A dispute over dueling signs at a community event spurred a call to the cops — along with dueling police reports pitting staffers of a City Council member running for Brooklyn borough president against a constituent.
Councilmember Robert Cornegy wasn’t present during the late November incident at the Winter Wonderland market at Restoration Plaza on Fulton Street. But local community board member Keith Forest said he wants Cornegy to discipline his staffers for calling the police and allegedly threatening to “destroy” him.
“I’m an African-American male, 55 years of age, and I have never had any problems with the police, none,” Forest told THE CITY.
Cornegy, in a statement sent by a spokesperson, charged that Forest “cursed at and threatened a member of my staff” and said that his behavior was “outrageous and inappropriate and his language was violent.”
Two witnesses told THE CITY that voices were raised on both sides, but said that Forest only shouted back after being threatened by one of Cornegy’s staffers. Forest denied threatening anyone.
Soon after the Nov. 28 incident, Forest filed a complaint that eventually landed at the City Council.
THE CITY reported last month that a fired employee filed a complaint against Cornegy, alleging that he asked staffers for donations to his borough campaign and to work on the race for free. Cornegy denied the claims, which were backed by a former worker and a current employee interviewed by THE CITY.
The ex-staffer’s complaint also contended that constituent services suffered because Cornegy and his chief of staff, Sarissa Phillips-Singletary, spent work time discussing his borough president run.
‘I Will Destroy You’
Forest said Phillips-Singletary allegedly balked when asked to move a sign advertising the Council member that was blocking the Winter Wonderland event banner. Two of her colleagues piled on, he said.
“You’ll never work in Brooklyn again. I will destroy you,” Twila Evanson, Cornegy’s mental health and constituent services director, allegedly shouted.
“You don’t know who you’re messing with,” yelled another staffer, Shawn Francis, according to Forest’s complaint.
Police arrived on the scene soon after, and Phillips-Singletary filed a harassment report against Forest.
Forest filed his own harassment report against Phillips-Singletary, Evanson and Francis two days later with the 79th Precinct. THE CITY obtained copies of both complaints.
Phillips-Singletary, Evanson and Francis did not respond to requests for comment.
Forest noted the confrontation occurred while they were standing on the massive “Black Lives Matter’’ sign painted on the thoroughfare last June following the police killing of George Floyd. Cornegy was among those who wielded paint brushes, alongside state Attorney General Letitia James and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Forest, a freelance publicist, added: “To be asked by the police to leave a place where I work — the emotions are just unbearable.”
In his statement Cornegy said: “My staff genuinely feared for their safety and I will not tolerate that from anyone. They feared so much for their safety that they called the police who responded and immediately asked this individual to leave the area.”
Under Council rules, members are responsible for deciding what, if any, disciplinary actions to take with their staff, a Council source said.
Forest said he does not want Phillips-Singletary, Evanson or Francis to be fired. “This is about accountability,” he told THE CITY. “I want to make sure that this is part of their record, that corrective actions are taken and this never happens again.”
Cornegy firmly backed his staff: “No New Yorker should have to tolerate abuse in the course of their job, especially not people serving their community,” he said.
Complaint to Council
In early December, Forest wrote a complaint letter to someone he knew in the office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer, naming Phillips-Singletary, Evanson and Francis. Stringer’s office forwarded the note to the City Council’s general counsel, emails indicate.
Forest emailed a second letter to the office of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and followed up in late January with a letter directly to Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
The Council’s correspondence office sent an email reply to Forest more than three weeks later, shortly after THE CITY inquired about the complaint. It stated: “Your complaint was forwarded to the Office of the General Counsel and to Council Member Cornegy shortly after it was received.”
Forest sent his letter nearly a year after the fired former Cornegy staffer filed his complaint with the Council. The ex-employee asserted that constituent requests weren’t always a high priority for the Council member’s office.
When a restaurant owner asked for help addressing arcane zoning rules that prevented her from opening a sidewalk cafe, Phillips-Singletary “communicated to me that we shouldn’t have met with her, and said that she was trying to leapfrog the process,” the former staffer wrote in his complaint.
He wrote of the restaurant owner: “She claims that she had been trying to contact our office for 2-3 years seeking assistance.”
A ‘Long Record’ of Support
Contacted by THE CITY, the owner of the restaurant, Chez Oskar on Malcolm X Boulevard, said she and owners of 25 other restaurants along the corridor had tried for nearly three years to connect with Cornegy for help securing a zoning permit allowing sidewalk cafes in front of their businesses.
They directed countless letters, emails and phone calls to the office, but none yielded a response, said owner Charlotta Janssen.
“It was just this pattern of, they really don’t care,” Janssen said.
When asked by THE CITY about Janssen’s claims of unresponsiveness, Cornegy replied in a statement: “I have a long record in supporting small business. I initiated the Chamber On The Go program, bringing the Small Business Services and other governmental agencies directly to businesses.
“In addition to supporting all the local merchant associations, I have organized events like The Shared Economy, bringing international innovation and resources to local businesses” he added. “Just last month, I was the featured speaker at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, and I will continue to uplift our community, whether someone is in need of food or in need of support from the business community.”
The restaurants got a reprieve last year thanks to the city’s COVID-19 emergency open-air dining program allowing sidewalk cafes at most locations, but have seen no resolution of their underlying problem, Janssen said.
Cornegy leads the field of candidates for Brooklyn borough president in fundraising, having secured nearly $600,000 in matching funds via the city Campaign Finance Board. Other contenders vying to replace term-limited Eric Adams include Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon (D-Brooklyn) and Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn).