Federal judge demands answers from FDNY commission after pro-Trump firefighters threaten AG

NEW YORK — A federal judge, spurred by a recent incident in which firefighters assaulted state Attorney General Letitia James, is demanding that the FDNY commissioner and the city's top attorney appear before him and explain why the fire department is taking so long. Respond to equal opportunity complaints.

Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Nicholas Garafis, who is overseeing the department's civil rights settlement with the Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters, ordered FDNY Commissioner Laura Cavanaugh and the city's Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix to appear at the next level conference. Case in May.

The order comes after Vulcan Society President Regina Wilson blasted the FDNY for its anemic response to equal opportunity complaints, saying the incident exposes an even more racist culture at the FDNY.

„I don't know if you even had a chance to see the ugliness of these members when we were at the Christian Cultural Center, where they started yelling 'Trump, Trump Trump,' when Letitia James was on stage,” Wilson told the judge at the March 14 status conference.

„This behavior is who this department is. Not all of them, but a large part of them. So when black people go to work and have to deal with this, and you don't really get any help or support from the department, it's horrible.

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

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The shenanigans came just weeks after a judge slapped the former president with a $454 million verdict at the end of a Manhattan civil fraud case by James' office.

Wilson's request prompted Garafis to issue an ultimatum: „Straighten up the EEO office. Get some of your smartest lawyers from corporation counsel and put them in there and start conducting an investigation. This is not a request, it's a direction.

Garafis said he was shocked by the incident.

„I've lived in New York City my whole life. I know what the problem is. Believe me, it happened front and center the other day. It's not about politics, it's about race,” he said.

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

„We put our lives in control every day, but we have to go to work about our fists or worry about who's the next person who's going to say something, and then (authorities) don't protect them?” she said. “Why do we have to do this day in and day out, it's horrible. I don't know how else to say it. This is bad. It has gotten worse over the years.

The judge required the city to hire attorneys from other city agencies to ease the EEO caseload.

“You have 900 lawyers sitting in the corporation counsel's office doing other things, and there are lawyers all over city government. Put them in detail, they are already working for you, just do it. One hundred and eighty days cannot be accepted,” he said. „The commissioner should be here at the next meeting.”

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He made the same request to Hinds-Radix.

„I don't know what she's doing, but she's not working on this. And she's a former judge. I suspect she's going to be very happy that her orders were ignored and her instructions were ignored,” Garafis said.

FDNY officials said the department has half the number of investigative lawyers on staff it did before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and it is in the process of hiring more. Meanwhile, EEO cases go to other attorneys in other FDNY bureaus and the legal department, those officials said.

„Commissioner Cavanaugh and the FDNY are committed to providing a professional work environment free of discrimination and harassment for all department employees, and that's why we continue to work with our city partners so we can effectively re-staff the EEO office,” said FDNY spokesman James Long, adding that department brass „dress up during department events.” „Continuous conversations with our members about this,” he said.

According to the city law department, before the pandemic, the FDNY's EEO office was closing all of its investigations within 90 days.

„The FDNY takes every EEO complaint seriously, investigates every complaint diligently, and is committed to addressing the complaint backlog,” said Nicholas Palucci, a spokesman for the law department.

„The Court has previously expressed appreciation for Corporation Counsel's active involvement in finding solutions in the past, and continues to acknowledge that the City's many efforts have been well made. We will update the Court on how we plan to further assist the FDNY EEO Office.

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

In 2011, while the lawsuit was pending, he found that fire department selections were intentionally biased against blacks. A federal appeals court overturned that finding — but it upheld the remedies Garafis ordered, including the appointment of a federal monitor.

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