Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Milton A. Tingling has submitted an application to the Appellate Division in Manhattan to succeed Norman A. Goodman as New York County Clerk, according to three independent sources. The Appellate Division, First Department could take a vote on Goodman’s replacement as early as its next regularly scheduled conference this coming Monday, Nov. 24.
Tingling had triggered a series of events that resulted in the forced departure of James A. Rossetti, who was Goodman’s top aide and heir apparent. (See WiseLawNY, March 6, 2014).
In late July 2013, Tingling brought a photo of a racist image that had been posted in public view in the County Clerk’s Office to Justice Sherri Klein Heitler, the administrative judge in charge of civil cases at the Supreme Court in Manhattan. Over the next six months, the court system’s Inspector General’s Office conducted an investigation, which found that Rossetti had failed to take swift action to remove the offensive images and had misled investigators.
Relying on those findings, Deputy Chief Adminsitrative Judge Fern A. Fisher, who is in charge of courts in New York City, suspended Rossetti for 90 days and informed him that, upon his return, his salary would be cut by $30,000 and that he would be barred from entering the Manhattan courthouse on official business. Faced with that stern punishment, Rossetti submitted his resignation.
With Rossetti out of the picture, the biggest question became, who would replace Goodman when he retired. Goodman was 90 years old and had been County Clerk for 45 years when Rossetti resigned in December, 2013. Rossetti had been the number-two man in the office since 1985. In 2000, Rossetti was given the title of Chief Management Analyst and was paid an annual salary of $145,000 in 2013. Goodman’s annual salary is $174,000, the same as is paid to Supreme Court justices.
In the months following Rossetti’s resignation, there were rumors at the 60 Centre St. courthouse that Tingling had expressed an interest in Goodman’s position. When I asked him about the rumors in connection with the March 6 article, he sidestepped the question, and instead answered, on the record, “I am running for re-election. My sole objective is to be re-elected.” Tingling was elected to a second term last November.
Tingling did not return several calls placed to him late Thurday afternoon.
The New York Post reported in October that New York County’s democratic leader, Assemblyman Keith Wright, was eying the post but two sources said he has not submitted an application. By statute, the Appellate Division, First Department appoints the County Clerks in New York County and the Bronx.
A well placed source reports that 60 candidates have submitted applications to succeed Goodman, seven of whom have been interviewed by the First Department. In addition to Tingling, the source said, Bronx Justice Richard Lee Price and Mark Brantley, who is the New York County office’s administrator, are among those who have been interviewed. Both Price and Brantley declined to comment.
Evidence Cuts Two Ways
Tingling’s pursuit of the job brings into sharper relief an issue I tried to flesh out in the March 6 article. Was Tingling trying to rid the courthouse of an inflammatory racial image as his supporters contended? Or was he seeking to push aside the heir apparent to open a path for himself or someone else as Rossetti’s backers maintained?
OCA Inspector General Sherrill Spatz’s report remains out of public view. The only inkling of what it contains comes from unattributed sources in the New York Law Journal’s story published about Rossetti’s resignation (Dec. 18, 2013). The Law Journal reported that the investigation faulted Rossetti, as reported above, but also concluded that he had not been involved in displaying the offensive images.
From the narrative I was able to develop in the March article, it appeared that the members of District Council 37, the union which represents workers in the County Clerk’s records room, took photographs of the offensive posts and forwarded them to Tingling. An article in the District Council 37 newspaper, which was published in March, said as much. It noted that several workers had taken photos with their cellphones of “racist” images of “monkeys and apes” and had prompted the Inspector General’s investigation by complaining to “the union and state Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling.”
Tingling then promptly informed his administrative judge, Heitler, about the inflammatory images on his cellphone. After summoning Tingling and Rossetti to her chambers, Heitler dispatched Rossetti to the records room, which is in the basement of the courthouse, to inspect the posted images. Rossetti reported back that he did not see any offensive images.
I was troubled that Rossetti was unable to find the offensive images. They were indeed inflammatory. One of the images contained a drawing from a children’s book of an ape and a bird with “Nigger be like” and “I love me a bitch bird” scrawled across it.
It is altogether plausible that a worker (the records room staff is mostly black) was so enraged by the images that they were ripped down during the brief interval between the forwarding of the photo to Tingling’s cell phone and Heitler’s sending Rossetti to inspect the record room wall.
On the other hand, a source with no ties to either Rossetti or Tingling told me that the racist images had been posted in public view “for quite some time,” possibly as long as a year. That leaves two questions lingering: Why had the images been allowed to remain on the wall so long? Why did the union and Tingling wait until late July 2013 to bring the issue to a head.
One thing is clear. Once the Inspector General’s report was complete, Fisher moved swiftly to punish Rossetti. She summoned him to her chambers on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, and, without providing either Rossetti or his lawyer a copy of Spatz’s report, informed Rossetti of his punishment. She gave him until the following Monday at 5 p.m. to advise her of whether he would accept the punishment.
A court officer in plain clothes then escorted Rossetti three blocks down Centre Street from the Civil Court, where Fisher has her chambers, to the Supreme Court where Rossetti had his. The officer remained with Rossetti while he gathered his belongings and exited the courthouse.
Rossetti submitted his resignation on Dec. 16. ahead of the 5 p.m. deadline.