Updating the Whistleblower Retaliation Lawsuit Against RIOC


After a Crains New York article based largely on it, the whistleblower retaliation lawsuit filed in February against RIOC remains active and in the spotlight. Recenltly, the former employees amended their complaints while the state countered with more intense retaliation.

Meanwhile, the man at the center of the conflict, President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes has been scarce since the Crains story made headlines.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

In February, ex-employees Erica Spencer-EL, Amy Smith and Jessica Cerone filed a much-awaited lawsuit targeting Haynes and his executive team. The three say that the embattled CEO retaliated against them after finding out that each filed complaints against him.

State laws and policies protect whistleblowers against retaliation.

The complaints involved suspicions of fraud surrounding the Swift Emergency Medical Rapid Testing Site and dereliction of duty in the Sportspark drowning incident. Cerone also filed a complaint with OSHA over conditions at the new offices at 524 Main Street.

All three alleged management chaos under Haynes, citing confusion and a muddied sense of direction. Overall, they described what they saw as corruption and manipulation. But although sworn statements support their allegations, RIOC fiercely disagrees, and nothing has been proven.

There have been no sworn statements from Haynes nor any other RIOC manager.

Updating the Whistleblower Retaliation Lawsuit

RIOC’s first salvo in response to the lawsuit demanded dismissal of the complaints in full, largely on technical grounds. The plaintiffs, it said, failed on basic legal grounds and should be disqualified.

As for the specifics, the filing said that Haynes and his team could not have acted illegally against the three women because he was not aware of their actions at the time. He only discovered their actions, it said, after he fired them.

In an aggressive response, RIOC said that the claims were so frivolous and ill-intended that Spencer-EL, Smith and Cerone should pay the state’s legal fees. As reported earlier, RIOC subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit against them.

The plaintiffs disagree, of course, and sharpened their lawsuit on April 4th.

Erica Spencer-EL

As supervisor over both Smith and Cerone, Spencer-EL lands in the middle with her own whistleblower complaints merged with theirs.

At the center of relations with Haynes in her role as Communications Director, Spencer-EL was initially alarmed by how Haynes brought in a personal friend to operate a COVID rapid testing site on Main Street.

In a move she now refers to as “fraud,” she describes contracting with Swift Emergency Medical as inexplicable otherwise. Swift had no prior experience in the field and was so new that its listed phone number was a personal cellphone belonging to Haynes’s friend. And its office address was his apartment, she says.

Spencer-EL was further alarmed by Haynes’s orders sending RIOC resources and value to Swift that she believed violated state law.

Amy Smith-Public Information Officer

Smith joined Spencer-El in sounding an alarm over the Swift Emergency Medical deal after being ordered to promote it.

Getting rich with a spiritual twist…

But in the lawsuit, Smith’s most urgent concern leading to the whistleblower complaints involved the drowning of a young man in Sportspark. While troubled by Haynes’s orders that nothing about the incident be transmitted in writing, she as well as Spencer-EL was shocked when Haynes called a meeting soon after the death.

Instead of remedial action as expected, Haynes, she alleges, was interested mainly in reopening the pool for its revenue and to appease residents.

Getting Sportspark back in business without correcting its glaring safety shortcomings was his goal, she says.

Smith was later deeply upset after PSD Chief showed her a video of the drowning scene. She described extreme negligence by RIOC employees contributing to a young man’s death.

Smith, a career PIO, also claimed routine mismanagement and manipulation by Haynes. Her sworn statement accuses him of confused messaging and outright deceit.

Jessica Cerone

While Cerone shared her co-workers’ concerns, she seems the least aggressive in her complaints against Haynes but may have suffered more. Before being fired because of “restructuring,” she extended a leave of absence for months because of stress after contracting COVID.

Upon returning to work, she found her office cleared out, leaving her unable to confirm that all of her personal belongings were saved. During her absence, she claims, no one called her expressing any concerns for her health.

But her original complaint, noted in the whistleblower retaliation lawsuit, was with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). After abandoning their legacy, free office space at 591 Main Street, workers suffered through cramped space with only a single unisex bathroom.

This was the sole source of running water, and the offices lacked the safety of a second or rear exit.

Firings and the Whistleblower Retaliation Lawsuit

In the final analysis, does it always come down to this?

Soon after filing complaints with the state Inspector General, the three whistleblowers say harassment began.

Although RIOC’s response claims that Haynes could not have illegally retaliated because he was not aware of their filings, their lawsuit suggests that Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson learned of them and shared the information.

While there is no proof that Robinson did so, all three were in for tough times.

Haynes shuffled offices and assignments, breaking up the Communications Team. And Smith says she was assigned tasks well outside her job description.

Then, in March 2022, an anonymous whistleblower exposé landed on the desks of a number of public officials.

Spencer-El’s, Smith’s and Cerone’s complaints nested among many others. Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright was so alarmed that she forwarded the document to the Inspector General.

Four days later, Spencer-EL, while vying for a promotion, was abruptly fired after 17 years with RIOC. The cause – a minor mistake on her original, over a decade-old resume, she says.

Smith followed a few days later. Restructuring was blamed, although RIOC was in such chaos no actual restructuring could be identified.

For Cerone, dismissal came on the day she returned to Roosevelt Island after her leave of absence. The unidentified restructuring was the cause.


The whistleblower retaliation lawsuit is in full force and has been updated. With equal commitment, RIOC denies the allegations while countering with a defamation lawsuit against Spencer-EL, Smith and Cerone.

For Roosevelt Islanders, it’s another unnecessary distraction adding to RIOC’s general dysfunction. And an expensive one. RIOC is again pouring cash into outside legal counsel, virtually all of it money taken from the community.

With no end in sight.

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