RIOC Whistleblowers’ New Legal Challenge Caused Board’s Executive Session


The coalition of RIOC Whistleblowers – Erica Spencer-EL, Amy Smith and Jessica Cerone – at least in part, caused the board’s executive session last week. They filed their stinging response to a motion to dismiss the next day. It was a revelation.

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

A chilling statement in the whistleblowers’ lawsuit against RIOC and its executives – President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes, Chief Counsel Gretchen Robinson, Human Relations chief Tajuna Sharpe and former COO Altheria Jackson – reflects something strange in how RIOC defends itself.

That is, they virtually never come to the defense of alleged wrongdoing, relying almost entirely on technical grounds instead. RIOC uses outside legal firms for handling their cases; so, this may suggest that they’re searching for ways to defend what might be indefensible.

Otherwise, why not simply say, “Shelton Haynes and his executive team did not and would never engage in the alleged misconduct. We adhere to a strict policy of protecting employee rights, and here are some examples…?”

Here’s how the RIOC whistleblowers’ put it in their August 8th filing:

RIOC is “… essentially arguing that New York State’s Whistleblower protections simply do not apply to the case at hand. The Defendants’ arguments are both factually and legally incorrect. What is particularly telling in this case is what the Defendants elect not to argue – and in doing so concede — for example, that the Plaintiffs engaged in protected conduct and that the Plaintiffs suffered adverse employment actions.”

An already uncomfortable working relationship showed up as Haynes strode wordlessly past Spencer-EL as he arrived at a September 11th, 2021 ceremony.

What Happened with the RIOC Whistleblowers?

As reported earlier, Spencer-EL, Smith and Cerone filed official complaints, using appropriate channels, against RIOC. The most worrisome involved alleged corruption in how Haynes set up the Swift Emergency Medical COVID Testing Site in 2021. Details were sent to the state Inspector General for examination.

Fisher also reported improper conduct during and after the drowning death in Sportspark.

Coincidentally, The Daily filed similar complaints after receiving alarming documents in a FOIL response. We have never shared that information with the RIOC whistleblowers.

The public learned of the allegations when an anonymous group – We Deserve Better – released a 15-page letter on Twitter. Soon after the letter’s release and the Inspector General complaints, all three whistleblowers lost their jobs.

RIOC clipped Spencer-EL, a 17-year employee, without prior notice, using a decade old resume error, as the reason, according to court documents undisputed by RIOC. Smith followed shortly in a “reorganization” and Cerone a few months later when she returned from medical leave.

What’s Missing Here?

Charges against Haynes and his management team include retaliation against the trio for what they say were legitimate, even required reporting of corrupt practices at the state agency. They also allege a deliberately hostile work environment prior to their dismissals as well as bullying.

The accusations are serious, but as their opposition to RIOC’s motion to dismiss says, the state made no effort to defend the actions of Haynes and his fellow executives.

As for the board meeting, the executive session aligned in sequence with the RIOC whistleblowers’ stinging response and a followup filing by the state set for next week. Also, a response is coming due in the Arthur Eliav federal suit against RIOC for discrimination as well as – you guessed it – whistleblower retaliation.

An earlier separate lawsuit in which RIOC accused its former employees of defamation was dropped unceremoniously and without explanation in the spring. The whistleblowers say that was just another example of retaliation and bullying.

We will watch for and report on RIOC’s expected filing when it comes in.

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