temporary restraining order prohibiting him from displaying the picture. Other paintings followed, featuring other public figures including former judge Anthony Kane and former district attorney Steve Lungen. Kulon says the pictures, which feature a lot of nudity, were humorous; others saw them as scandalous. One of them is now housed in a museum in Dallas, TX.

Kulon said the paintings were the only way he could fight back against a system that he saw as unfair.

In the spring of 2003, another controversy erupted. A painting by Kulon featuring three cherubs, one of which is holding the pin of a hand grenade that is about to land on two children, was hung in the government center with many other paintings. After a single day, however, county officials ordered that the picture be taken down. Cohen then was the county attorney.

Kulon sued on freedom of expression grounds, and the court wrote, Cohen’s “decision to remove the painting was, by Cohen’s own account, plainly content-based: he was upset that it depicted violence.”

Kulon won a $40,000 settlement in 2007, but he never received any of the money. Sussman said Kulon didn’t receive any money because of a judgment from a separate lawsuit.

Cohen said there is no connection between that case and the foreclosure of Kulon’s house. He said his office started with a list of some 2,500 properties that were behind in taxes from 2008, most of which were redeemed; 290 were foreclosed, and he wasn’t aware of which properties are involved until nearly the end of the process. He said he would not abuse the power of his office.

Kulon, however, said that throughout his time in Sullivan County, he has had to fight to get officials to do the right thing. He said public officials should try to help residents, not take their homes.

Some of Kulon’s paintings are currently being exhibited at the Kurier Plus Gallery in Brooklyn and can be seen at www.fkulon.com.

TRR photo by Fritz Mayer
This non-controversial painting and many others were on display in Frank Kulon’s home on May 19 as he prepared for an exhibit. (Click for larger version)