By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
With special reporting by Ron Zapata
A hornet's nest of revelations about the inner workings of the Pataki administration including admissions about an asleep-at-the-switch governor whose staff controls a secret patronage machine, damning black employment data, and details about an attempt to steer a lucrative contract to the governor's personal attorney have become public as part of a two-year lawsuit in Manhattan federal court.
Leressa Crockett, who was hired as a deputy commissioner of the Division of Housing and Community Renewal shortly after George Pataki took office in 1995 and fired on four hours' notice in November 1996, is charging that her termination, as well as those of three other high-level black appointees at DHCR fired in the same time period, was racially motivated. Her suit has already withstood one state motion to dismiss it, and U.S. District Court judge Loretta Preska is currently faced with a second.
The disclosures about George Pataki's uninterested governing style, as well as those about the efforts of his top aides to force approval of a legal retainer sought by his attorney Richard Farren, emerge in depositions taken from his current DHCR commissioner, Joseph Lynch, and from Director of State Operations Jim Natoli, as well as from Crockett and other former state executives. Though individually named as a defendant, Pataki was as removed from the racially charged core of the case as he was from these patronage offshoots. In thousands of transcript pages, he comes across as an absentee overlord, running the state in his spare time.
Crockett, who was hired by Joe Holland, one of only three black commissioners in the Pataki era, contends that she was pushed out by Natoli and other top aides the day after Holland resigned. Undisputed in the court record is Crockett's contention that of the 11 top aides to Holland, four blacks were terminated, leaving five whites, one Hispanic, and a single remaining black. Of the five deputy commissioners, only the two black deputies were axed. While attorneys for the state have argued that the firings were merely routine "reorganization" after the departure of a commissioner, they concede that the only member of what DHCR's Lynch labeled Holland's five-member "A-Team" not to be fired was its solitary white.
In an extraordinary deposition, Lynch, one of Holland's white deputies and his eventual replacement, said he warned Natoli that firing three black women on the same day Crockett, general counsel Leslie Byrd, and assistant general counsel Sylvia Kinard "was certainly something we could be criticized for" and "created an appearance of racial discrimination." Lynch recalls that Natoli did not respond to his warning, while Natoli testified that he had no recollection of it.
Though both are still top Pataki aides, Natoli and Lynch repeatedly contradicted each other in depositions taken early this year, with each saying the other was responsible for firing Crockett. While Natoli attributed the dismissal to "the recommendations of Lynch," Lynch said Natoli's secretary "called me to inform me that I was to call Ms. Crockett that day and tell her that her employment was terminated by the end of that afternoon and she was to clear out her desk." Lynch also testified that he was given no reason for the dismissal.
Another former DHCR executive, Antonio Rivera, testified that Harry Ryttenberg, who was then the agency's press secretary, told him that the governor's office thought Holland had packed the agency with "too many Rangel African Americans" and "Rangel Democrats." Rivera, who currently works for the city's housing agency, claimed that Ryttenberg said the governor's office thought "this place is beginning to look like Amsterdam Avenue." Crockett claimed he had a similar conversation with her. Ryttenberg, who is described in court papers as "close to Zenia Mucha, the Governor's Director of Communications," adamantly denied Rivera's charge, calling it a "lie" during his own deposition.
Crockett testified that two other top Pataki aides, Jeff Wiesenfeld and Brad Race, made racial remarks to her. Wiesenfeld, who is a special assistant to the governor, called her repeatedly, Crockett said, to blast her for delaying the removal of Nation of Islam security guards from a state housing project in Coney Island. She says he told her that "if she were not black," she "would see that this group was like the Nazis." Race, who is the governor's secretary, accused Holland and Crockett during a conference call of exhibiting a "sympathy" with NOI, according to Crockett, "that arose from our mutual African American background."
Neither Wiesenfeld nor Race was called as a witness to dispute these comments. Holland, who did a last-minute affidavit for the state this June, did not address the issue. Contacted by the Voice, Holland declined to answer any questions about the lawsuit. Though Holland's resignation from DHCR was presented at the time as voluntary, Natoli testified that he "asked Holland to resign" because "his performance was becoming unsatisfactory."
Ironically, Lynch, who was Holland's first deputy, had given Crockett the agency's highest rating "outstanding" just four months before she was bounced. The sole Hispanic among the high-ranking officials, who was not fired, was described as "lackluster" in a DHCR "confidential" assessment contained in court documents. A month after Crockett's dismissal, Lynch wrote a recommendation letter for her to the Bar Association's Character Committee, attributing her termination to the governor's office and contending that she'd "performed her duties in an outstanding manner."