torres

DO THE RIGHT THING: The City Council has proposed reforms to the city whistleblower law, which would expand protections to civil servants who report wrongdoing. Council Member Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, said the fact that from 2014 through 2018 just one civil servant was granted whistleblower protection highlighted gaps in the law. ‘One employee in a workforce of nearly 400,000. There is something wrong with this picture,’ he stated.

“My reputation has been ruined, my employability is almost zero. I always thought I would end my career on a high note; that I would end my career working for government as long as I could, and that avenue was shut down for me,” said Ricardo Morales Jan. 13 at a City Council hearing on protections for whistleblowers in city government.

The veteran civil servant, who won a city Ethics in Government Award during his tenure at the Housing Authority, has filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit claiming that he was ousted from his role as a Deputy Commissioner in the Department of Citywide Administrative Services in February 2017 for cooperating with prosecutors investigating preferential treatment given by the de Blasio administration to the Mayor’s campaign donors, including restaurateur Harendra Singh.

Although Mr. de Blasio stated that Mr. Morales was fired for job-performance issues, Mr. Morales, who refused to give special treatment to Mr. Singh during negotiations for a new lease for his Long Island City restaurant after reportedly being instructed to do so, was fired hours after Mr. de Blasio and his counsel met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Feb. 24, 2017.

Peculiar Timing on Firing

Mr. Singh became a cooperating witness against former Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and entered a guilty plea several years ago in which he admitted to bribing both him and Mr. de Blasio in return for favorable treatment on business projects.

Mr. Mangano was convicted 10 months ago on bribery and conspiracy charges. Prosecutors for the Eastern District of New York, when asked why they had charged him but not the Mayor based on Mr. Singh’s admissions, said that while the payoffs to Mr. Mangano and his wife financially benefitted the couple, he had merely made large donations to Mr. de Blasio’s campaign in return for help with a costly lease on a restaurant he operated on city property in Long Island City.

Admired But Not Envied

Although Mr. Morales did not regret his decision to cooperate with Federal investigators, there were financial, health and social costs for doing so, he lamented. “Everyone admires a person who has gumption. Nobody wants to be that person,” he said.

The City Council has proposed legislation that would further shield whistleblowers, including protecting employees from blacklisting and offering remedies for interns and prospective and former civil servants instead of just those currently employed by the city.

Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, said that the current law was “reactive” rather than proactive.

“It waits for employees to fall victim to retaliation and then intervenes when the damage is done,” he noted.

He also slammed the “arbitrary nature” of the law, which grants eligibility for whistleblower protections to those who report alleged misconduct to the Department of Investigation, the Public Advocate, City Comptroller or the City Council but not to other city government officials, including the Borough Presidents.

Law’s Limits Corrosive

“A law that refuses protection to whistleblowers based on mere technicalities is counterproductive and corrosive to good government,” Mr. Torres said.

Between 2014 and 2018, 170 city employees sought whistleblower status, and just one received it, according to Mr. Torres. DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett testified that in Fiscal Year 2019, the agency received 32 complaints of retaliation from whistleblowers, substantiating five of them.  

“I think, from our perspective, the logical explanation for the relatively low number of substantiated retaliation complaints is that retaliation is thankfully rare,” she stated.

That was an assessment Mr. Torres vehemently disagreed with. “Ponder that statistic for a second. One employee in a workforce of nearly 400,000. There is something wrong with this picture,” he said.

The bill also proposed requiring the Department of Investigation to complete probes to determine whether a whistleblower has been retaliated against within 90 days. In Fiscal Year 2019, the average whistleblower investigation took just shy of a year—362 days—to complete. Mr. Morales testified that DOI concluded its probe in October 2018, 18 months after he requested whistleblower protection.

Differs With DOI

He added that DOI did not interview him until July 2018, a claim that DOI disputed, stating that investigators first interviewed him on March 2, 2017, less than a week after his termination.

Ms. Garnett argued that imposing a time limit could negatively impact probes, but stated that she would not opposing DOI updating prospective whistleblowers on the status of the investigation every 90 days. She also believed that establishing a two-year statute of limitations for whistleblowers to report misconduct would make it easier to substantiate claims.

Gregory Krakower, an attorney at Getnick & Getnick LLP who represents whistleblowers, argued that many city employees needed to be educated about their rights and responsibilities to report wrongdoing.

“What good is a whistleblower law if nobody knows about it?” he asked.

Mr. Morales stated that he believed changes to the law would help other city employees “be a little bit more brave.”


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