With revealing timing, Governor Andrew Cuomo fired Susan Rosenthal from her job as RIOC President and CEO on Juneteenth 2020. Three years later, it’s an unhappy anniversary because, as facts piled up, we know it was unjust as well as cruel. And worse yet, apparently unethical critics have flourished with promotions and high pay after a racially charged exploit.
by David Stone
Late on Friday afternoon, Juneteenth 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top aide, Richard Azzopardi, gave the New York Post an exclusive scoop. RIOC‘s President and Chief Executive had been fired for sexual and racial misconduct.
Sounded bad. We covered her for several years and saw not a single clue of any of that, although – we admit – we criticized her for plenty else. In her lawsuit against RIOC, her attorney calls The Daily hardly “a friend.” But we were and still are.
His comment centered around our coverage showing that she was anything but racist. Quite the opposite. In fact, she started a process favoring the hiring of minority managers, which makes elements of her firing a little more sleazy.
Unhappy Anniversary: Then and Now
Except to note that Rosenthal found out about her dismissal in the same way the rest of us did – by reading an humiliating and career wrecking article in the Post. Neither RIOC nor New York State gave her the slightest opportunity to defend herself. Even the specific details were withheld until she sued.
She’s still fighting for justice with a lawsuit expected have another round of pleadings in the fall.
Perhaps by arrangement or maybe just coincidence, in May, a disgruntled longtime employee, Karline Jean, released a public letter charging racism and bullying among other things at RIOC. Rosenthal was named, but Jean included other managers in her accusations.
Her relationship with then-COO Shelton Haynes was especially bad, and he fired her after he became Chief Executive. No public explanation appeared.
While Jean’s allegations were dismissed as insubstantial, something else happened. Someone – we don’t know who and RIOC fiercely resists discovery in court – tipped the state’s investigator off to other alleged wrongdoing by Rosenthal.
Rosenthal denies every word of it, and RIOC has never produced any evidence or sworn testimony backing their claims.
Not only was the timing curious, the one-week rush to judgment, arriving precisely on Juneteenth, was riddled with mistakes and powered mainly by gossip.
Let’s be crystal clear: There is no clearcut or even flimsy factual evidence that Rosenthal is guilty of a single allegation. Three years later, RIOC has not disclosed any evidence against her. In fact, answering a FOIL request, the state agency told The Daily that they don’t have the single key piece of physical evidence used in firing Rosenthal.
But there are facts…
Three RIOC employees played crucial roles in Rosenthal’s dismissal. All remain at RIOC and have been given big salary bumps since Haynes took over. Haynes himself now pulls down a higher paycheck than Governor Hochul or even California Governor Gavin Newsom. New York’s population is over 20 million, and Hochul oversees a $210 billion budget.
The Lawsuit, the Unhappy Anniversary and the RIOC Players
Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson – As the lawsuits and RIOC’s responses read, Robinson played a pivotal role as the Albany investigator’s point of contact. Unless she knew about the allegations beforehand and didn’t report them in a timely fashion, she’s clear of wrongdoing in this episode.
But that’s a big if given her job at RIOC. Karline Jean was her direct report, after all. And major accusers shared management work with her.
Assistant Vice President for Administration Tajuna Sharpe – According to the state investigator reporting to Cuomo’s Executive Chamber, Sharpe accused Rosenthal of making a lewd suggestion. Rosenthal, she said, advised that she’d handle meetings with men better if she ever learned to “suck dick.”
But there is no sworn statement by Sharpe, and Rosenthal denies it ever happened. Making the accusation even more shaky, the alleged incident took place two years earlier. If it happened at all, as a manager, Sharpe was obliged under state rules to report it immediately. She did not.
No record exists of Sharpe being cited or penalized for this failure. On the contrary, Haynes promoted her, expanded her role and boosted her salary.
President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes – Of all the players here, Haynes’s role is the most controversial. He had the most to gain and rode Rosenthal’s dismissal into RIOC’s top spot.
When I met with Haynes following Rosenthal’s dismissal, he told me that, in his opinion, Rosenthal deserved no more than “a slap on the wrist.” (The charges were not public yet. He knew them, but I didn’t.)
In addition, Haynes disclaimed any significant role in what happened. He was away on a family matter in Georgia when he got phone calls. He was surprised when Rosenthal got fired and he was asked to step in temporarily.
Nothing clearly contradicts the version he shared with me in July 2020.
The single most damning piece of evidence against Rosenthal is a tape recording the state investigator says she heard played back for her, apparently over the telephone.
In the recording, Rosenthal is alleged to have used the “n” word.
But she does not name the person who made the recording and played it back. And the tape may not exist at all. Since it was made on company time, it belongs to RIOC. But RIOC says they don’t have it. That’s damning for the case against Rosenthal.
How does Haynes fit in?
Several sources tell us that Haynes, who Rosenthal mentored, did record her. He did so, they say, by using his cellphone. Rosenthal was not aware.
Worse yet, reliable sources tell us that Haynes played the recording for other African-American employees as a way of undermining Rosenthal.
But Haynes has neither accepted or denied any role in Rosenthal’s dismissal. If he didn’t, though, who did? And if there is no recording, why was Rosenthal fired because of it?
In spite of an abundance of smoke and mirrors, there is no concrete evidence justifying Rosenthal’s cruel dismissal. Other, less extreme allegations exist, but sworn testimony does not, not in a single case. After three years.
Guardrails are in place for preventing injustices. RIOC’s enabling legislation sets up a ten-day period for an accused manager to defend himself or herself. But Rosenthal wasn’t given a single day, and RIOC’s hopelessly passive board nodded their heads anyway. Board chair RuthAnne Visnauskas pointedly sat in. She was appointed by Cuomo.
Years have passed, but no one at RIOC, then or now, should rest easy with their roles in blasting Rosenthal out of office. In fairness, violations uncovered in the investigations should be looked into. Yes, there are guardrails, but Cuomo removed them while the flunkies he nominated stood by.