As what we once thought were facts weaken in the sunlight, a dirty deal, ambushing Susan Rosenthal and instantly removing her as CEO emerges. From Governor Andrew Cuomo’s senior operators to RIOC’s staff and board, who took part? As Rosenthal’s lawsuit enters a new phase, we’re clearing away some debris. The filth that’s now emerging is as surprising as it is disappointing.
Over four decades of poor to mediocre management of Roosevelt Island, New York never looked uglier.
by David Stone
What We Were Told About Firing Susan Rosenthal
Late in the afternoon on Friday, June 19th, 2020, the New York Post published an article, justifying the firing of Susan Rosenthal, coordinating with Albany. The Post quoted a press release from Cuomo’s hitman, Richard Azzopardi, that damned her with charges of racial and sexual misconduct.
This was Juneteenth, an important holiday in Black American history, and before the clock hit midnight, a caucasian, Jewish woman would be replaced by an underqualified black man.
No organization but the Post got the scurrilous press release, but it violated state guidelines out of the box. And making it all the more offensive, Rosenthal had not been told. This was Trump-level stuff, embraced by not just Albany but also by RIOC‘s board and staff.
As time passed, it became clear that the ambush could never have happened without collaboration inside the state agency.
Details of the dirty deal came out later, but for now, it was only these unsupported accusations. And RIOC’s ethically challenged board knew it.
A Dirty Deal Gets Traction
As shocking as this was, actions that same evening were more troubling. Completely in the dark, the board appointed Shelton J. Haynes acting CEO, doing Team Cuomo’s bidding, violating state law in the process.
First of all, enabling legislation charges RIOC’s board with all executive personnel decisions. Cuomo always undermined this, but at least, there was always some pretense. The board routinely coughed up unanimous “Yes” votes with little discussion.
Secondly, Open Meetings Law demands that decision-making meetings like this require public notice and availability. Normally, keeping its dirty deals secret, the board went into executive session, kicking everyone out and discussing personnel matters.
That’s legal, but this time, they didn’t even do that much. They hustled Haynes into Rosenthal’s position in a hurry, although it was Friday night and new leadership was not needed right away.
There was no debate, but there was at least one better-qualified candidate. CFO John O’Reilly had straightened out RIOC’s finances and had a track record in management and infrastructure work far outdistancing Haynes.
Significantly, hired by Rosenthal, O’Reilly got the job by offering his full resume. Because Haynes was hired out of Albany without competition, the board knew little about him. His hiring was another example of Team Cuomo usurping their legal authority.
But they didn’t mind.
Exposure forced the Cuomo-led board to hold an open meeting, weeks later, to officially promote Haynes, but there was still no discussion. A jaunty David Kraut, the most senior member, cheerfully moved to install Haynes, and the rest of the flakes followed.
He – and they – knew better, but the dirty deal was done. If Rosenthal’s legal counsel deposes them someday, we may find out how long it was in place. But it was certainly in the bag before Cuomo fired her.
A Plan at the Ready
The first thing that struck me as odd was that, while Rosenthal’s firing was supposedly a near spontaneous act, Haynes began reorganizing RIOC immediately. Insiders were suddenly given expanded authority. Others were swept out.
Erica Spencer-EL got power over areas where she had little qualification, and Haynes’s longtime crony, Altheria Jackson, took over multiple departments. With little managerial training or experience, Jackson became, Haynes told me, his go-to person for his own previous responsibilities.
Another thing he told me, a month after taking his new position, was that Rosenthal’s firing took him by surprise. Her offenses, he said, were worthy of nothing worse that “a slap on the wrist.”
Was he lying? The evidence, months later, suggests he was.
The Flimsy Evidence Propping Up the Dirty Deal
About ten days before Rosenthal lost her job, an executive assistant, Karline Jean, emailed at least a dozen public officials with complaints about the CEO. There were a variety of charges, and she represented an unnamed list of coworkers.
Although this method of drawing attention clearly violates state guidelines, Jean was never punished as far as we know. Instead, Team Cuomo assigned someone to investigate the charges. The investigator did not support Jean’s accusations as actionable, and that should have ended it.
But then a Machiavellian twist sped the dirty deal toward its intended conclusion: unfairly firing a caucasian woman and replacing her with an African-American man. On Juneteenth.
Despite the fact that the investigator found nothing worth punishing Rosenthal for, she suddenly uncovered additional, far more damaging evidence against her.
Although none of this was publicly known until Rosenthal sued RIOC for discrimination, the big question is, if this damning information was already there, why wasn’t it produced first? One alleged incident cited in the investigator’s report was at least two years old but was never reported at the time.
But the worst of it put Haynes in the spotlight.
The state’s investigator said she listened to a recording in which Rosenthal could be heard using racially insensitive language. The secret recording, according to multiple sources, was surreptitiously made by Shelton Haynes.
But the implications are worse.
“I heard,” a reliable source told me, “that Shelton played the tape for (undisclosed) and for other Black employees.” We are not disclosing the name, but it was a firsthand account.
Essentially, RIOC staff at the time say Haynes used his recording to stir up racial tensions.
Haynes got a promotion when he should have been fired for gross misconduct if the story from multiple sources is true. Not only had he failed to report it in a timely manner as required by state regulations, but he compounded the mistake by using it against Rosenthal.
A Dirty Deal Realized
The timing of Rosenthal’s publicly humiliating dismissal couldn’t be more revealing.
Just a week after this alleged new evidence against her reached the state’s investigator – on Juneteenth – she was fired. She had no opportunity at any time to defend herself or even see or hear the evidence against her.
Rosenthal, during her five years at RIOC, had never previously been accused of racial or sexual misconduct. In fact, she was and is the leader of a mixed-race family with a history of action in favor of civil rights.
But she got railroaded on what appears to be a timed plan.
The investigator started looking into the allegations on Friday, June 12th, 2020. There were at least three new accusations, and she wrapped everything up by Wednesday. Firing Rosenthal was then approved by Cuomo’s top deputy Melissa DeRosa, but they waited two more days – until Juneteenth.
Why the Deal Was So Dirty
Team Cuomo and RIOC’s pathetic board of directors were so eager to meet the deadline, they threw out any appearance of fairness.
First, although Rosenthal was a RIOC employee, the board never demanded real evidence, never giving her any chance to defend herself against hearsay evidence. It would never be admissible in court, but it was good enough for David Kraut, Howard Polivy, Michael Shinozaki, David Kapell, Jeffrey Escobar and Conway Ekpo.
The state’s whole case is based on hearsay, some not even secondhand. Not a single affidavit from the alleged accusers appears anywhere. The state even ignored a judge’s orders, refusing to hand over the recording and other evidence.
RIOC disclosed, responding to our freedom of information request, that they have no such recording. If it was made by Haynes or anyone else in the course of their employment, it belongs to RIOC. If they don’t have it, who does?
The contents are unknown, and some question its existence.
As for the other charges against Rosenthal, they’re little more than gossip. No one at RIOC swore to anything. Essentially, there really is no viable evidence.
So, what was this dirty deal really all about? And who knew about it, and when did they know it?
It’s time that the participants be held accountable and for Rosenthal’s name to be cleared. An apology and a big settlement are in order.
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