Michigan State Board of Education member Jayson Strayhorn abruptly resigned his position last month and left the state amid a disintegrating business deal that has led to at least one lawsuit and six complaints filed to Michigan’s attorney general.
An Israeli investor is suing Maven Property Management Co., Strayhorn and his business partner, Alysa Kowalsky, alleging the owners and the company failed to make $50,000 in promised repairs and renovations to a home in Detroit or return the money and took $30,000 in federal housing funds connected to other properties.
The lawsuit, filed in Wayne County Circuit Court in May by Idangar and Cadieux Express, accuses Strayhorn, Kowalsky and Maven of entering into a contract last August and failing by October to perform the work for a home on Cadieux. The suit also alleges Maven and its owners applied for $30,000 in federal emergency housing funds in Idangar’s name after tenants became delinquent on rent and failed to deliver the money to Idangar, which owns 12 homes in Detroit.
Strayhorn, a former Michigan State University offensive lineman and captain and current radio broadcaster for the MSU football team, denied the Wayne County allegations through his attorney and filed a counterclaim in the matter against Kowalsky and his own company, Maven. Strayhorn alleges he was locked out of the company by Kowalsky in March and was denied further access to the business. He denied any wrongful conduct, according to the suit.
“Mr. Strayhorn has filed a crossclaim in the case alleging that co-defendant Alysa Kowalsky is the Manager of Maven Properties, LLC (‘Maven’) and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of Maven,” Strayhorn’s attorney, Alec Torigian, wrote in an email to The Detroit News. His counterclaim states that if wrongful conduct alleged in the lawsuit occurred, it was the result of actions taken by Kowalsky.
Kowalsky also denies the claims in the Wayne County lawsuit and contends she is a victim of Strayhorn. The allegations in the Wayne County complaint against Strayhorn are similar to accusations made by Kowalsky and five investors who filed complaints in recent weeks with the Michigan Attorney General’s office alleging Strayhorn left them with financial losses and cut off contact with them.
Kowalsky and two of the investor complaints also allege Strayhorn used his public office status to gain the trust of investors.
“Mr. Strayhorn is also aware of the complaints submitted to the Attorney General’s Office and, while he has not yet had an opportunity to formally respond to them, Mr. Strayhorn denies any and all allegations of wrongdoing in their entirety,” Torigian wrote to The News.
No charges have been filed against Strayhorn, Kowalsky or Maven.
Kowalsky, co-owner of Maven with Strayhorn, filed a public integrity complaint with the attorney general on July 26, three days before Strayhorn resigned from the state board citing family and relocations reasons. Maven, started by Strayhorn and Kowalsky in 2020, collected rent and hired workers to make repairs to properties in Detroit owned by overseas property owners.
In her complaint, Kowalsky alleges Strayhorn transferred money from a Maven business account to a personal account and used his title as an elected official to gain the trust of investors to buy real estate. Kowalsky alleges in the complaint that Strayhorn “appears to have taken” in excess of $750,000 from the business and multiple investors.
On Thursday, Strayhorn and his wife, Alicia Strayhorn, filed a lawsuit in Oakland County against Kowalsky alleging that, since March, she has denied him access to Maven’s books and records, removed transactions documenting wrongful transfers and attempted to deplete accounts.
Strayhorn alleges Kowalsky transferred funds to herself and other unknown companies totaling more than $244,000, including three unauthorized electronic wires from a second company established by Strayhorn and Kowalsky to Istanbul and Turkey for $23,100 in January. He also alleges Kowalsky has brought in “several million” in incoming wire transfers from Maven clients in Israel but has failed to deposit the money into Maven accounts.
The Strayhorns are asking for a judge to order the dissolution of the company and to prohibit Kowalsky from spending Maven funds.
On Friday, after learning about Strayhorn’s lawsuit against her, Kowalsky said she had not been served but added: “This distraction will not prevent the authorities from finding the facts they need to support my claims and my investors’ claims.”
Kowalsky accuses Strayhorn, a Michigan broker who now lives in California, of moving $25,827 from Maven’s rental account, depositing $22,627 into his personal bank account and using the rest to pay employees. She alleges this was an improper use of the account because it contained rent payments and funds from the federal COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA) program.
“We have several clients that were NEVER paid their CERA funds and also some landlords that couldn’t even be paid their regular monthly rent,” Kowalsky wrote in her attorney general complaint.
Meanwhile, five investors with Maven filed separate complaints against Strayhorn with the state Attorney General’s office earlier this month. They claim they paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for renovation projects in Detroit and Oakland County but were never repaid their investment or any promised profits.
Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Attorney General, confirmed six complaints about Strayhorn were filed and received by the office and that the department is reviewing them. She had no further comment.
Elected as a Democrat to the eight-member board in 2020, Strayhorn told Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a letter on July 29 that he was moving out of state to support academic and sports opportunities offered to his three children. The board is charged with improving public education for 1.5 million children but has no enforcement powers.
State Board of Education spokesman Martin Ackley declined to comment, saying “this is a private legal matter for Mr. Strayhorn that has nothing to do with his service on the State Board of Education.” When asked about Strayhorn’s alleged tactic of using his elected office to gain the trust of clients, Ackley said, “The Michigan Department of Education was not aware of that allegation and we respectfully decline to comment.”
Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy referred inquiries to the Attorney General’s office and declined further comment.
What some investors say
Susan and Igal Atlas, an Israeli investor couple, on Aug. 4 filed a complaint with the state, alleging they gave Maven $500,000 of retirement money to invest in Detroit properties.
“We were promised a nice return on our investment within 4-6 months,” the complaint states. “… Jason and Alysa came to Israel in March of 2022(.) Jason reassured us that although the projects are taking longer than expected, he is a public official and a well know persona in the football world and never could just ‘take our money and run and hide.'””
Susan Atlas, 78, told The News that Strayhorn came into their home in Israel, hugged her husband and promised to take care of him like a father.
“He seemed so reliable and respectful. … He visited us. He was charming. He had credentials. He seemed to be a very upstanding person,” she said.
She added: “First of all we were shocked, then disappointed when this happened. … It’s very upsetting. My husband, he doesn’t sleep at night. He is 82.”
Their daughter, Elana Atlas, who lived in Florida and is in Israel now, said she is out $102,000 she gave Maven for investment properties in Detroit, including one on Muirland. The house was purchased for $45,000 in September, and she paid $57,000 for repairs, Elana said. No work was done for months, she alleged.
Elana came to Detroit to look at the house in July and said she found the electricity was shut off at the home and a sticker dated in May was put on the front door indicating the house was placed on a demolition list.
On Aug. 8, Kowalsky said she was at the property where she saw the plumbing, electrical lines, furnace and hot water heater were stolen. Water and open broken windows have caused further damage, warping the wood floors, requiring more work than originally planned.
“It’s just a nightmare,” Elana Atlas said. “Nothing was done at Muirland.”
Attorney David Harris Applebaum, who represents the two companies suing Maven, Strayhorn and Kowalsky in Wayne County, said he is aware that both Strayhorn and Kowalsky are blaming each other for the missing money.
“Unfortunately, the money disappeared. The CERA money was delivered to the property management company,” Applebaum said. “There is a game here. She says he took the money. He says she did. I don’t know who took it. … My client is entitled to the funds.”
Strayhorn files police report
On July 18, Strayhorn filed a police report against Kowalsky in Novi, alleging she threatened him. Strayhorn’s attorneys did not respond to a request to discuss the report.
The News obtained a heavily redacted police report filed by Strayhorn that states he told a Novi police detective that he was being harassed by phone by an “ex-business partner.”
After the Novi police contacted her about the claim, Kowalsky said she told them that Strayhorn had embezzled money from their business. She recently filed a police report alleging embezzlement with the Farmington Hills police department. She denies threatening Strayhorn.
Farmington Hills Police Chief Jeff King said the department does not comment on active investigations.
Kowalsky said she met Strayhorn in January 2020, and the pair decided to start a company together in March that year, just days before the pandemic shut the state down. By October, they managed to grow the firm fast enough to hire three employees after Kowalsky found numerous overseas investors who wanted to buy properties in Detroit, she said.
Kowalsky said Strayhorn would get clients, who were mostly Israeli and not trusting of strangers, to trust him by stating he was a public figure and a broadcaster from MSU. He was a former All-Pro Big Ten center for MSU.
“He would say, ‘I’m an elected official for the state of Michigan, so it’s not like I can take your money and run. I’m a big Black guy, 6-foot-3, and it’s not like I can hide,’ ” Kowalsky said.
“I’m female and Jewish and most clients are Jewish. They are not trusting people. They trusted him.”
With 20 projects going at once in fall 2020, investors started asking for updates on progress, Kowalsky said. Strayhorn started dodging calls, she said.
By spring 2021, investors were agitated and contractors said they could not locate him, Kowalsky said.
The pair took the trip to Israel to reassure investors like the Atlas family, Kowalsky said. In December, Strayhorn told her that his wife and children were moving out of state, so Kowalsky said she hired all new contractors to begin work in January.
Kowalsky said she confronted Strayhorn about the books in June after she hired a forensic accountant to examine them.
“I was shocked with what I found. There is over $500,000 that’s gone,” Kowalsky said.
Kowalsky said she contacted the Attorney General’s office on her own because Strayhorn was an elected official and the office covers statewide issues. She encouraged the others to do the same. She also called the FBI, she said.
FBI officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Kowalsky, who is also being sued in the U.S. District Court in Detroit by a former Maven employee alleging racial discrimination, said she estimates at least 10 investors are victims. She denies the allegations in the bias suit.
Clark Sexton of Novi filed his complaint against Strayhorn on Aug. 5, alleging Strayhorn’s wife, Alicia, approached him about being a silent partner in a 12-month real estate project in Oakland County’s Beverly Hills in 2016 before Maven was started.
“The plan was that we would invest $300K in a renovation project, and upon completion, we would split the profit,” according to the complaint. “The property finally sold 2/28/2018 for $615K, and Jason never made us aware of the sale. Once he finally admitted that it sold, he claimed that there was no profit in the transaction for us to split.”
In 2018, Sexton hired a lawyer and cashed in $190,000 in retirement funds to try to recover, the complaint said. He invested directly with Strayhorn, not Maven.
“I am willing to do what I can to make sure he pays,” Sexton’s complaint said.
For Kowalsky, she said she has spent $300,000 of her own money to attempt to make investors whole and have their homes repaired and sold. All three Atlas investors — Susan, Igal and Elana Atlas — said Kowalsky is spending her own money to help them.
“We have all these investors with homes that aren’t finished. My name is my integrity. I am meeting with people and told them I will get the work done,” Kowalsky said.