Tuesday, June 23, 2020

UPDATE On RIOC President Firing By NY Governor Cuomo After Complaint By Employee For Use Of Racial And Sexually Inappropriate Language In Workplace - Read What Was Said And Take A Look At Painting

Reported last Friday, that former Roosevelt Island Operating Corp (RIOC) President Susan Rosenthal

was fired by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. According to this statement received June 20 from Rich Azzopardi, Senior advisor to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo:
A complaint was made to the Governor’s office and others on June 12th by an employee of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation that alleged that the President of the organization had u‎sed inappropriate language and engaged in inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

This complaint was immediately referred to the New York State Governor’s Office of Employee Relations for investigation. This investigation substantiated that the President had used racially and sexually offensive language, in clear violation of State policy and the strict standards set by this Administration. The President was Immediately terminated.
The firing of Ms Rosenthal was leaked to the NY Post which published the story late Friday night, June 19.

I've been looking into what happened. Yesterday, I asked newly appointed Acting RIOC President/CEO Shelton Haynes and the RIOC Board of Directors:
Was the RIOC Board involved in the 1 week investigation and decision to fire Ms Rosenthal? Did the RIOC Board agree with decision by Governor Cuomo to fire Ms Rosenthal?

Who will be in charge of RIOC until a new President is appointed? Will RIOC Board conduct the search process for new RIOC President or will that be done by the Governor?

Will any current or planned RIOC project or policy be changed due to the firing?

What was the language used that caused the firing? I understand a painting in Ms Rosenthal's office was part of the allegation - is that true? Has the RIOC employee who made complaint made similar complaint against former RIOC President or any other RIOC staffer?

Any other comment from RIOC or the RIOC Board to the Roosevelt Island community?
To date, no answer to these questions other than announcement yesterday that Shelton Haynes has been appointed by the RIOC Board as Acting President/CEO. The RIOC Board met last Friday in Executive Session without prior public notice to approve Mr Haynes, currently Chief Operating Officer, as Acting RIOC President/CEO. At the time of the Friday RIOC Board meeting, Ms Rosenthal was already fired by Governor Cuomo. The RIOC Board had no involvement in firing Ms Rosenthal.

But, I have learned more about the allegations that led to Ms Rosenthal's dismissal as RIOC President.

Below is a June 12 email sent from a RIOC employee to a long list of elected officials, RIOC Board Members, RIOC Staff, Community Board 8 members, Governor's Staff and others describing the alleged speech and conduct by Ms Rosenthal that got her fired by Governor Cuomo.

Here's the email from RIOC employee:

Good morning

In the past few days, we watched 50 states, and over 20 countries protest to demand change to police brutality and systemic racism. An outcry started after the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man by the hands of a police officer. The systemic racism and social inequalities black people face on a daily basis is nothing short of disheartening; however, the statement Black Lives Matter should not be controversial; it's a call for equality, justice and accountability..

My experience of working at RIOC for the last several years have been toxic as we've experienced offensive racial comments and jokes of a sexual nature by Ms. Susan Rosenthal, RIOC's Chief Executive Officer/President. I've witnessed the lack of regard for employees as senior leadership continues to make excuses and play a blind eye on these troublesome issues. Some of my experiences include:
  • Last year Ms. Rosenthal purchased a painting named "The Cotton Picker" which depicted a slave picking cotton. The painting was placed it in her office until she decided to take it to her home. She faced no repercussions. In addition to making staffers feel uncomfortable, we also felt disrespected. Photo added below for your reference.
  • While meeting with a resident, I overheard Ms. Rosenthal refer to her "son in law is black as hell and her daughter is white as snow."
  • When her first grandchild was born, she also mentioned that her grandchild was "the real African American" as her son-in-law is of African descent. Her statement was extremely appalling.
  • She also shared and suggested that "not all black people look alike."
  • She has also mentioned in meetings with internal and external parties, that the last time she trusted someone she lost her virginity.
These insensitive statements should not be made by anyone, especially an individual trusted to lead a corporation.

The truth is Susan Rosenthal has made racial comments and sexual innuendos the norm at RIOC knowing employees will remain silent in fear of losing their livelihood while others continue to shield her, this practice should no longer be acceptable. I debated whether to send this email however, if I continue to ignore these experiences there will be no progress.
Here's the Cotton Picker painting described in the RIOC employee's email.

I'm told that Ms Rosenthal purchased the painting at the Roosevelt Island Gallery RIVAA during a Black History Month celebration exhibition. The artist is a disabled African American  man who lives at Coler Hospital here on Roosevelt Island.

Some initial reactions to the firing of Ms Rosenhtal.

Roosevelt Island NY State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright:
The top priority must be to ensure the continuity of operations and services for the residents of Roosevelt Island during these most challenging times. We will look to the new leadership of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation for such assurances plus regular and transparent communication going forward.
Roosevelt Island real estate developer (Southtown Riverwalk Buildings and Shops On Main Street) David Kramer of Hudson Related adds:
Susan was the best President RIOC’s had in the 24 years I’ve been involved on the island. But your reader’s shouldn’t conclude that means she was a shill for real estate developers.

She could be very tough on us, bullying us to agree to all sorts of concessions. But I liked working with her because she was fair, thoughtful and communicative. She asked the right questions.

She also cursed like a sailor and had a “tough broad” persona at times that obviously got her in trouble. But she always wanted the best for the island, and she’ll be missed.
Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) Interim President David Lawson comments:
RIRA has entertained a very constructive and productive working relationships with RIOC under Susan Rosenthal.

We hope that her departure will not affect the progress made and significant results achieved on Roosevelt Island under her leadership.

While RIRA fully supports a 0-tolerance for the use of inappropriate racial and sexual language, behaviours or biases, and we condemn any such actions at all times under any circumstances, we cannot comment on the particulars, which remain unknown to RIRA.

RIRA never experienced any such inappropriate language, action or gender or racial bias with Susan Rosenthal. On the contrary, Susan Rosenthal has been a fervent advocate of gender equality and diversity, in words and actions. She recruited African American in RIOC senior positions. We were planning activities with RIOC to promote diversity, racial equality and equity in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. She supported the peaceful demonstration that was organized on RI a couple of weeks ago.

We trust that this decision by Governor Cuomo will also be followed-up on and lead to greater diversity and gender balance on the RIOC board in the future, as it currently very much lacks both.
Ms Rosenthal also had critics of her tenure as RIOC President. According to RIRA member and community activist Frank Farance:
Susan Rosenthal's tenure at RIOC is undistinguished among other RIOC Presidents: on average 3.5 years. Her legacy is defined by:

- Purposeful destruction of the Island's oldest and largest institution (Roosevelt Island Youth Program);
- Wasteful creation of a Youth Department that is unpopular and unused; gratuitous hostility towards the Cat Sanctuary (Roosevelt Island's biggest protest); again gratuitous hostility towards the Cat Sanctuary (seeking to unnecessarily demolish wildlife);
- Incompetence towards water quality (foot-dragging on investigating water contamination in children's drinking fountains) and water infrastructure (lack of backflow preventers that cause water supply contamination);
- Hostility towards affordable housing (foot-dragging on Westview privatization);
- Incompetence towards affordable housing (Southtown #8);
- Willful ignorance of RIOC's financial issues that affect the Island (billion dollar debt that RIOC owes); and
- Perhaps her most spectacular failure: putting the community at risk by allowing the 2019 Cherry Blossom Festival regardless of known severe and dangerous overcrowding issues well before the event (as FOIL records show).

Prior RIOC Presidents actually had CEO experience, but Ms. Rosenthal had no executive experience as evidenced by outsourcing the RIOC's executive function under the rubric "Owners Representative". The executive RIOC staff lack the basic competence to do their jobs - a kind of executive level incompetence that would be unacceptable in any incorporated village throughout the State because an incorporated village has elected positions, i.e., an electorate would never accept the kinds of incompetence in RIOC staff. Hopefully Governor Cuomo will find a replacement that actually knows what he/she is supposed to do.
Stay tuned.

UPDATE 7/7 - Correction. The painting was not done by a Coler resident. According to a Gallery RIVAA representative:
The painting is/was by the artist Andrew Nichols called "Free Labor". There were two, the second called "Free Labor II" There were several other paintings by Andrew in the show with different themes.

He is not from Coler, that is incorrect.

The painting was in the Black History Month show " Cultural Preservation" curated by Lorraine Williams, from February 9 - March 3, 2019.
Also, statement during July 2 RIOC Board of Directors meeting by RIOC Chair RuthAnne Visnauskas on the dismissal of Ms Rosenthal.