Attorney Markus Sztejnberg, an ethicist according to his LinkedIn profile, flashed on and off the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s (RIOC) stage in the past year. But ethics never appeared as a driving factor. He said little, never lied as far as we know, but his work within a conniving organization may speak for itself.
by David Stone
Sztejnberg first showed up on the public radar last fall when RIOC’s Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson introduced him at a virtual board meeting. He was, she said, the architect of a plan removing RIOC staff as well as the Residents Association Common Council from handing Public Purpose Fund Grants. Instead, it would be handed over to New York Community Trust, an outside nonprofit group without local bias.
But there were some surprising twists. Certainly, the granting process was badly bungled for years and saturated with personal agendas. But why was an ethicist called in rather than just a consultant experienced enough to untangle the knots?
Robinson never said, but strangely, she did say that RIOC along with Battery Park City Authority shared him as an employee. She may have misspoke because, according to Sztejnberg, he worked independently and included both only as part of his “portfolio.”
Roosevelt Islanders, however, along with RIOC’s own staff had never heard of him.
What Does a Government Ethicist Do?
The job of an ethicist is to advise on “the right thing to do” when values collide. It’s a broad field with no universally accepted definition. But most people agree that the central task is to help make good decisions when there’s more than one way to proceed and some degree of risk or harm involved.
There’s no commonly accepted ethical code for ethicists, but the American Philosophical Association offers this advice to practitioners: “When offering ethical advice, ethicists should attempt to be clear, consistent, and as impartial as possible.”
In other words, an ethicist is someone you call in when you can’t figure out what the right thing is and you need someone to help you figure it out.
As we learned, the handoff to NYCT worsened the granting process. The results suggested the state might be settling scores against nonprofits that failed to “kiss the ring” of RIOC’s sensitive President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes. One thing is for sure – ethical it was not.
The Wildlife Freedom Foundation – where the leader, Rosanna Ceruzzi, led protests against RIOC’s environmental mishandling – was offered only a sham grant of $1,000, for example. And the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, a key player in the community, was slapped with a cut of over 50% after criticizing the state behemoth.
And Then, the Curtain Lifted. But Slowly
Before the New York Community Trust’s awards were known, though, a creepiness with the state agency grew more ominous, concurrent with Sztejnberg’s emergence from the ethical shadows. RIOC’s deeply unethical Freedom of Information request handling ground to a virtual halt with a blossoming of new excuses for withholding information.
And the ethicist got involved in that tangle too.
According to a sworn notice in an anticipated federal lawsuit against RIOC by Arthur Eliav, who was fired by Haynes after he argued against unethical internal conduct, Robinson announced a legal department expansion. A new position was being created.
The qualifications – which Robinson herself could not meet – were written in a way that disqualified Eliav, a fifteen-year veteran, and everyone else currently on staff.
Although already in hot water with Haynes and Robinson over his insistence that they follow the rules in releasing documents requested under FOIL, Eliav protested the new job posting:
(The posting) “…it appeared specifically to exclude anyone who had dedicated their whole career to RIOC, as he had; the impropriety of the pre-qualifications set forth in the posting; the fact that this position was not being handled as recent promotions within RIOC had been handled (such promotions, as well known to Respondents herein, including those of, inter alia, Sharpe, Robinson, and Altheria Jackson, all Black females); the fact that his promotion was not being handled fairly or in the normal process that was afforded to others. In a follow-up email, Eliav reiterated that the process was rigged and unfairly prejudicial.” – Excerpted from Eliav’s Notice of Claim.
Eliav adds that he “reported these concerns of impropriety to Robinson, the RIOC General Counsel, precisely in a manner prescribed by the RIOC Policies on Reporting Misconduct and Protection Against Adverse Personnel Action…”
Then, the Roof Caved In for Eliav
Less than 48 hours later, while at home on sick leave, Eliav was fired by RIOC without prior notice or explanation via email. Eliav had never been cited for any misconduct, and his employee evaluations, which ceased generally under Haynes, were positive.
Speculation is that the absence of any reason for his dismissal is defensive. Haynes or Robinson are less likely to be accused of a violation if there is no cause to be challenged.
In a tactic used by Haynes’s predecessor Susan Rosenthal, Haynes is expected to cite “restructuring” as the motive.
That rationale is apparently in play justifying other dismissals of longtime employees: Erica Spencer-EL, who challenged Haynes’s authority; Karline Jean who openly accused him of bullying; Jessica Cerone and Amy Smith. All but Smith were 15-year plus employees at RIOC and fired without public notice.
A New Twist for Sztejnberg
RIOC’s maneuvering with the ethicist reached a new high when, just weeks after Eliav’s dismissal, Sztejnberg’s hiring as a staff attorney was announced. For practical purposes, he filled the position left open after Eliav’s dismissal.
Ethical improvements in RIOC operations did not ensue. In fact, their media blackout darkened. A whistleblower complaint filed with the Inspector General described Sztejnberg as a tool of the governor’s office, sharpened under the roof of Andrew Cuomo. He had, they said, proven his fealty and was now an agent of the current governor, Kathy Hochul.
Hochul is ultimately responsible for Haynes, Robinson and the rest of RIOC.
But the Sztejnberg Gambit Wasn’t Over Yet
After just a couple of months, the ethical specialist was also gone, but this time, a reason was offered. In a lighthearted exchange before the Board of Directors, Robinson and Haynes said that Sztejnberg resigned after getting a lucrative offer in the private sector.
Robinson implied that, since he’d earn three-times his $150K+ salary elsewhere, who could blame him? But as is so often the case at RIOC, no private firm was ever mentioned. And it wasn’t necessary. Consistent with a history of negligence, the board nodded along in bobblehead acquiesence.
Now, anyone is free to check Sztejnberg’s LinkedIn Profile. No change in his employment status is registered in the past year. That is, there is no hiring at RIOC nor any new work in the private sector. According to his self-maintained profile, the ethicist continues doing what he’s been doing for years.
And one last thing. This spring Robinson announced another legal hire, filling out her roster. That roster is, position for position, unchanged from a year ago. That is, no restructuring.
So, why was Arthur Eliav dismissed after 15 years? What role, if any, did Sztejnberg play in all of this? Was he an actor, a tool or just a piece in the endless games played within Kathy Hochul’s and Shelton Haynes’s Roosevelt Island operations?