New York City

Susan Rosenthal Ambushed: Who Really Knocked Her Off?

Who ambushed Susan Rosenthal? Who’s covering up for him or her, and why? A whistleblower? A disgruntled employee out to get the boss? We’re finally ready to name names and ask more questions.

Opinion by David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

RIOC president/CEO Susan Rosenthal’s firing shocked us. After all, wasn’t she the ultimate Cuomo backer?

They buried it on a slow news Friday, but was there something behind the timing? Grandstanding? Posturing for political gains? Worse?

It was Juneteenth. Anything to that?

What’s going on here?

Let’s be clear. The woman who lodged the complaint is not an official whistleblower nor did she seek legal protections for her actions. She was an unhappy employee, and she launched a public attack on Susan Rosenthal.

Susan Rosenthal
RIOC president Susan Rosenthal at the Howe Theatre dedication where she earned enthusiastic appreciation. Photo by Irina Hage/Irina Island Images.

At RIOC for over four years, Rosenthal was a firm, decisive leader, and such leaders always accumulate some enemies. Egos clash, hurt feelings burn.

The writer does not ask for Rosenthal’s firing, but appeals for “progress,” claiming that others were protecting the president/CEO, some in fear of losing their jobs.

Using a popular buzz word, she calls work at RIOC as “Toxic.”

The accusations, distributed to elected officials, RIOC staff and board members by public email, appeared dated and not especially impressive. (See the full text below.)

Who fired Susan Rosenthal…?

According to a spokesperson for the governor, Team Cuomo, 151 miles up the Hudson in Albany, did it, not RIOC’s board. And that’s a problem.

According the RIOC bylaws, the board hires and fires, but no record even existed of a board meeting until September. RIOC posted a June meeting only after the Roosevelt Island Daily reported its absence.

It had only a bare minimum quorum and claimed an unidentified emergency. In spite of claims to the contrary by chief counsel Gretchen Robinson, we found no record of a legally mandatory public notice. No opportunity for observing live, as required by law, appears anywhere.

The meeting follows Team Cuomo’s firing of Rosenthal, via press release, only in the New York Post. At the meeting, she is totally absent, never acknowledged, much less fired.

Following an executive session concerning “finances,” board member David Kraut abruptly moves appointing Shelton Haynes “interim” president/CEO. All others present unanimously approve.

Attending by conference call: Kraut, Howard Polivy, Jeffrey Escobar and David Kappel, along with the mandatory Cuomo space-fillers out of Albany.

So, who ambushed Susan Rosenthal?

The sender of the email was 20-year RIOC employee Karline Jean, now working in the legal department, according to multiple sources. But no evidence exists that she wanted the president/CEO fired.

In her email, she lists causes for her unhappiness, says others feel the same way and are afraid of losing their jobs, should they speak up. She calls this “toxic.”

A bigger mystery remains… Did she act alone? It seems unlikely, and she implies support from other “staffers.”

But how did the generally unimpressive and outdated charges result in a high profile firing? Who investigated the alleged coverup Jean claims to bravely defy?

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Because the Governor’s office shrouds everything in secrecy and broke the news only to the New York Post, truth’s at a premium, but let’s take a look anyway.

Verbatim: The Charges

Here, word for word, the email sent to dozens of state and local officials as well as RIOC executives and board:

Good morning

In the past few days, we watched 50 states, and over 20 countries protest to demand change to police brutality and systemic racism. An outcry started after the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man by the hands of a police officer. The systemic racism and social inequalities black people face on a daily basis is nothing short of disheartening; however, the statement Black Lives Matter should not be controversial; it’s a call for equality, justice and accountability..

My experience of working at RIOC for the last several years have been toxic as we’ve experienced offensive racial comments and jokes of a sexual nature by Ms. Susan Rosenthal, RIOC’s Chief Executive Officer/President. I’ve witnessed the lack of regard for employees as senior leadership continues to make excuses and play a blind eye on these troublesome issues. Some of my experiences include:

  • Last year Ms. Rosenthal purchased a painting named “The Cotton Picker” which depicted a slave picking cotton. The painting was placed it in her office until she decided to take it to her home. She faced no repercussions. In addition to making staffers feel uncomfortable, we also felt disrespected. Photo added below for your reference.
  • While meeting with a resident, I overheard Ms. Rosenthal refer to her “son in law is black as hell and her daughter is white as snow.”
  • When her first grandchild was born, she also mentioned that her grandchild was “the real African American” as her son-in-law is of African descent. Her statement was extremely appalling.
  • She also shared and suggested that “not all black people look alike.”
  • She has also mentioned in meetings with internal and external parties, that the last time she trusted someone she lost her virginity.

These insensitive statements should not be made by anyone, especially an individual trusted to lead a corporation.

The truth is Susan Rosenthal has made racial comments and sexual innuendos the norm at RIOC knowing employees will remain silent in fear of losing their livelihood while others continue to shield her, this practice should no longer be acceptable. I debated whether to send this email however, if I continue to ignore these experiences there will be no progress.

Big questions behind the story…

The writer’s reference to “we” and “staffers” suggest she shared her complaints with others, but who are they? What role did they play?

Karline Jean is an assistant in the small legal department, headed by VP Gretchen Robinson. Was Robinson consulted before the charges went public with high ranking officials and board members?

If not, why not? Did an apparent disregard of established procedure go unpunished and actually get rewarded? New York State has whistleblower protections, but it does not appear that official channels were used.

Worse yet, why did Cuomo seize on it to justify firing a loyal state employee whose family life got smeared in the process?

Shuffling of staff assignments by acting president/CEO Shelton Haynes in the immediate wake of Rosenthal’s dismissal suggest broader involvement. And although RIOC operates with little transparency, we learned that a group associated with Jean pushed at least one senior staff member close to Rosenthal out.

If RIOC’s board choses to be directors, not simply meek enablers, for a change, they have a fiduciary duty to look deeper and inform the community about what really happened here.

Obviously, we don’t expect that to happen because it would be so out of character for this group of seasoned Yes-Men.

Analyzing the Charges

First up, the preamble is as pretentious as it is irrelevant. Conflating unhappiness with working at RIOC with George Floyd’s murder rendered it far out of proportion.

With grammar poor enough that a high school English teacher would pepper it with red check marks.

And as one senior RIOC exec assured me, “Susan doesn’t have a racist bone in her body.”

Roosevelt Island News: Alice Childress Memorial
In 2018, Susan Rosenthal played an active role in rescuing this Roosevelt Island Memorial plaque honoring Alice Childress. Childress was an African American literary giant, and Rosenthal went on to produce one of her plays at the Howe Theatre.

From rescuing a memorial to Alice Childress to championing Black History Month, she showed no racism anywhere, but just the opposite.

So, what was the point? And then to go on with dubious, out of date accusations, one actually laughable… And why now?

Susan Rosenthal Ambushed by the Love of Art

The first object of grievances from years past, The Cotten Picker, may or may not depict a slave. And if the unhappy employee felt so “disrespected,” why wait a year to say so?

The painting, I confirmed, is by an African American painter, and he exhibited at a Black History Month show in Gallery RIVAA.

Furthermore, why take it out of context and not explain why it might offend anyone? Shall we just take every individual gripe as universally valid and worthy of censorship?

RIOC president Susan Rosenthal at the 1619 Project event.
In February, this year, Susan Rosenthal spoke on the theme of shedding light on the hidden history of African Americans .

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the artist as a resident of Coler. That was inaccurate.

Imagine how the artist feels, seeing his work demonized as racist, unfit for an art lovers office?

No good reproduction is available, but The Cotten Picker is a vibrant abstract more likely to invoke empathy than anything else. Top African American artists have shared their takes on this theme countless times.

It’s neither offensive nor exceptional to anyone knowledgable about art..

While We’re At It, Let’s Drag Her Family Through the Mud Too

Anyone who knows Susan Rosenthal sees “(my) son in law is black as hell and her daughter is white as snow” as embracing diversity. But you can’t ignore the illiterate misquote.

To be clear, Rosenthal, refreshingly plain spoken by nature, was casually chatting about family life, unaware of a subordinate listening in the wings.

And what the hell’s wrong with calling her beloved grandchild “the real African American?” Nothing disparaging there, and it sounds more like pride to me.

Here again, the disgruntled employee harks back to an event far from current, but there’s no evidence of a complaint from anyone at that time.

Susan Rosenthal Ambushed: Turning the Tables

Since civil rights marched to the American front pages, stereotyping African Americans was an issue.

No one in their right mind sees “not all black people look alike,” as anything more than repudiation of stereotyping.

We don’t know how this offended Jean or her coworkers.

It’s ridiculous that anyone in a responsible position would give this more than a moment’s consideration.

Radical Sexual Purity Raises Its Head

I’ll share a story.

A man tells his doctor that he’s out of shape and has lost all energy. Even his sex life is over.

The doctor prescribes exercise.

“Take up walking every day. Start with one block, then two blocks the next day. Do a little more every day. Call me in a couple of months, and let me know how you’re doing.”

Two months later, the patient calls and reports positive results.

“I’m up to half a mile a day, and I feel much stronger.”

“And how is your sext life?” the doctor asks.

“I don’t know. I’m 31 miles away from home, now.”

That’s borrowed from a great Netflix show, Somebody Feed Phil.

It’s mainstream. You can tell it to anyone.

Also true of “the last time she trusted someone she lost her virginity.”

Come on, people, are we so puritanical, these days, we can’t make a simple joke without risking attack? Is this the kind of community or working environment we want?

Conclusion: Who Ambushed Susan Rosenthal

Sadly, we weren’t able to answer that sooner because those copied on the disgruntled employee’s email stayed silent.

But why?

Jean never sought protection as a whistleblower. Never went through channels set up for that.

Instead, the email was targeted for impact, disparaging a superior on dubious grounds with motives not clearly explained. Looked at objectively, not one of the complaints holds water. Not one’s grounds for reprimanding, let alone firing, a loyal executive.

And what was the rush?

Barely a week passed from the email to the firing… on Juneteenth.

Is the real racism hidden behind Cuomo’s exploiting a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in Texas for political gain?

And why all this secrecy? Why not stand up and defend what to many appears an outrageous act of score settling?

A local leader approached me the next week.

“Is there any way we can get Susan Rosenthal back?” he asked.

Anything’s possible, of course, but if I were Susan, I’d tell Andrew Cuomo where he could stuff it.

And if I were a thoughtful local resident on Roosevelt Island, I’d ask those seven board members living here why the hell they rolled over without a single one stiffening his spine.

Do your jobs, for Christ’s sake… but that’s just me.

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