Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What's the real Marty Markowitz like? Lawsuit depositions point to a calculating, volatile politician (and some questionable management by Markowitz's then-deputy)

What's the real Marty Markowitz like? "The people in Brooklyn know me," the Brooklyn Borough President yesterday told the New York Times, waving off criticisms about private fundraising from companies doing business in Brooklyn. (Common Cause was not convinced.)


But do they? Those who know only showman Markowitz may smile, but the real Marty is far more calculating and volatile, as detailed in documents in a sex discrimination suit filed in December 2007 by a former staffer against both him and his office.

Some of the headlines--prompted by the plaintiff's effort to lend momentum to her case by sharing depositions--have been lurid, magnifying relatively small incidents: Suit: Marty ran the Beep’s office like a frat-house and Marty Markowitz blasts 'Tinkerbell' ex-staffer.

By my reading of the extant depositions--surely not the whole record--ex-staffer Regina Weiss has a case, though it's not a slam dunk. No, Markowitz's office doesn't resemble the testosterone-fueled atmosphere of, say, a trading floor. Still, there may be evidence of disparate treatment toward male and female staffers.

The real Marty

More than anything else, the lawsuit pulls back the curtain on Markowitz, showing he recognizes the division between policy and his "shtick," can be a "screamer" beneath his jovial exterior, practices retail politics by pumping out proclamations, blurs the already-fuzzy line between governing and campaigning, and obsesses about his Brooklyn!! promotional publication, which aims to mention or honor as many people as possible.

Thus the suit fleshes out extant portraits of Markowitz, notably Rebecca Mead's 4/25/05 New Yorker profile, Mr. Brooklyn: Marty Markowitz-the man, the plan, the arena and the 1/15/09 City Hall profile headlined Marty! The Brooklyn BP on being overlooked, and what he plans to do about it.

(Photo by Kathryn Kirk of Markowitz presenting a proclamation last week to Joseph Volpicelli, marking 50 years at Joseph's Haircutting Salon in Park Slope.)

The Atlantic Yards angle

Also, the depositions reveal that Markowitz, rather than take the heat for his controversial stand on Atlantic Yards, and subsequent bad publicity, blamed his underlings.

In a flashback to a different Atlantic Yards media landscape, former Chief of Staff Greg Atkins even admitted he wanted to freeze out the Brooklyn Paper for its (then) harsh coverage of Markowitz's favorite project.

Political calculations

Moreover, in the time period covered, Markowitz was not only preparing for re-election to a second term, he was looking forward to a citywide run for office in 2009, at that point anticipating the impact of term limits--which were later overturned, leading to a cakewalk third term.

Thus, Weiss alleges, Markowitz blurred the boundaries between his campaign office and his elective office.

Given the Times's recent reporting on Markowitz's efforts to raise funds outside the campaign finance system, those charges become more plausible.

Depositions and defense

This article is based on the yet-unresolved lawsuit filed by Weiss and depositions taken of Weiss (May 2009), Markowitz, (February 2010) and Atkins (February 2010), now president of V3 Hotels, and portrayed by the plaintiff as the main wrongdoer.

Note that, while depositions are taken under oath, they are not tested in court via cross-examination, and some elements can be barred. So they're not dispositive.

Weiss, represented by a law firm prominent in representing women filing discrimination complaints, seeks compensation for financial, emotional, and reputational damages.

The city has fought the case. “We are confident that we will prevail in this case,” city lawyer Diana Goell Voigt told the Times when news of the depositions surfaced in February 2010. “The Brooklyn borough president has always, and will continue, to employ a diverse group of talented staff in his office.”

Markowitz's office has said the charges come "from a disgruntled former employee who was dismissed."

Evidence outlined

Weiss admits that neither Atkins nor Markowitz made derogatory comments to her regarding age and gender, though she does allege disparate treatment, as a male staffer was permitted to go AWOL and still be paid.

There is more evidence of a toxic work atmosphere, with Markowitz described as a "screamer," and Atkins persistently unavailable to work with Weiss.

There is evidence of dissembling, at the least, by Markowitz and Atkins, in response to some of Weiss's charges.

There are claims, though not documented, that her bosses were unhappy with Weiss.

Coming back to the BP's office

Markowitz clearly contrasts with his predecessor, Howard Golden, who only responded to press inquiries in writing, gave far fewer speeches, and, according to Weiss, was near the end of his career and thus concerned with "burnishing his reputation."

Weiss started working in July 2000 for Golden's office as a speechwriter, worked for Markowitz in that position, left for another job, and, despite her lack of experience working directly with the press, was recruited back in December 2004 to head the press office.

Markowitz and the "old white guys"

Why did Markowitz need a new communications director? Because of "a big press fiasco," in Weiss's words, involving Markowitz's comment--in regard to a portrait of George Washington in Borough Hall--that he was going to get rid of "old white guys."

"So we were getting calls from literally all over the world asking why the Borough President was insulting George Washington," according to Weiss's deposition. "Even though Marty had nobody but himself to blame, he blamed Glenn [von Nostitz] because Glenn could not control this."

The Daily News followed up, reporting 1/21/02 that the neophyte Borough President apologized, saying another portrait of Washington would remain: "I have to weigh my words a lot more carefully. [When] I was a state senator nobody ever listened to me."

Nobody ever listened to me. Things have changed.

Markowitz's 2002 comments inspired a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Brendan Miniter, in a 1/25/02 essay headlined Battle of Brooklyn: The new borough president is ignorant--and proud of it, to remind Markowitz that Washington, in fact, led the first major battle of the American revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn.

Policy issues, shtick, and Brooklyn!!

Weiss, asked about her relationship with Markowitz when she was a speechwriter, called it "very good."

Did they discuss policy?

"Only to the extent that it involved our work together," Weiss responded. "It was not his favorite topic."

Indeed, in his deposition, Atkins explained, "When Marty hired me, he--the words he used [were], 'I don't need anybody to do the shtick I do, that I need someone to run the borough.'"

Was Brooklyn!! important to Markowitz?

"Absolutely," responded Atkins. "He personally read every article, he personally commented on every article, he personally commented on the layout. He personally commented on just about every aspect of it."

Indeed, Markowitz became upset with Weiss when the office was offered an additional page for Brooklyn!! and she didn't have stories prepared to fill in the space.

Were there any other disagreements?

"Other than normal banter in terms of my wanting more stories of personalities and Ms. Weiss wanting more policy stuff in the newspaper, but that was it," Markowitz responded.

The proclamations mill

Also important were proclamations, pumped out at between 200 and 400 a month. The pace, according to Weiss, frustrated the staffer in charge of writing them.

"What often happens is that he or somebody, the scheduler will decide at the last minute that they want a proclamation for that hour of that day and that is a difficult thing to deal with if you are not used to dealing with it and you don't have those unflappable skills," Weiss said.

Political differences

There is testimony but not much evidence about political differences between Weiss and her boss. Weiss, Markowitz said, "tried her very best to convince me to go along with what she believed, rather than what I believed." However, he couldn't offer specifics, nor did he document that charge.

Did Markowitz in 2008 tell Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer--once Weiss's boss--"words to this effect, that Ms. Weiss thinks everything is a vast right-wing conspiracy"?

"No," responded Markowitz. "Would I say that she's more liberal than I, yes, and it's possible that she is."

Were there issues were more important to her than Markowitz?

"No," responded Weiss. "I mean, really, my main goal was to try to promote him and make him look good and get his name out there and, you know, he was interested at that time in exploring a run for city-wide office because of term limits and I wanted to help him to pump up his reputation."

Land use policies

Markowitz, according to Weiss, asked her to develop policies with his planning department. One was to call for the repeal of a tax break the transcript calls "429A" but is surely 421-A, which offered subsidies for market rate housing, while another was to offer trade-offs for community amenities.

Then-Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion got press for similar policy initiatives, according to Weiss, "and, basically Marty's voice never got the light of day on it and these are things that really would have made him look like a hero to a lot of people in Brooklyn."

Weiss also discussed an event in Southern Brooklyn about over-development, where Atlantic Yards opponents had attended and criticized him.

"He told me on the ride home that night that he felt his office had been behind the curve and he wanted to get up to speed and ramp up his work on this issue, because he had seen when he went to these meetings how frustrated his constituents were," Weiss said. "And he realized that especially with all the heat he was taking on the Atlantic Yards to start looking at over-development in these like sleepy suburban Brooklyn neighborhoods, it would be a good thing for him to do."

The Atlantic Yards angle

Did Atkins want to freeze out the Brooklyn Paper because he was unhappy with coverage of Atlantic Yards?

"I don't recall using those terms," Atkins said, not quite answering.

Did he tell Weiss to stop sending press releases to the Brooklyn Paper?

"The issue was discussed," Atkins responded. "I'm not sure if it was ever agreed upon. I certainly wished it."

Why was his press regarding Atlantic Yards so negative, Markowitz was asked.

"We wouldn't have enough time to go into that here," Markowitz responded, "but let's say that those that are opposed always have the louder voice than those are in favor."

But wasn't the negative press coverage--this was 2005, after new Frank Gehry designs alerted and alarmed people as to the project's scale--caused by Markowitz's stance, not his staff, he was asked.

"Partially yes, and partially not so," Markowitz responded. "Ms. Weiss never developed a relationship with the media, with the press, never, never. I'm not sure, to be candid, had she formed a relationship that may have softened it. I don't know."

Markowitz said he couldn't recall specific instances where Weiss didn't get the message out, but "there was overwhelming negative press that I recall during her tenure here."

Weiss's qualifications

The lawsuit states Atkins "wished that she had more media experience, a transparently pretextual assertion in light of Plaintiff's excellent qualifications, extensive experience, and impressive resume."

According to Weiss, there was something else at work: "Marty said that he wanted to hire one of his friends."

She acknowledged that she didn't have connections to the media, beyond lists the department had, nor did she foster relationships with the media.

She also said another staffer, a press secretary, was responsible for getting Markowitz airtime.

But Weiss said she did get Markowitz significant coverage, such as articles about rental car rates being markedly higher in Brooklyn.

Markowitz called Weiss an excellent speechwriter and said that he hired her, despite a lack of experience in press relations, because of her writing abilities and "the fact that she knew me."

Markowitz said that another senior staffer, Carolyn Greer, told him of Weiss's "inability to manage the department." However, he did not document these problems, nor did he document Greer conveying her concerns to him.

Markowitz's demeanor: "a screamer"

Did Weiss observe Markowitz treating anyone else unfairly?

"Marty is a screamer and he screams at people," Weiss responded. "Is that unfair? Should people be screamed at in the workplace? I don't think so, but he did not scream at me."

Weiss stated that she was told that, because of Markowitz's treatment of another female staffer, since departed, "they had to take her and remove her across the hall to another part of the building where she would not have to be exposed to him... I said that he is a screamer and all I know is that he screamed at her and, actually, I, myself, witnessed her in tears on a couple of occasions. What the screaming was about and what the issue was, I don't know."

Weiss said she told that same staffer that Atkins "felt threatened by me because I was competent and I was an older woman. She said, 'I want to tell you as a woman, don't take in personally.'"

What did that mean?

"That she was referring to her own experience, probably," Weiss responded.

The AWOL male staffer

Central to the lawsuit is that communications staffer Michael Kadish, who socialized with Atkins, was treated gently even though he'd stopped showing up for work and had put his attention elsewhere.

According to Weiss, Markowitz said, "I don't know what he does. I don't know what he is doing. He has gone AWOL for weeks. We still have him on the payroll."

In their depositions, Markowitz and Atkins were more circumspect.

How often did Kadish not show up?

"I can't document how often," Markowitz responded. "It could have been for a day or two and then he did show up... I have to refer you to HR."

Was there an issue concerning Kadish not showing up for work, Atkins was asked.

"I don't believe so," he responded. "I don't recall that."

Weiss vs. Atkins

Weiss stated that Atkins undermined her: "So that type of thing happened frequently where Marty would ask me to do something and I would do it and Greg would insinuate himself into it and it would never get done."

For example, after meeting with the planning staff on development issues, she wrote a memo that Atkins refused to present to Markowitz.

After Atkins started micro-managing her, reviewing all press materials, he would criticize her work, but not offer solutions, according to Weiss. "In all of my years of experience," she stated, "I never had anyone say to me 'I don't like this, you figure out why.'"

Atkins stated, in his deposition, that Weiss's press releases were not substantial enough, lacking in message--but he couldn't offer a specific example.

Did she approach Atkins?

Yes, according to Weiss, but he would say "that it it's not a good time... There never was a good time.... He just refused to talk to me."

She said Atkins belittled her, for example, denying her claim that a positive Daily News article about Markowitz and Atlantic Yards resulted from her interaction with the reporter. She said she then sent him sent the chain of emails between her and the newspaper.

Weiss said that Atkins turned Markowitz against her: "And all this stuff happens to me, which is clearly his chief of staff discriminating against me... and all of a sudden, Marty loses his respect for my my judgment."

Political intervention?

Weiss charged that Atkins refused to discuss her concerns that the office was being misused for political purposes, and that he ordered her not to discuss those concerns with Markowitz.

"Well, I told him I was concerned--essentially, Greg was running Marty's campaign, but he had someone as the official manager in the campaign office across the street," Weiss stated. "And I was concerned that this guy would do things like send us press releases from the campaign to review and ask us for media contacts and on one occasion asked us to send out a press release, which we did not do."

She said another department staffer was doing work for Best of Brooklyn, the charity that sponsors Markowitz's summer concert series, but was not being paid by the charity.

"Every time that I said to Greg 'I'm concerned about this and you have my staff working on these things and I don't think it is a good idea and you could get in trouble,' he would just sit there and not answer me," Weiss stated. "It was truly amazing."

Atkins was asked if Weiss ever indicated "that she was concerned that during an election year for Mr Markowitz, the office was being used improperly for political purposes."

"No," he responded, contradicting her deposition.

Did Markowitz utilize Weiss and other staffers to prepare him for debates during his re-election campaign?

"It's completely appropriate for members of the staff to prepare their principal in terms of public policy that the office of the Borough President has been involved in," Markowitz replied. "The line between politics and public policy and an elective official is a very, very tight one."

Did Weiss prepare the questions to help prepare him for a debate?

"She may have," Markowitz responded, hinting that his staffer may have crossed that "very very tight" line.

As the New York Times put it in 2/24/10 coverage:
The accusation of a blurring of the lines between city work and campaign activity is particularly noteworthy for Mr. Markowitz, given that he recently admitted that he used his chief of staff, Carlo A. Scissura, as his private lawyer to purchase a $1.45 million house in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood.
Since then, Markowitz was fined $2000 for that transaction and has been further slammed for ethical breaches, notably having sponsors of his foreign trips pay for his wife's travel, leading to a fine of $20,000 levied this past July.

Inappropriate jokes?

Atkins would make "inappropriate sexual jokes a lot" at meetings, according to Weiss.

Did he "ever tell any sexually related jokes at meetings," Atkins was asked.

"Not that I can recall," he said, not offering a full denial.

The "embellishment" and false information


Weiss drafted, and Markowitz signed, a letter of recommendation praising Weiss, helping her get a new job. Markowitz said he considered most of the letter "an embellishment," as he wanted to help her.

"I would not knowingly put false information [out]," Markowitz declared, "but false and embellishments are two different things."

This, however, was before Markowitz started shilling on video to Chinese millionaires, claiming last year Brooklyn was "1000 percent" behind Atlantic Yards.

Did Markowitz lie?

The New York Post reported 2/23/11 that Weiss wanted an investigation of alleged Markowitz perjury:
As the Post reported Tuesday, Markowitz answered "no" when asked whether he knew of complaints of "inappropriate" conduct or discrimination in his office made by Bridget Geary and two other female staffers. But Atkins, a co-defendant with Markowitz in Weiss’ 2007 suit, testified that he learned of the Geary incident after being directly contacted by Markowitz.
That's a bit of shorthand.

Geary complained about an inappropriate joke made by another staffer. "She started calling the borough president in the middle of the night over the weekend and leaving voice mails," Atkins stated in his deposition. "Marty told me that she was calling him and asked me to sit down with her, and in this discussion, which the deputy chief of staff was there also, she told us about the other issue and feeling uncomfortable, which we had just completed a staff wide class on safe workplace and all that stuff, and obviously, it was something we took very seriously."

Markowitz was asked, "Other than this case, while you have been Brooklyn Borough President, have their been any other complaints of discrimination or retaliation by employees at the Brooklyn Borough President's Office?"

"Never brought to my attention, not to my knowledge," Markowitz responded.

The Post reported:
Markowitz referred comment to city lawyer Diana Goell Voigt, who said Weiss' allegations are "utterly false" and the borough president "in no way perjured himself." However, when asked to explain the conflicting testimony, she declined comment.
To explain this, Markowitz and his lawyers would either have to revise his statement or thread the needle.

Perhaps Markowitz believed the complaint about an inappropriate joke was "offensive" but not necessarily "discriminatory" and that he answered truthfully to whether there were any additional formal--rather than--informal complaints.

But there were informal complaints about jokes with sexual content that implicated a safe workplace, an issue of sexual discrimination.

Should the case make it to trial we should see Markowitz challenged on that seeming contradiction.

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