Why fire Susan Rosenthal? Papers filed since her June dismissal expose a case against her that’s as weak as it is indefensible. If a Swiss cheese had as many holes, you’d demand your money back for the sandwich. And RIOC’s feckless board of directors takes the biggest hit for utter spinelessness.
By David Stone
Why fire Rosenthal? First, flimsy accusations…
In a mean-spirited attack violating New York State’s own rules, Governor Andrew Cuomo publicly tarred RIOC president/CEO Rosenthal as a racist. In a targeted press release, his top deputy Richard Azzopardi also charged her with sexually inappropriate behavior.
But the accusations on which their flaming rest were soon either dismissed or proved unsubstantiated. That changed nothing, and no retraction took place.
That press release, exclusive to the New York Post, provides material for Rosenthal’s charge of racial discrimination.
“I do not have the slightest doubt that the color of my skin,” she says, “gave them what they believed was license to do what they did.”
An initial series of complaints, distributed widely by email from a disgruntled, recently demoted employee, also violated state and RIOC rules. Not all recipients of the email were government representatives.
The email amounted to slanderous grandstanding, but the state rushed to judgment anyway. Disregard for Rosenthal’s privacy and right to defend herself came into play on Day One.
Although the allegations were not enough for bringing any charges, they were never retracted, the disgruntled writer apparently never punished. Neither the state nor RIOC followed up, never withdrawing the charges as not substantiated.
That was indefensible because it damaged Rosenthal’s reputation as a lifelong civil rights advocate. And because a state employee wrote it, probably on company time.
But justice was the last thing on Team Cuomo’s mind.
A strange turn taken…
And then, in a never explained sideways leap, following up, a state investigator, Georgianna Martin, swears she uncovered far worse.
Martin says that, in a telephone conversation with the disgruntled employee, she heard about some tape recordings. Rosenthal, she claims, made racially and sexually insensitive remarks on the tapes. Listening, Martin swears she recognized the CEO’s voice, but how credible is that?
Gaping holes in this version go unaddressed by the state. For an experienced investigator, Martin comes off as inexplicably gullible.
First, how could Martin listen to the tapes if her entire investigation was remote, conducted over the phone? How, for example, could she know they were not altered?
No one but Martin heard the tapes, verifying the contents or confirming her identification of Rosenthal. Court papers mention “tapes” without ever identifying their source or offering any forensic evidence of their being original.
Tapes? What tapes?
And the state now says they don’t even have the tapes nor does anyone party to the lawsuit.
Neither Rosenthal nor her attorney have heard them, and there’s no proof of their existence at all.
The state raced ahead, anyway, firing Rosenthal on a significant holiday. And that all happened, although no one wrote a report or collected witness statements.
In reality, it was really more like three days because nothing suggests any work on Saturday or Sunday. Also, after interviewing at least six RIOC employees, some multiple times, Martin swears she verified their credibility.
All this in three days…? But why the big rush? Was their some sort of deadline?
No one was in any danger, except of course Rosenthal, who may have been targeted.
So, why fire Rosenthal…?
Martin’s findings, never substantiated by anyone else, led to a racially tinged firing of Rosenthal. Cuomo’s top deputies, Melissa DeRosa and Richard Azzopardi both participated. DeRosa gave the investigation a nod and a wink, and Azzopardi composed the press release.
On Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery, late in the afternoon. Then, that evening, Cuomo’s operatives ordered RIOC’s board of enablers to promote Shelton Haynes, an African American vice president. Rosenthal calls this clear evidence of racial discrimination.
But why fire Susan Rosenthal at all with a rushed investigation and without a single hearing? Everyone agrees, including the state and RIOC, that the original complaint was lame. But if that wasn’t the guiding light, what was?
The real reasons, according to Rosenthal…
In papers filed on March 4th, Rosenthal cites three causes leading to her dismissal, but something unsaid and more nefarious lurks in the background.
In her earliest days at the helm, the former CEO says she pissed off Cuomo’s team by reorganizing RIOC. She irritated them by “terminating employees who were not doing their jobs.”
Simonida Sobotic, Cuomo’s deputy secretary objected, telling her, “We don’t fire people, we move people.”
If your jaw didn’t drop, right there, read that again. It’s like building a cesspool of incompetents.
Also, as the pandemic hit Roosevelt Island, Rosenthal further angered the governor by compensating essential employees with “hazard pay.” That included bus drivers and public safety officers, two of whom died from COVID-19, early in the crisis.
This rankled Cuomo because other state agencies didn’t as much for their staffs. But as Rosenthal notes, RIOC gets no funding from the state as others do. RIOC’s self-funded, mainly by the RIOC tax collected in rents.
Why fire Rosenthal? Was this the tipping point?
The proximate cause of her firing, court papers claim, was her repeated warnings of a catastrophe threatening Roosevelt Island.
Steam tunnels abandoned after the closing of Goldwater Hospital and running along the waterfront from that location all the way north to Coler are in imminent danger of collapse, she insists.
But after five years of warnings, the “issue could no longer be swept under the rug because of the danger it posed to the residents,” Rosenthal writes.
Langan Engineering, Rosenthal also argues, called out the risk of a “catastrophic collapse” during a “serious climate event,” echoing earlier warnings from the Army Corps of Engineers.
“Albany did not appreciate my constant pressuring,” she says, adding “my memorandum had angered them.”
Filing her lawsuit, Rosenthal originally pointed a finger at what she called a “cabal” of bad apples inside RIOC. The state agency, for unexplained reasons, tolerated their persistent attacks on management.
The disgruntled, recently demoted employee originating the investigation was part of that group, and associates gained position and power in the vacuum created after the CEO was replaced.
“Respondents injected race into the termination by branding Petitioner, a Caucasian, a racist,” said Attorney Stephen Storch in a Memorandum of Law.
“The facts of this case show that no African American would have been terminated under these circumstances on Juneteenth, the symbolic day memorializing the end of slavery. Nor would an African American, in violation of Respondents’ own policies, be publicly branded a racist as Respondents did to Petitioner.”
Timing and manner of Rosenthal’s dismissal suggests coordination between Cuomo’s office and RIOC employees. 591 Main Street swung open the gate, and the state waltzed in.
A shellacking for RIOC’s feeble board of enablers…
Defending Rosenthal, Storch does not go easy on RIOC’s board.
“Nor can the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation and its board members (“RIOC Defendants”) avoid responsibility by falsely claiming they had nothing to do with the termination. The RIOC Defendants were well aware that the original complainant had a penchant for attacking management with bogus complaints. The RIOC Defendants knew that the complainant had violated GOER’s (Governor’s Office of Employee Relations) and RIOC’s rules by widely circulating her bogus claims.”
“The RIOC board had the power to hire and fire, and had a fiduciary duty to RIOC employees, including Petitioner. The RIOC board abdicated its fiduciary duty.
“It stood by and allowed GOER to usurp its authority and, after Petitioner was terminated, refused to exercise its responsibility to make sure their employee was being properly treated.
“While it was nice of one of the board members to commiserate with Petitioner about the “hatchet job” that was being done to her, action was what was required.”
That board member was Howard Polivy, and he sheepishly went along with the governors actions anyway.
Why fire Rosenthal and let other violations go?
Rosenthal’s legal council already wonders about discipline for the disgruntled employee. Was there any? And if not, why not?
But other glaring misconduct on the management side may be staring right at you.
Gretchen Robinson, as RIOC’s chief counsel under whom the disgruntled employee worked, apparently never reported any sexual or racial misconduct by Rosenthal. But as a supervisor, according to the GOER handbook, she was required to report any of which she became aware.
Surely, as legal counsel for the corporation, she was aware of the board’s responsibility for hiring and firing executives. But there’s no evidence of her objecting to Cuomo’s sweeping in on Rosenthal’s firing and Haynes’s hiring.
And there is, also, no evidence of her protesting Azzopardi’s crude press release to the Post. The action was so abrupt and cruel, it was how Rosenthal learned about the details of her dismissal.
The state’s handbook promises that “All discrimination complaints and investigations will be kept confidential.”
But Azzopardi blasted the whole debacle across an international network of news media. Did Robinson object publicly to this clear violation of state policy? Not according to the record.
And what about Shelton Haynes, now promoted into Rosenthal’s job?
There is no clear evidence that Haynes knew anything about the worst charges against Rosenthal or the tapes. But Martin interviewed him at least twice, disrupting a family emergency that had him anchored in Georgia.
Because it’s unlikely she groomed him for taking over, the calls must have been material. Yet Haynes is not on record as ever filing a complaint with GOER, as required. So, what was the content of her calls?
The state’s defense does not include any notes concerning Martin’s calls to RIOC employees.
Did he ever ask, “Why fire Rosenthal?” before leaping at the chance of replacing her? From a thousand miles away?
What did he know, and when did he know it?
As an executive nurtured and promoted by Rosenthal, why didn’t he raise a flag about the state’s glaring misconduct… before, during or after?
Rosenthal’s motion for obtaining additional information, especially regarding the alleged tapes, is pending in New York State Supreme Court.