Kathleen Culliton, Patch Contributing Writer
NEW YORK CITY — A whistleblower reported systematic and “egregious” racism among high-ranking Buildings Department officials who allegedly sought to rid the New York City agency of Black people, attorneys told Patch.
“The higher-ups are orchestrating this heinous discrimination,” said attorney Brad Gerstman. “They’re seeking to rid themselves of all African American people in the department. ”
Gerstman represents a group of Buildings Department inspectors who filed Wednesday a discrimination lawsuit against the department and the city in New York Supreme Court, records show.
The lawsuit accuses several high-ranking Buildings officials — including a deputy commissioner and a marshal — of burying discrimination complaints, protecting the accusers and punishing the accused, records show.
“This went right up to the top,” Gerstman said. “This is so high in authority that it’s really scary.”
DOB spokesperson Ryan Degan said the department had not yet been served with the lawsuit but would review it carefully once received.
“Racism has no place in our city,” Degan said. “The Department of Buildings is committed to a fair workplace, and we have a strong Equal Employment Opportunity policy to promote an inclusive work environment for everyone at the agency.”
Deputy Commissioner Tim Hogan is not named as a defendant but appears in the suit as the alleged protector of Building Department members who promoted white employees — some of whom failed civil service exams — over more qualified Black candidates, according to Gerstman and the complaint.
Among those who benefited from Hogan’s alleged protection is Salvatore Agostino, the department’s first Building Marshal, who complained that Black employees spoke too loudly and insisted they, unlike white workers, call him “Sir,” the suit contends.
The Buildings marshal allegedly denied promotion to inspector Ralph Joseph and revoked his driving privileges because of questionable personal feelings, according to the lawsuit.
“All that matters is whether I like you,” Agostino told Joseph, the lawsuit states. “Not whether you do a good job.”
Another supervisor accused is Assistant Chief Inspector Jerry Wiggins, who made racist gestures — rubbing his hand to denote skin color — while explaining his “disciplinary purge” of Black Buildings Department workers, the lawsuit contends.
Wiggins bragged of familiarity with Neo-Nazis in his neighborhood and complained “every time a Black employee used a car, the car was greasy and smelled,” the lawsuit states.
Several of the inspectors — among them a U.S. veteran — reported being denied access to department cars after reporting medical conditions that included knee surgery and nerve damage that caused “severe bodily pain,” according to Gerstman and the complaint.
Plaintiff Eric Taylor said he was fired for “failure to work effectively” after requesting medical leave and providing multiple doctors’ notes, the complaint contends.
Meanwhile, Wiggins allowed a white inspector to leave work early because he lived in New Jersey, the lawsuit contends.
Gerstman, from the law firm Gerstman Schwartz, said he first became aware of the situation about a month ago when a department whistleblower came forward and confirmed allegations made by the nine plaintiffs, the attorney said.
“I was dumbfounded,” Gerstman said. “It’s inconceivable in this day and age that that kind of racism still exists.”
Gerstman expects more employees will step forward to share stories of discrimination, he said.
In both court filings and a telephone interview with Patch, the attorney pointed blame at the de Blasio administration for lack of oversight in city departments under the mayor’s control.
“He’s out there making speeches while the management of the city has become so dysfunctional we can’t even recognize it any more,” Gerstman said.
“When you have such dysfunction, and no one is watching, this is what happens.”