Dem House Candidate’s Business Faced Warrant for $100K in Unpaid Taxes

Aaron Woolf touts business experience, but his firm’s problems could be a liability

Aaron Woolf
Aaron Woolf / AP

A business owned by a Democratic House candidate who frequently touts his private sector experience was hit with a tax warrant in 2008 for a failure to pay more than a hundred thousand dollars in New York state taxes.

The warrant reveals that Urban Rustic, a Brooklyn "craft foods store" owned by congressional candidate Aaron Woolf, owed the state $131,734.93 in back taxes, penalties, and interest from 2005 to 2007.

The office of the state’s Commissioner of Taxation and Finance served the warrant in January 2008. The firm settled the debts more than a year later.

The warrant refers to articles 28 and 29 of the New York State tax code, which deal with sales taxes.

Woolf has pointed to Urban Rustic as an example of him "championing small business," and tried to tie its operations in New York City to the upstate district that he is running to represent.

"It is a thriving market eatery that sells dozens of products from a variety of New York producers, a number of whom are from the 21st district," Woolf’s website says.

His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the business’ tax problems.

Republicans say those problems undermine Woolf’s business-centric message.

"He says what he thinks people want to hear," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ian Prior. "But when you take a look at his actions as a business owner and wealthy investor it becomes increasing clear that Woolf is a hypocrite, an incompetent businessman, and ultimately the last person that should be representing the North Country in Congress."

Scrutiny of Woolf’s New York business ventures go beyond tax problems. Urban Rustic and a nearby bar and restaurant called The Lodge have been sanctioned for extensive health code violations.

Urban Rustic alone was cited for 50 violations, including "evidence of mice or live mice present in the facility’s food and/or non-food areas" and "filth flies or food/refuse/sewage associated flies in food or other areas," the New York Daily News reported last month.

The Lodge has been the target of 33 violations, for offenses including the presence of live roaches.

Woolf has also come under fire for a 2010 lawsuit brought against Urban Rustic by two of its former employees who say they were wrongfully denied overtime pay.

Two Urban Rustic chefs alleged that they and 20 other employees were denied the time-and-a-half pay to which they were entitled under state law. The suit was settled out of court.

Urban Rustic’s attorney admitted that "plaintiffs were entitled to at least some overtime payments, and that the defendants are liable to some extent for the wage violations," according to a Daily News report on the lawsuit.

Woolf ostensibly had no knowledge of the apparent violations. "He didn't even know what was going on," the attorney said.

Even if true, Urban Rustic’s problems could weigh on Woolf’s ballyhooed private sector experience.

The Daily News noted that the business was stiffing workers even as Woolf was calling for a minimum wage hike.

Having enjoyed significant personal financial success, Woolf is also keen on the "Buffett Rule," which would dramatically hike taxes on investment income.

"Our government should pass laws that ensure everyone pays their fair share," he said of the measure. He has also called on Congress "to close tax loopholes for millionaires and billionaires."

However, Woolf himself has refused to release personal tax returns. His business’ tax problems could fuel criticism from his Republican opponent, Elise Stefanik, who has pushed the tax return issue in recent days.