By Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
When then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito learned she was accused in a civil rights lawsuit of pressuring NYCHA to replace a black supervisor with a Latino employee, her lawyers got a judge to dismiss her as a defendant.
Then, earlier this year, the judge changed his mind.
Now the allegation Mark-Viverito used her political clout in a bid to force the Housing Authority to practice ethnic-specific hiring remains alive as she begins her recently announced run for a South Bronx Congressional seat.
Her campaign released a statement to THE CITY Sunday afternoon that said, in part: “We are confident that once the actual facts of this case are weighed, all allegations against Mark-Viverito will be dismissed.”
An ‘Unusual’ Meeting
The allegation Mark-Viverito directly intervened in an internal NYCHA staffing decision emerged after July 30, 2015.
That’s when the supervisor of the Millbrook Houses in Mott Haven, Allison Williams, and her boss, Sibyl Colon, then head of the agency’s Optimal Property Management Department, say they were ordered to appear at a meeting in the then-speaker’s Bronx office.
In the lawsuit Colon later filed, she said she was “understandably very nervous and afraid at this meeting request as it was very unusual for a NYCHA employee at her level to be summoned to a meeting at a politician’s office.”
When Colon and Williams arrived, according to the lawsuit, Mark-Viverito was there along with several NYCHA officials. One of the most senior Housing Authority managers, then-Director of Operations Brian Clarke, was conferenced in via phone, the suit says.
Colon’s lawsuit states that Mark-Viverito started the meeting by asking the NYCHA officials “How are you handling your Spanish speaking residents at Millbrook Houses?”
At the time, about 63% of Millbrook’s 1,244 families were Latino, 35% were black, and less than 1% were white.
A NYCHA manager replied that non-Spanish speaking staff at Millbrook rely on NYCHA interpreters when necessary. Mark-Viverito slammed her hands on the table and exclaimed, “That’s unacceptable!,” according to Colon’s lawsuit.
Mark-Viverito allegedly said she was unhappy with management of Millbrook and wanted to replace Williams “with a Spanish manager.”
Williams, who is black, “appeared incredulous,” the lawsuit states. When Williams acknowledged using NYCHA’s team of interpreters to handle some repair requests at Millbrook, Mark-Viverito allegedly stated, “You’re not hearing me. I want a Spanish manager.”
NYCHA officials say they do not make employment decisions based on ethnicity. Colon says she brought her concerns about Mark-Viverito’s order to Clarke the next day.
Colon alleges in her suit that Clarke ordered her to replace Williams with a “Latino manager” and “find a way” to reassign her to another unspecified development.
‘I Don’t Care If Obama Wants It Done’
Clarke, Colon says, ordered her to tell the human resources manager to act immediately “due to ‘cultural sensitivity’ needs of the residents.”
Colon says the HR official – who is also African American – told her, “I don’t care if Obama wants it done. What you are proposing is illegal and you can be sued.”
The HR official said that as an African American she was offended at the order, but she would contact another NYCHA manager about the request.
Colon says she was hounded by Clarke and other NYCHA higher-ups to reassign Williams. When Colon resisted, she said, she was reassigned to a position with a $13,000 pay cut.
She resigned. In 2016 she and Williams filed separate suits against Mark-Viverito, NYCHA and the city.
“I was shocked and I was in pain,” Colon told THE CITY Friday. “I’d spent 30 years building my career in the Housing Authority, reaching the executive level, and then was requested to racially discriminate by Melissa Mark-Viverito. And when I refused to do so, I was fighting for my position at the Housing Authority.”
Mark-Viverito’s lawyers moved to have her removed from Colon’s lawsuit, and in March 2018 Manhattan Federal Judge Vernon Broderick granted her request.
But Colon attorney Marcel Florestal appealed that decision, and a year later, on March 22, 2019, Broderick reversed himself — a highly unusual turn of events in federal cases, which require the party seeking reversal to present information that the judge overlooked.
The second time around, Broderick revisited Mark-Viverito’s argument that she couldn’t be sued because, as Council speaker, she was not Colon’s employer. He’d initially accepted this reasoning, but changed his mind, determining the Council has jurisdiction over NYCHA by providing oversight via its public housing committee.
The judge also found that Mark-Viverito’s alleged statement “that she wanted to replace an African American with a Spanish manager could plausibly be interpreted as evincing discriminatory animus on the basis of race and/or national origin.”
And he said that NYCHA management’s order to Colon to “find a way” to reassign the black supervisor of Millbrook “suggest that the Council speaker had some influence on the discriminatory acts of NYCHA.”
The statement given to THE CITY by Mark-Viverito’s campaign noted the judge’s ruling was “decided on in March and is not based on any new allegations against Melissa Mark-Viverito but based on a new interpretation of the New York State Human Rights Law. ”
After being term-limited out of the Council in 2017, Mark-Viverito last year ran in the special election to replace then-Public Advocate Letitia James, who was elected state attorney general. Mark-Viverito lost that race to former Councilmember Jumaane Williams.
Since then, she’s served as interim head of Latino Victory Fund, a political action committee that provides financial support to Latino candidates.
Colon expressed surprise at the news of Mark-Viverito’s bid to replace retiring longtime Rep. José Serrano.
Mark-Viverito’s entering a crowded Congressional Democratic primary field that includes Bronx Councilmembers Ritchie Torres and Ruben Diaz Sr. and Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake.
“If she continues to carry that same energy that she expressed in that room when running, I would be somewhat worried by her continuing to run for public office,” Colon said.
This story was originally published on [August 12, 2019] by THE CITY.”