The Trouble With Harry

Pataki’s Wannabe Cop Gets Nailed

One of the next best things to being a cop was reporting on them, he decided, and he talked his way into a job as a copyboy at the Daily News. He was a hard worker and an adept schmoozer in a business where those talents can take someone a long way; he became an editor at local CBS and NBC television stations and launched his own independent TV news service. He got to know most people in the industry and was elected president of the New York Press Club.

In 1991, he finally got his shield when he was named public relations director and deputy commissioner for the New York City Fire Department under then mayor Dinkins. The job made him a useful man to know at news desks all over town, and Harry gloried in the role, rolling out tips to favored reporters and editors. In 1994, he was set to switch allegiance to Rudy Giuliani's new fire commissioner, Howard Safir, but something went wrong in the chemistry between the two, and Safir wanted Harry out. Before the ax could drop, however, Ryttenberg made his own news by collapsing during a mayoral press conference. He was in the hospital when Safir sent Harry word that he was through.

Ryttenberg told sympathetic reporters he had just learned that he had a fatal heart ailment and needed an emergency transplant when Safir's aide called to sack him. Safir always insisted that Ryttenberg concocted his health problems to make him look bad and said Ryttenberg was fired for unspecified "credibility" problems. But Harry won the public relations battle, and was allowed to stay on the payroll another four months before being named a $76,000-a-year press aide at the city's Housing Authority.

The Deputy: Ex–Pataki spokesman Harry Ryttenberg stands accused of embezzling from a fund for Orange County volunteer deputy sheriffs and improper roadside stops of female motorists.
photo courtesy of Jeff Goulding/Times Herald-Record
The Deputy: Ex–Pataki spokesman Harry Ryttenberg stands accused of embezzling from a fund for Orange County volunteer deputy sheriffs and improper roadside stops of female motorists.

As it developed, the transplant was unnecessary and Ryttenberg reported a "miraculous recovery." But the Housing Authority job didn't pan out either, and Ryttenberg was gone by February 1995. Almost immediately, the new Pataki administration picked him up, dispatching him first to the Jacob Javits Convention Center, where Pataki aides were busy ousting scores of allegedly mob-tied workers. On a day when hundreds of new job applicants were being interviewed amid heavy state police protection, Ryttenberg strutted through the center's immense glass hall, his belt bursting with cell phones, pagers, and radios. "Christ, Harry, you look just like Buck Rogers," said Daily News columnist Denis Hamill.

Ryttenberg's next stop was the state's Division of Housing and Community Renewal, a small but important agency long known for its patronage and favoritism. Harry did well there, becoming a trusted favorite of top Pataki aide Zenia Mucha, a relationship he bragged of frequently, according to coworkers. But he was also cited in a race discrimination lawsuit filed by fired agency officials who quoted Harry as saying the agency looked "too much like Amsterdam Avenue." He denied it.

Still, he apparently rubbed some the wrong way. In October 1995, an agency employee faxed me a copy of a newspaper clipping circulating among DHCR staff. It was from The Times Herald-Record and included a sketch of a suspect who, claiming to be a police officer and using a swirling police light, had pulled over a 17-year-old girl in New Windsor, an Orange County township. The man demanded the car's registration, and when she couldn't produce it, followed her home. There, he flashed a gold-colored badge at the girl's mother but fled without looking at the papers when told the girl's father was home. Fearing their daughter had been followed by a police impersonator and potential rapist, the parents alerted the New Windsor police chief who circulated the suspect's sketch.

"Look at that sketch," insisted my DHCR friend. "That's Harry. Everyone here says so."

There was a resemblance: the same shock of dark hair, the same hangdog, cop-like expression. But it seemed a wild stretch. Harry Ryttenberg might be a blowhard, but he was harmless. I put it away.


The Deputy

Orange County Sheriff H. Frank Bigger recognized the suspect immediately and called the New Windsor chief to tell him that he would take care of it.

Harry Ryttenberg was well known around the county police department. After starting out by giving free public relations help to the former sheriff, an ex-NYPD detective, Harry became a deputy sheriff in 1991. Although a resident of Yonkers in Westchester County since 1981, Ryttenberg regularly drove the 60 miles to hang out with friends in Orange County.

Although deputies don't have to live in the county, they must be residents in order to obtain a pistol license. On his weapon application, Ryttenberg listed a county address in Highland Mills—a claim later revealed as false by the state inspector general. He won the right to carry his weapon into New York City by listing himself as a retired cop from neighboring Rockland County, another lie, investigators said.

At the sheriff's office, Ryttenberg served as part-time "community and press liaison" at a salary of $11 an hour, commuting from his day jobs at city and state agencies. Bigger also gave him a larger role as head of the sheriff's volunteer reserve deputies, men and women who helped out with crowd control at large events and pitched in during emergencies. The reserves needed police training and uniforms, and Ryttenberg quickly took command. He recruited childhood buddies from the Bronx and Queens to join him and enlisted dozens of eager locals. Along with Bigger, Ryttenberg created a nonprofit foundation to raise money for supplies.

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