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Federal judge demands answers from FDNY commish, top city lawyer after pro-Trump firefighters heckle A.G.

By John Annese, New York Daily News
Published: April 1, 2024, 8:18am

NEW YORK — Spurred on in part by a recent incident in which firefighters heckled state Attorney General Letitia James, a federal judge is demanding that the FDNY commissioner and the city’s top lawyer appear before him to explain why it’s taking so long for the Fire Department to answer equal opportunity complaints.

Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who’s overseeing the department’s civil rights settlement with the Vulcan Society of Black firefighters, has ordered FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh and the city’s Corporation Counsel, Sylvia Hinds-Radix, to come before him at the next status conference in the case in May.

That order came after Vulcan Society President Regina Wilson blasted the FDNY for its anemic response to equal opportunity complaints and said that the heckling incident exposes the still-racist culture at the FDNY.

“I don’t know if you had an opportunity to just see the vile nature of these members even when we were at Christian Cultural Center where they started booing and saying ‘Trump, Trump Trump,’ while Letitia James was at the podium,” Wilson told the judge at a March 14 status conference.

“This behavior is who this department is. Not all of them, but a large portion of them. So when Black people go to work and have to deal with this and you don’t get any help or support really from the department, it’s horrific.”

Wilson was referring to a March 8 incident in which pro-Trump firefighters heckled James during a promotion ceremony at the Christian Cultural Center in Starrett City, Brooklyn. The department launched an investigation soon after, and Kavanagh apologized on behalf of the FDNY.

The heckling came weeks after a judge slapped the former president with a $454 million judgment at the end of his Manhattan civil fraud prosecution by James’ office.

Wilson’s plea moved Garaufis to issue an ultimatum: “Get the EEO office straightened out. Take some of your brilliant lawyers from the Corporation Counsel and put them in there and start holding hearings. That’s not a request, that’s a direction.”

Garaufis also said he was shocked by the heckling incident.

“I’ve lived in New York City all my life. I know what the problem is. And believe me, front and center is what happened the other day. This doesn’t have to do with politics, this has to do with race,” he said.

Wilson has long complained about the backlog of complaints. FDNY officials said at the March hearing that cases have been open for a half-year as the EEO office deals with staffing shortages. Complaints are supposed to be fully investigated within 90 days, according to city policy.

“We put our lives on the line every day but we got to go to work about our fists balled or worried about who is the next person who is going to say something and then the (officers) don’t protect them?” she said. “Why do we have to do this day after day, it’s horrific. I don’t know how else to say it. This is bad. It’s been bad for years.”

The judge demanded the city assign lawyers from other city agencies to ease the EEO caseload.

“You have 900 lawyers sitting doing other things in the Corporation Counsel’s office and lawyers all over the city government. Put them on detail, they already work for you, and do it. One hundred eighty days is not acceptable,” he said. “And I want the commissioner here at the next meeting.”

He made a similar demand of Hinds-Radix.

“I don’t know what she’s doing, but she’s not working on this. And she’s a former judge. I doubt she’d be too happy about having her orders ignored and her instructions ignored,” Garaufis said.

FDNY officials said the department has half the investigative attorneys on staff that it did before the COVID pandemic broke out in 2020, and it’s working to hire more people. In the meantime, EEO cases have been going to other lawyers in other FDNY bureaus, and to the Law Department, those officials said.

“Commissioner Kavanagh and the FDNY is committed to providing a professional work environment free of discrimination and harassment for all Department employees, which is why we continue to work with our city partners so we can effectively re-staff the EEO office,” FDNY spokesman James Long said, adding that department brass are “having ongoing conversations with our members about decorum during department events.”

According to the city Law Department, before the pandemic, the FDNY’s EEO office was finishing nearly all of its investigations within 90 days.

“The FDNY takes every EEO complaint seriously, diligently investigates each complaint, and is committed to addressing the complaint backlog,” Law Department spokesman Nicholas Paolucci said.

“The court has previously expressed appreciation for the Corporation Counsel’s active engagement in finding solutions in the past, and continued to acknowledge that a lot of the city’s efforts have been done well. We’ll be updating the court on how we plan to further assist the FDNY EEO Office.”

In 2014, the city agreed to pay $98 million in back pay and benefits to aspiring minority firefighters in a court settlement with the Vulcan Society, which accused the city of discrimination in a 2007 lawsuit.

In 2011, as the case was ongoing, Garaufis found that firefighter exams intentionally discriminated against Blacks. A federal appeals court overturned that finding — but it upheld the remedies Garaufis ordered, including the appointment of a federal monitor.

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