The words “rogue cops” are usually enough to get news desks humming. And the announcement this month by state attorney general Eliot Spitzer that he was suing the entire town of Wallkill in upstate Orange County for failing to rein in its errant police force brought national media rushing to the rolling, snow-covered hills of the mid Hudson valley.
Spitzer’s lawsuit was an even easier news sell because it suggested the possibility of an all-important “trend,” coming as it did amid well-publicized reports about Long Island cops demanding sex and ordering women to disrobe in exchange for leniency for traffic violations.
So on Thursday night, at the Wallkill Town Hall next door to the sprawling Galleria shopping mall on Route 211, there were half a dozen cameras from network news magazines on hand for a meeting of the town’s board.
When the meeting was done with the regular business of water, sewer, and zoning issues for this town 70 miles north of Times Square, where suburbia is relentlessly overtaking rural pastures, a man named John King strode to the microphone and excoriated town supervisors for failing to stop the police misconduct detailed in Spitzer’s lawsuit.
“You’ve done a disservice to this town and made us the laughing stock of Orange County,” said King to loud applause from the back of the room.
Indeed, the language in Spitzer’s lawsuit is startling. The town’s police department, he said, is “a continuing danger to both citizens of Wallkill and all other New Yorkers who travel through the jurisdiction.” His complaint cites a series of incidents in which police allegedly pulled over female motorists “just to see who they are and what they look like”; falsely accused women of drunken driving in order to get dates with them, and fondled 16-year-old girls at fast food restaurants.
But by the time those incidents were revealed, the attorney general’s staff already knew a lot about law enforcement abuses in Orange County. It had filed a separate lawsuit against high-level county police officials there, one with disturbing echoes of Wallkill’s problems. That case, however, got no media attention outside Orange County.
Spitzer v. Orange County Sheriff’s Foundation, Inc. et al, filed on September 15, 2000, in State Supreme Court in Dutchess County, alleges the embezzlement of more than $100,000 from a fund established to benefit volunteer deputy policemen for the county. It also cited a series of illegal police roadside pull-overs of young women, eerily similar to those by the Wallkill police. The civil suit named seven individuals including Orange County’s powerful sheriff, H. Frank Bigger, and most curiously, an on-again, off-again government public relations official and TV newsman named Harry Ryttenberg, who headed the county’s volunteer deputy sheriff unit.
The Times Herald-Record, which had broken earlier stories about misconduct in the volunteer unit, put the lawsuit on its front page. But south of Bear Mountain, Orange County’s easternmost point, the story died. Even though Harry Ryttenberg is a well-known figure to New York City reporters, editors, and politicians, not a whisper of the troubling allegations against him made it into the city’s papers or onto its airwaves until the Wallkill lawsuit.
Not that news people hadn’t heard of Ryttenberg’s legal troubles. He had quietly slid out of his job as a Pataki administration spokesman in early 1999 when his Orange County activities were cited by the state’s inspector general. He was working for a television news bureau when the suit was filed. But it probably wasn’t hard to decide against doing the story. For one, it was a minor civil suit against a person unknown to the general public. Plus, a lot of news people like Harry Ryttenberg and owe him for past tips. Also, since Harry had long claimed poor health, it would be easy to feel sorry for him and not want to cost him his job as an investigative reporter for UPN-9 News.
Either way, as a member of the news fraternity, Harry Ryttenberg caught a big break, the kind granted few others by a business quick to invoke its “people deserve to know” defense when criticized for relentlessly focusing its cameras and columns on the foibles and failures of others.
The news business is rife with cop buffs. Cop talk and attitude are infectious given the constant interplay between police and newspeople. Earnest, graduate-school-trained reporters casually open sentences with “This shithead.” Others adopt cop-world regalia: radios, lights, sirens, even pistols—gizmos that provide practical benefit to those chasing cop stories on a daily basis. Still, most news people—with a handful of exceptions—know the dividing line between the business of law enforcement and that of reporting.
Harry Ryttenberg, who turned 50 this month, was always an exception. The trunk of his big, dark, police-style sedans always bristled with antennas from his radios. He had a police light on his dashboard and a siren and loudspeaker under the hood. He carried a cop’s standard-issue .38 caliber pistol, and let you know he had it.
“I always wanted to be a cop,” he acknowledged recently. It was his father, a newsstand operator, who wouldn’t hear of it, he said. His family paid for a private school education, sending him to the progressive Little Red School House in the Village and the Baldwin School on the Upper East Side. But he wound up at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he dropped out after two years.
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.
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.
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.
After The Times Herald–Record reporter Chris Mele wrote a short, favorable feature on the unit, Ryttenberg told him the unit wanted to give him its “public service” award. “Harry started telling me who he knew, how he could help my career,” recalled Mele, who later broke many stories on local police corruption. The awards ceremony was held at a community room at the mall, with the sheriff and dozens of deputies present. “My wife and kids and me walk in and Harry called out, “Ten Hut!’ and they all jumped to attention. The whole thing was pretty weird.”
Fundraising became a major part of the deputies’ activities. Ryttenberg dispatched deputies to the shopping malls to sell raffle tickets, at prices ranging from $1 to $20. New reserve applicants were told they needed to work every weekend, and those who failed to sell enough tickets had their deputy shields and IDs yanked. The deputies became such a steady mall presence that shoppers called them “vultures.”
“Harry just had dollar signs in his eyes all the time,” one reservist said in a deposition. “Everything we did was to raise money. That’s all.”
Between 1996 and 1999, Ryttenberg’s unit held seven raffles, printing tickets worth more than $180,000. But according to the attorney general’s lawsuit, none of the state’s required licenses were obtained and no records kept of income or award payments. Much of the money simply disappeared, the lawsuit alleges.
One 1997 raffle designed to raise $10,000 offered a prize of a personal computer. Harry drew the winner—the son of a friend of Ryttenberg’s from the Bronx who was also a director of the nonprofit foundation. Several deputies cried foul. “The drawing was rigged,” one told the attorney general. Another said she saw Harry palm the ticket right before the drawing.
Much of the raffle sales took place in front of the Wallkill Wal-Mart, and Ryttenberg, according to the lawsuit, arranged for the store to pay him about $3400, in cash, for the deputies to provide security against shoplifters. None of the money showed up in the foundation, the suit contends. Ryttenberg also encouraged his members to take whatever they needed from the store’s shelves, according to Spitzer. One reservist and his wife, who ran a nearby shop used as a supply house for the unit, said they were shocked to find “crates and crates” of Wal-Mart merchandise in their backroom, containing everything from flashlights and aftershave to film and clothing. When the reservist’s wife asked Ryttenberg about it, he allegedly told her, “never mind,” then quickly had the goods relocated.
Despite the raffles, many reservists still didn’t get uniforms, and some members wrote an anonymous letter accusing Ryttenberg of stealing raffle funds. An outraged Ryttenberg appeared at the next meeting with several plastic freezer bags of money. “He slammed them down on the table and said, ‘Here’s your fucking money. I don’t want to be involved. I’m not helping you guys anymore,’ ” said one deputy.
During that period, Ryttenberg deposited about $42,000 in cash into his personal bank accounts, the lawsuit states. Asked if he stole funds, Ryttenberg invoked the Fifth Amendment a total of 104 times during questioning by the attorney general.
Several deputies told the attorney general that Harry kept reservists in line by bragging of his powerful ties. He allegedly told them he was known as the “velvet knife” because of his ability to quietly ruin careers. It seemed believable. They often saw Ryttenberg’s name in news stories as a “Pataki spokesman” on matters ranging from million-dollar contracts to investigations. Even Sheriff Bigger told the attorney general’s office he gave Ryttenberg a wide berth because of his “political connections.”
But Bigger, who faced reelection in 1998, also profited politically, the lawsuit states. Raffle promotions contained pictures of the sheriff, along with statements from him thanking the public for supporting the reserve unit. Ryttenberg also raised over $5000 for Bigger’s campaigns, even hosting a New York City fundraiser at the Second Avenue Delicatessen in Manhattan where Ryttenberg was a close friend of the owners.
The sheriff also remained a supporter even after he learned of the incident in which the 17-year-old girl was pulled over. In fact, Bigger told investigators he was aware of several complaints about Ryttenberg’s stops. One occurred in July 1995, when Ryttenberg shouted through his loudspeaker at a woman on the Palisades Parkway to stop. The driver, a New York City internal affairs detective, later filed a complaint and Ryttenberg was forced to plead guilty to reckless driving and pay a fine.
Instead of disciplining Ryttenberg, Bigger promoted him to lieutenant in 1996. Bigger denied that politics played any role in his toleration of Ryttenberg’s antics, instead citing “stupidity on my part, really.” Yet Bigger told The Times Herald-Record after the lawsuit was filed that he was blameless in the affair and had thoroughly investigated each instance of Ryttenberg’s alleged misdeeds.
But in late 1998, two other people started looking hard at Ryttenberg. One was the state inspector general who received allegations about Harry’s pistol licenses and his unauthorized stops of motorists. The other was a young woman named Maria Ingrassia, whom Harry had asked to serve on the foundation board, apparently assuming she would be a rubber stamp. A nonprofit specialist, Ingrassia asked to see the books.
“Right away I was being stonewalled,” Ingrassia said. When she kept insisting, Ingrassia said she was told by an aide to the sheriff to back off.
Ingrassia took her concerns to Spitzer’s office. Separately, the state inspector general issued its own report. In January 1999, Ryttenberg resigned as an Orange County deputy and surrendered his pistols, citing “health problems.” Two months later, he quietly resigned his DHCR post. He worked briefly at WNBC-TV, but lost that job as well after the inspector general’s report surfaced.
Spitzer’s lawsuit is seeking restitution of $117,000 he says was defrauded from the reservists foundation, and $1 million in punitive damages from Ryttenberg and two other foundation directors. The Orange County District Attorney is reviewing the case for possible criminal prosecution.
Ryttenberg adamantly denies taking money but declined to discuss specifics. “I look forward to my day in court to prove my innocence,” he said.
The news business seems divided on Ryttenberg and his strange behavior. Some see him as just a well-meaning gasbag who got in trouble because of his cop infatuation. “He just liked having those lights and sirens,” said one friend. Others view him as substantially more venal. “He’s just sleazy,” said a public relations professional. “A faker and a braggart with the gift of gab who somehow always got away with it.”