How Racist Image Led to Ouster of A Top Official in NY County Clerk’s Office

Last summer Justice Milton A. Tingling brought two photographs of shockingly racist and misogynistic images to the attention of the administrative judge in charge of the Supreme Court at 60 Centre St. in Manhattan.

In his cellphone, Tingling had a photograph of an illustration from a children’s book, which contained an illustration of an ape and a bird. Scrawled across the illustration were the phrases: “Nigger be like” and “I love me a bitch bird.” A second photograph captured an illustration of an ape-like figure using similarly vulgar language.

The images had been hanging on a wall of the New York County Clerk’s records room in the basement of the 60 Centre Street courthouse. The wall is about 30 feet directly behind the counter where the public goes to requisition case files. Three sources reported the images and inscription; one of them read to me what had been written on the two illustrations. Also, just this week, the union that represents the workers in the records room reported in its March newsletter that “a few workers” at 60 Centre Street took cellphone pictures of “racist posters involving monkeys and apes.”

The meeting held between Tingling and his administrative judge, Justice Sherry Klein Heitler, in late July or early August, set off a chain of events which led to the forced resignation of Chief Deputy County Clerk James A. Rossetti the following December. Rossetti had been the top aide and heir apparent to New York County Clerk Norman Goodman, who, now 90, has held the post for the past 45 years. Rossetti had been the number-two man in the office since 1985.

There has been a near news blackout on the events, which led to Rossetti’s dismissal and upended the expected line of succession in the County Clerk’s Office. The New York County Clerk serves one of the most important, and busiest, trial courts in New York State. His office is the custodian of court files for the Supreme Court in Manhattan and performs a vital function in processing court rulings into legally enforceable judgments and orders. The office is also responsible for assuring the smooth flow of jurors to trial courtrooms throughout the borough.

The only news story, prior to the one in the union newsletter, to appear on Rossetti’s departure ran in the New York Law Journal on Dec. 18, two days after Rossetti had submitted his resignation ahead of a deadline set by Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern A. Fisher, according to a source close to Rossetti. Citing unnamed sources, the seven-paragraph item reported that Rossetti had resigned rather than accept a suspension and demotion.  According to the article, a report compiled by the court system’s Inspector General’s Office found that he had been lax in responding to the offending images and had “mis [led]” investigators. The Inspector General’s (IG) report found that Rossetti was not responsible for posting the images. The union newsletter did not identify Rossetti by name, but referred to him by his title, “Deputy County Clerk.”

The Office of Court Administration refused the Law Journal access to the Inspector General’s report, which was based upon an investigation that spanned several months. David Bookstaver, OCA’s spokesman, has continued to maintain that stance, saying all information relating to the disciplining of court employees is confidential and not subject to release to the public.

There is much that was left unsaid in the anodyne information given to the Law Journal. There was no mention of Tingling’s involvement; nor that two other County Clerk employees were disciplined along with Rossetti; nor that District Council 37 either joined OCA or, on its own initiated, the IG investigation; nor of the harsh manner in which Rossetti was treated, including that he was reportedly disciplined without being given a copy of the IG report or a meaningful opportunity to defend himself.

The new information I have come across creates many unanswered questions. What did Rossetti do to warrant punishment? Was the punishment proportionate to what he had done? How and why did Tingling become involved? Did the question of Goodman’s successor have any bearing on the way events unfolded?

In the absence of official information, I have been limited to sources, who have asked not to be identified. I have spoken to sources both inside and outside the court system. Some of the outsiders are close to Rossetti and others to Tingling. The two principal players both come with political pedigree from Harlem. Tingling’s father, Milton Tingling Sr., was also a Supreme Court Justice elected in Manhattan, and Rossetti is related to Frank G. Rossetti, a Democratic politician from East Harlem, who was the Democratic Party leader of Tammany Hall from 1967-77.

My tentative read on the information that has become available is that it is more likely than not that Rossetti misled his superiors; that his treatment was overly harsh and his punishment possibly so; and that Tingling had no ulterior motive for bringing the photographs to Heitler’s attention. Likewise, my reporting found no basis for concluding that OCA’s actions were influenced by the looming question of who will be Goodman’s successor. That decision will ultimately be made by the Appellate Division in Manhattan.

What Did Rossetti Do?

On the morning that Tingling called Heitler to report the offensive images in the records room, Heitler convened a meeting in her chambers, which included Rossetti, Tingling and John Werner, the chief clerk at 60 Centre Street, according to sources. She dispatched Rossetti to the records room to see what was there. He reported back that he did not see anything offensive, several sources reported.

Court employees had first started posting photographs and articles on the wall after the Sept. 11 attack, focusing on court workers who had been involved in the rescue effort. Over the years the postings had grown to include many others, including a photograph of President Obama and the First Lady on election night. The number of postings had grown into the hundreds, one source said. Two sources said that Rossetti had ordered all the postings taken down when he inspected the wall for Heitler.

Given the inflammatory nature of the images, it is possible that someone may have discovered them that morning and ripped them down. Many of the workers in the records room are black and may well have been outraged upon discovering the posts. But that scenario does not seem plausible for two reasons. First a source, who had no connection to either side, but had access to the area behind the counter, told me that the offensive post, bearing the N-word, had been on the wall for “quite some time.” Secondly, someone from behind the counter apparently had taken the photographs and forwarded them to Tingling, which suggests that was the route of redress the workers had taken. That notion is reinforced in the union newsletter’s report that “several workers at 60 Centre Street” took cellphone photographs of “racist” images involving “monkeys and apes.” The newsletter article did not state, however, that those cellphone photographs had been forwarded to Tingling’s cellphone.

Also, several sources told me that two workers, in addition to Rossetti, were caught up in the IG investigation. One of them, Joseph Antonelli, a 44-year veteran, who had been chief clerk of the office’s Court and Records Division, reportedly was pressured to resign in January 2014, earlier than he had planned. The other, Midgalia Ruiz, was the supervisor of the workers responsible for retrieving court files for the public. Near the outset of the IG investigation, Ruiz was re-assigned from the records room to a County Clerk’s office in the nearby Surrogate’s Court. Ruiz agreed, according to sources, to accept a suspension and a demotion. The union that represents her, the Civil Service Employees Association, did not return a phone call asking for a comment on her behalf.

Several sources describe a tense relationship between Ruiz and the workers under her. That suggests a management problem that may have gone unaddressed in the office.

It is unclear precisely when the union became involved. Cliff Koppelman, the president of the DC 37 local that represents the records room workers, confirmed that it had filed a complaint, but refused to comment further.

The article in the union newsletter, however, states that the IG investigation began after several union members went “to the union and state Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling” to complain about “racist pictures and posters on the walls of the New York County Clerk’s record room.”  Koppelman was quoted in the article as saying that several union members from the record room “came forward to testify before the IG about the situation.”

My impressions related above come with a caveat. Without access to the IG report there may well be significant information that I am unaware of. Also, the information I have obtained raises other questions that I can not answer. For instance, other than rank speculation, there is no explanation as to why Rossetti would have withheld information from Heitler.

Further, the Law Journal’s unofficial report leaves unanswered the question of whether the IG report reached a conclusion as to who posted the offensive images. The article does state, however, that investigators concluded that Rossetti was not responsible. The message of the phrases written on the two illustrations was clearly out of bounds. But the use of puerile, street talk is just plain weird.

Rossetti’s Treatment and Punishment

When the IG report was complete, Fisher, the administrative judge in charge of courts within New York City, summoned Rossetti to an 11 a.m. meeting in her chambers at the New York County Civil Court on Friday, Dec. 13. At the meeting, she informed Rossetti that OCA had decided that he should receive a 90-day suspension without pay, a demotion that would slice $16,000 off his $144,000 annual salary and a new assignment in a borough outside Manhattan. Rossetti had no civil service or union protection. According to sources, Rossetti was not given a copy of the IG report and merely told that court officials had “lost confidence” in his ability to manage the office.

Fisher gave Rossetti until 5 p.m. the following Monday to advise her whether he was willing to continue to work at the office under those conditions. At the conclusion of the meeting Rossetti was instructed to return to his office and collect his personal belongings.  A court officer, in civilian clothes, then escorted Rossetti back to his office in the Supreme Court two blocks to the south on Centre Street and accompanied him as he collected his belongings and exited the building. Rossetti’s pay was suspended immediately.

On Monday, Dec. 16, Rossetti tendered his resignation. Rossetti was 58 at the time, which meant that his forced resignation was costly even though he had worked for the County Clerk’s Office for 28 years. The state pension system imposes a significant penalty on employees who are less than 62 when they retire with less than 30 years of service.

This narrative is mainly provided by a source close to Rossetti, but many workers in the County Clerk’s Office saw Rossetti being escorted out of the office.

 

Tingling’s Involvement

 Despite suggestions from the Rossetti camp that the proceeding against him had been “a very strange hanging,” no one pointed to anything the least bit untoward in Tingling’s actions. As best I can tell, he did what any person would do when receiving the information that he did—he reported it to his administrative judge. Indeed, he probably would have been derelict if he had not reported it.

A source close to Tingling said that last fall, when the IG investigation was in full swing, Tingling had told persons in the courthouse that he was interested in the job. A second source inside the courthouse also told me that a rumor was widespread that Tingling was interested in succeeding Goodman. But, subsequently the source close to Tingling said that he was no longer interested in becoming County Clerk.

Moreover, since the rumors surfaced at least two months after Tingling’s meeting with Heitler, there is nothing to suggest that Tingling had a motive to do anything other that report the photographs in an effort to get them taken down as quickly as possible.

When I questioned Tingling about the rumors, he stopped short of giving me a straight out denial. He acknowledged hearing the rumors, and said, “I am running for re-election. My sole objective is to be reelected to the Supreme Court.” Tingling’s 14-year term expires this year and he is running for a second term.

A Sense of Mistreatment

During his many years as the go-to person at the County Clerk’s Office, Rossetti was highly regarded by lawyers and judge alike as helpful, competent and professional. Several sources said that his punishment was too harsh even assuming the accuracy of the Law Journal report that the IG office concluded that Rossetti had misled investigators.

A retired judge, who said that over the years Rossetti had smoothed out problems for many judges, suggested the punishment was disproportionate. “Why couldn’t [OCA] have gone to him and said, ‘Hey, schmuck, don’t do this again?’ ”

A court insider said that the “administrators downtown should have found a better way of working this out without trashing the careers of two valued and veteran employees.”

Two court insiders expressed dismay over the way the matter had been handled by OCA. One insider likened Rossetti’s treatment to the “star chamber” in that he “was let go after so many years without ever being told what the issue was.”  The other said it was “shocking” that a court official at Rossetti’s level could be forced out of office without having any due process rights to defend himself.

A managing attorney at one of the city’s most prestigious firms saw irony in no due process being given to a top official in a courthouse, which is revered as a ‘Hall of Justice.’ ”

Edited by Cerisse Anderson

DanielJWise@2014

 

 

2 Comments

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2 responses to “How Racist Image Led to Ouster of A Top Official in NY County Clerk’s Office

  1. Gerald Stern

    How can anyone make a judgment about whether the punishment was too harsh without knowing how he misled his superiors ? Your unnamed retired Supreme Court Justice believes that Rosetti should have punished by being told not to do it again. That would have minimized the conduct of misleading an administrative judge? If he intended to mislead, is it conceivable that OCA would only say to him, “Don’t mislead us again.” On the other hand, if he did not mislead anyone, and had no prior knowledge of the postings, the punishment would be too harsh. Only the confidential report would reveal the facts.

    The posters were outrageous. Another matter is whether some supervisors should have known known about them? It is astounding that the person or persons posting such despicable stuff could believe that they could get away with it and that it wouldn’t create an uproar. And no one objected to the postings of such materials?

  2. Rich Lerner

    Mr. Rossetti is an honorable man. I cannot believe that he would mislead anyone. So too, Judge Tingling is a very honorable man. It seems to me there was a very unfortunate misunderstanding here.