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How De Blasio Pals Ended Up With Jobs at the City’s Hearings Agency

Then-Councilmember Vincent Gentile in 2015.
Then-Councilmember Vincent Gentile (left) in 2015.
William Alatriste/New York City Council

Vincent Gentile was looking for a new gig in 2018 after he was term-limited out of the City Council and a run for Brooklyn district attorney ended unsuccessfully.

A supporter of Bill de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign, Gentile wasn’t out of work for long.

Gentile notched a $148,500-a-year job as executive agency counsel at the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH) on Feb. 25, 2018, records show.

He was brought on board despite a $10 million lawsuit filed in December 2016 alleging he and underlings harassed a Council aide who has Asperger syndrome. Gentile was eventually severed from the still-pending suit, two years after landing at OATH.

Legal experts THE CITY spoke to differed on whether the lawsuit should have raised any red flags during Gentile’s hiring.

But he’s not the only high-ranking OATH hire with a history of supporting de Blasio’s electoral efforts.

Joni Kletter, previously head of the Mayor’s Office of Appointments, was named commissioner of OATH on March 13. Kletter, who is paid $227,787 annually, served as de Blasio’s campaign treasurer when he ran for re-election in 2017.

Her husband, Doug Schneider, is vying to replace term-limited Brad Lander in the City Council, for the Brooklyn seat de Blasio once held.

Joni Kletter, Commissioner and Chief Administrative Law Judge of the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, speaks during Mayor Bill deBlasio’s executive order signing to create the Center for Creative Conflict Resolution within OATH on Feb. 18, 2021.
Joni Kletter (third from left) speaks during a February event with Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Courtesy of Twitter

In September, John Burns, who served as de Blasio’s campaign treasurer during his 2003 and 2005 City Council runs, resigned under fire from his high-level post at OATH after an investigation found he mistreated a female underling and created a “hostile” workplace, THE CITY reported.

Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokesperson, defended Gentile’s hiring and denied it had anything to do with his ties to de Blasio.

“All appropriate procedures were followed in hiring for this job and he’s not a defendant in that case,” she said.

The former Bay Ridge lawmaker, who also served in the State Senate, beat out eight other applicants for the position, which was listed on OATH’s website for 10 days, Feyer said.

Headless Teddy Bear

The former aide, Michael Bistreich, charged that Gentile’s staffers decapitated a teddy bear on his desk, briefly trapped him in a dark basement and mocked him during staff gatherings, according to the lawsuit.

Bistreich also alleged that Gentile made stigmatizing comments about his autism-related behaviors in the workplace.

In February, an appellate panel dismissed the former Council member as a defendant, concluding that “there is no indication that Gentile was aware of any of the coworkers’ actions.”

Bistreich’s case against the city remains active and is snaking its way through the court system.

Gentile’s hiring while the lawsuit was pending should have raised questions, according to one leading hiring academic.

“It’s never a plus,” said Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Ones that reflect on the personal behavior or the individual are hard to take, ones where someone is sued in their capacity as representing an organization are not such big deals,” he added.

But one lawyer who has represented workers in city labor cases argued pending lawsuits should never be a factor in hiring someone.

“The fact that a person being sued is almost like an arrest,” said the attorney, Richard Washington. “It’s evidence of nothing. Most of the time the case is going to settle and will include no admission of guilt.”

Alleged ‘Unnerving’ Comment

The suit alleged that Gentile complained that Bistreich’s physical “ticing” had worsened during his 2 ½ year tenure working for the then-Council member.

“We know your condition, but when you twitch like that it’s unnerving to people,” Gentile said, according to the lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court.

“Can you look into upping your medication?” he allegedly asked.

In a deposition, Gentile said he asked Bistreich about his movements during a meeting because he was concerned about his health.

City lawyers have argued that if Bistreich were “reasonable” he’d see what happened to him as merely “petty slights and trivial inconveniences.’’

At OATH, Gentile has worked with nonprofit organizations to offer free legal services to assist some homeowners in Brooklyn and Staten Island who receive city Department of Buildings summonses, according to Feyer. The groups also help for-hire-vehicle drivers with certain Taxi and Limousine Commission-issued summonses, Feyer said.

The former lawmaker has also provided training to nonprofit lawyers to educate them about the hearing process. In addition, he trained staff at the OATH Help Center so they can better target who is eligible for their pro bono services.

“After serving in government for 30 years and having extensive experience working with nonprofits, it was a great fit to be able to come to OATH to head up their pro bono efforts and recruit nonprofits interested in helping New Yorkers who face costly civil summonses,” Gentile said in a statement to THE CITY.

‘Harassed and Retaliated’

OATH handles disciplinary proceedings for many city workers as well as cases involving violations of city human rights laws, such as discrimination on the basis of disability and gender. The agency also deals with hearings for city-issued summonses.

Burns quit his $206,504-a-year job as OATH’s first deputy commissioner last fall after THE CITY inquired about allegations against him by at least one female staffer.

In December 2019, Acting Commissioner Tynia Richard reappointed Burns to a second five-year term — even as he was under investigation, records show.

An internal review concluded a month later that Burns “discriminated [against], harassed and retaliated” against an employee with a disability, whose name was redacted in a 90-page report obtained by THE CITY.

Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings judge John Burns.
Former OATH official John Burns
2016 OATH Annual Report

The report was heavily redacted, with 79 of the 90 pages blacked out, and multiple other details obscured.

Burns “emphatically” denied any wrongdoing, according to his lawyer, Mitch Garber, who said in September that his client resigned to “avoid protracted litigation.”

Before Burns stepped down from OATH, where he also served as supervising administrative law judge, agency officials sought to fire him via a disciplinary hearing that had been set to begin on Sept. 21 at the NYPD’s Trial Room.

The case was moved from OATH, the normal venue for city worker disciplinary hearings, to avoid a conflict of interest at a tribunal where he oversaw the nine administrative judges.

But the trial was never put on the public schedule and the mayor’s press team ignored questions about it for days. A spokesperson for the mayor later called the behavior ascribed to Burns “completely unacceptable.”

De Blasio said he didn’t know the details of the case when asked about it by THE CITY on Oct. 1, 2020.

“What I know is that anyone who acts inappropriately needs to feel the consequences and there needs to be consistency in the approach,” he said.

The city has since refused to release the full, unredacted, report, or explain why Burns’ disciplinary case was kept secret.

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