A legal dispute with a view, at a famous D.C. address

By Paul Schwartzman, Washington Post, May 3, 2018

Wenkan Tian left her Watergate apartment for a jog on a December morning in 2012 and returned to discover a wrenching surprise: a padlock on her front door.

It was the latest salvo in her ongoing feud with the management of the prestigious building in which she had lived for 18 years.

Without warning, the Watergate South cooperative had seized Tian’s apartment after management grew fearful that a prolonged renovation project in her kitchen and bathroom was hazardous.

In tears, Tian borrowed money from a neighbor — her wallet, cellphone and coat were still inside the apartment — and went to D.C. Superior Court, where a judge ordered the Watergate to let her back into the one-bedroom unit she had shared with her husband until his death two years earlier.

[There goes the neighborhood: Obamas, Ivanka Trump and Jeff Bezos moving in]

If Tian hoped the Watergate’s management would retreat, she soon learned that the dispute was in its early phase, eventually resulting in at least two lawsuits, two appeals, one failed attempt to go before the U.S. Supreme Court and, finally, her eviction a year ago.

Alice Tian and her late husband, George L. Peabody, in Falls Church. (Family photo)
Yet, Tian, 52, is not done.

Her $12 million lawsuit against Watergate South — once dismissed — was recently revived when the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for her claim that she was wrongfully locked out of her apartment on that December morning in 2012.

“The only way to teach these people a lesson is through their wallet,” Tian said in an interview.

The dispute offers a glimpse inside the idiosyncratic life of a cooperative — a housing arrangement far more common to New York than Washington. In a co-op, residents own shares of the building but not their individual apartments, as they would in a condominium. As a result, they must work together to manage the property and need approval from fellow residents to make significant changes to their apartments.

When things go south, as in the case of the Watergate, conflicts can end up in court, where accumulated resentments and dysfunction among well-heeled residents of a famous building can play out in public view.

Alice Tian, who was evicted from the Watergate co-op in early 2017 and has been embroiled in a legal dispute with the building since 2012, goes through legal documents at her apartment in Falls Church. (Jason Andrew/For The Washington Post)
In court hearings, the Watergate’s lawyers and management have portrayed Tian as a deadbeat who failed to pay more than $35,000 in co-op fees and who berated building staff members and violated community rules. The dispute has cost the building more than $125,000 in legal fees.

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Tian has countered that she was forced out so that Peter Willson, until recently president of Watergate South’s board, could buy her apartment, as he did last year for $442,000. He and his wife then knocked through walls to combine the two units.

“This case is about a group of powerful Washington insiders, with strong political and judicial ties, aided and abetted by a self-enriching national law firm,” Tian wrote in her unsuccessful plea to the Supreme Court to hear her case (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Watergate resident, was not part of the deliberations).

Tian accused the Watergate of engaging in “predatory and fraudulent tactics to help one of their own rob a long-coveted property from a grieving widow.”

Willson, who became board president after Tian was initially locked out in 2012, dismissed her claim as “entirely false.”

By any measure, their exchanges have been nasty.

At one point, Willson testified, Tian told him during a hallway encounter that his daughter, who had died of breast cancer, “is in heaven and she is ashamed of you, and you know you’re going to hell.”

“That is one of the most hateful things anyone has ever said to me in my entire life,” Willson testified.

Johnny Barnes, the celebrated local attorney who is representing Tian, declined to comment on the case, as did the Watergate’s attorney, J.P. Sherry.

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Tian, who immigrated to the United States from China, has worked as an interpreter and business consultant and says she now supports herself through investment income. In the interview, she acknowledged invoking Willson’s dead daughter, but she said she was only trying to implore the board president to empathize with her plight. She said she considers herself “a very nice neighbor.”

“I never say nasty things,” she said. Moments later, she described Willson as “a greedy, imperialistic wolf.”

In his court testimony, Willson, a telecommunications executive, acknowledged asking a real estate broker about buying Tian’s apartment. Yet, when reached on his cellphone, Willson said that it was Tian’s nonpayment of co-op fees — not any interest he may have had in her apartment — that drove the building to seek to evict her.

Famous as the site of the June 17, 1972, break-in that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s fall, the Watergate complex is a grande dame of Washington real estate, its sweeping waterfront views luring powerful residents such as Nixon attorney general John Mitchell and his wife, Martha; senators Bob Dole and Elizabeth Dole; and former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara. When she was secretary of state under President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice owned two apartments at the Watergate.

Tian moved to the luxury complex in 1994 to live with George Peabody, then 72, her future husband who owned Apartment 1120 in Watergate South. Peabody, the scion of a well-known New England family, was an Episcopal priest who became a successful management consultant. His clients included IBM, AT&T and the CIA. He served on the Watergate’s board and was well-liked in the building.

Until his health deteriorated, Peabody managed the couple’s finances.

His widow’s difficulties began nearly a year after Peabody’s death, when she began renovating her kitchen and bathroom, a project she undertook even as she traveled regularly to China.

Tian initially thought the project would take a couple of weeks. But problems arose with a series of contractors and, at various points, she showered in a basement locker room because her bathroom lacked plumbing.

In the ensuing months, she said, she became convinced that the Watergate’s chief engineer was “meddling” with the contractors to keep the work from being completed. She accused him of seeking to harass her by entering her apartment with another employee when she was not home and without her permission.

In March 2012, with the project still incomplete, the building sent Tian a letter warning that the condition of her apartment — a lack of “running water and operable plumbing fixtures” — constituted “threats to the health, safety and welfare” of Watergate residents.

A second letter three months later threatened an unspecified “enforcement action” if she did not submit required paperwork for the contractors and if work did not soon resume. The building “will not permit Mrs. Peabody to reside in an uninhabitable space,” the letter warned.

Six months later, on the December morning she returned from jogging to discover her entrance padlocked, Tian said she found that same letter taped to her front door.

Tian, in the interview, said that the lockout stirred painful memories of her childhood in China during the Cultural Revolution, when police “ransacked” her family’s apartment and placed her father in detention.

“It struck a nerve in me,” said Tian, who included her claim in her lawsuit, which asserts that she “has been in therapy ever since the eviction, paying thousands of dollars in medical bills to deal with the consequences of the trauma.”

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Her life at the Watergate was relatively quiet after the judge ordered the building to allow her back into her apartment.

A new wave of difficulties began in June 2014, when Tian maintained that the management company that collects the Watergate’s co-op fees mistakenly deducted two electronic payments from her account.

Tian switched her form of payment to a check, but two more payments were refused by the Watergate’s bank because of a change of address “and confusion over whether she still had electronic withdrawals,” said Ken Cummins, a private investigator whom Tian consulted.

At that point, Cummins said, Tian “stopped all payments” and demanded that the Watergate’s board investigate. She suspected the building was trying to oust her.

“It looks like this was a simple problem to fix,” Cummins said. “It escalated to the point where there’s no rational explanation for how it got to the point where they ended up in court. She had the money. The management company could have resolved it with a little extra effort but didn’t take that step.”

By the spring of 2016, Tian owed the Watergate $36,000. The building took Tian to court, where Superior Court Judge Judith Macaluso ruled in the Watergate’s favor.

“She became a free rider who was able to enjoy the many benefits of her residence only because other members lived up to their financial responsibilities while she refused to do so,” the judge wrote in her opinion in January 2017.

Three weeks later, Tian was evicted. She said she put her belongings in storage and stayed with a friend before finding an apartment in Falls Church, Va., where she now lives.

Instead of the unobstructed views of Roosevelt Island and the Potomac River that she enjoyed at the Watergate, Tian now looks out on a parking lot and the complex’s tennis court and swimming pool, neither of which she has used.

She yearns for her old apartment and holds out hope that her lawsuit against the building can one day ensure her return, though that prospect seems unlikely because it’s now occupied by Willson and his wife.

But Tian also hopes that her lawsuit will deliver a message to the Watergate. “It tells them that they have to respect that I’m a human being,” she said.