In a hushed federal courtroom on the eighth floor of the Alfonse M. D’Amato U.S. Courthouse in Central Islip, eight jurors and a judge have been hearing testimony in one of the most shocking court cases in recent local political history. You wouldn’t know it from the lack of media coverage, though.
Besides the judge, jury, five attorneys and several rotating witnesses, the room is otherwise empty but for the plaintiff’s husband and a handful of law interns. There are no camera crews camped outside, no journalists lurking the hallways. None, except for this curious reporter.
That’s how it’s been since the beginning of this trial, on July 27. Yet the allegations being tossed around this courtroom are as explosive and incendiary as Molotov cocktails: That Nassau County and several of its top officials used county employees, resources and functions for illegal fundraising, at the behest of former Chief Deputy County Executive Anthony Cancellieri and Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. That when Georgina Morgenstern, a former county planning department employee, blew the whistle on it, she was retaliated against and terminated without due process.
These charges, alleged First and Fourteenth Amendment rights violations, are at the heart of a multimillion-dollar suit Morgenstern originally filed in January 2004. The complaint details a host of alleged nefarious activities taking place within the county, from the misuse of federal funds to improper bid procedures for county contracts. Nassau, Suozzi, Cancellieri, former Director (current Executive Commissioner) of Planning Patricia Bourne, former Human Resources Director (current Chief Deputy County Executive) John Donnelly and Nassau Civil Service Employees Association Local 830 were all named as defendants.
Now, following more than five years of back-and-forth legal wrangling, the tiny 5-foot-3-inch Morgenstern and her goliath claims have finally made it to the inside of a courtroom. Despite dismissals, appeals, a barrage of motions from both sides, orders, and with the blessing of two federal judges, the suit has survived—the claims currently being heard are its most serious allegations.
Jury selection and opening statements commenced July 27 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arlene R. Lindsay. As of press time, the defense was still calling witnesses.
Though no longer listed as a defendant in the case, Suozzi’s name is being smacked around throughout the proceedings like a volleyball. Suozzi, the former mayor of Glen Cove. Suozzi, former Democratic New York State gubernatorial candidate. Suozzi, whose name is being bandied around as a possible candidate for New York State Attorney General and even governor in 2010—not too far a fetch since he was already considered for U.S. senator. Suozzi, who wants to be president.
For Morgenstern, it is her day of reckoning, one that did not come easy. For the county, the case resurrects a period both it and the county executive would much rather forget—the old suit breathes new life into Team Suozzi’s darkest chapter.
Morgenstern worked under disgraced former Deputy County Executive for Economic Development Peter Sylver. His is another name being kicked about the courtroom, and as a result of the trial, once again intertwined with Suozzi’s. In late 2003 through 2004, Sylver’s financial and sexual improprieties characterized what has become Suozzi’s biggest political scandal to date.
As the testimony unfolds, with its steamy details spilling onto the public record, the case has all the makings of Nassau County’s Watergate.
“It is a major cover up,” Douglas H. Wigdor, co-counsel for Morgenstern and founding partner of Manhattan-based law firm Thompson Wigdor & Gilly LLP, tells the Press. “And the reason why I say that is you have so many shifting explanations and reasons to try and justify her termination… You have the second most senior person at the county at the time lying about speaking with the county executive himself. You have documents that had been backdated and you have documents that were filled out and completed, but never signed.”
This isn’t the first time the Press has covered Morgenstern’s claims. She and her bombshell allegations were the subjects of a May 26, 2005 cover story titled “The Whistleblower.” The article was the first to introduce the charges to the public and may have sparked a criminal investigation into the allegations by then-Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon. His office confirmed the opening of a probe into the matter shortly thereafter its publication.
Eric Phillips, spokesperson for current Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice’s office tells the Press there were actually two investigations opened relating to Morgenstern—one of a political nature and the other regarding real estate. Both are now closed, with no criminal charges ever filed. Speaking in general terms and not specifically to Morgenstern’s claims, he said that the office takes such allegations seriously and is very aggressive in opening criminal investigations when the facts warrant such a review.
Trial by Fire
Morgenstern’s day in court comes at a hefty price.
In the summer of 2004, the mother of two was in a hospital, strapped to a gurney, sedated to prevent her bones from snapping, according to recent court transcripts. Electrodes attached to her temple repeatedly zapped her brain with volts of electricity. The treatment, known as electroshock therapy, was done, say the court papers and testimony, to induce seizures to help her cope with what had become severe depression following her termination from the county on Dec. 5, 2003. She had already tried to kill herself. It would not be her last attempt, say her attorneys.
Wigdor shared these harsh and vivid images with jurors during his opening statements. Though Morgenstern’s attorneys have advised her not to comment for this story, a quote from 2005 sums up her state of mind subsequent to her termination.
“You might as well have shot me right then and there,” she told the Press.
But it didn’t start out this way.
When the Port Washington resident came to work on the Nassau County Planning Commission in August 2002, she thought it a match made in heaven, according to recent court transcripts. Morgenstern brought to the job a breadth of knowledge derived from more than 20 years’ experience. She worked as an environmental planner with the New York City Department of City Planning. She was a veteran of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, where she held the title of chief environmental coordinator. Morgenstern, who has resided in Nassau for more than two decades, described her senior position as a Planner III within the county as nothing short of her “dream job,” say the papers.
That dream job, however, quickly transformed into a hellish nightmare.
Morgenstern said in 2005 she discovered a cesspool of corruption, collusion and pervasive dysfunction under Suozzi. The veteran planner called it “the worst-run bureaucracy and political climate” she’d ever experienced.
Morgenstern told the Press she witnessed illegal acts being committed on a daily basis. When Morgenstern spoke up about the problems to her supervisors, she said, she was told by Bourne that she wasn’t being a “team player” and subsequently terminated.
Her termination on Dec. 5, 2003 and the events leading up to it are currently being put under a microscope by Esther D. Miller, bureau chief of the General Litigation Bureau at the Nassau County Attorney’s Office, Deputy County Attorneys Michael C. Sordi and Karen Schmidt, Wigdor and his co-counsel Scott Gilly.
Morgenstern’s attorneys allege that she was an exemplary employee who blew the whistle on rampant corruption and was retaliated against. They argue her right to speak up against wrongdoing as a public employee was protected under the First Amendment. Because Morgenstern was a permanent county employee—having completed a 24-week probationary period on Dec. 1—she also had certain rights and protections due to her as such, they contend: prior notice and a hearing, among others.
The county counters that Morgenstern was a disgruntled probationary employee with a history of psychological problems, who on Dec. 4 illegally used county equipment—a microphone in the county’s old legislative chamber at One West Street—to make derogatory comments about the county and Suozzi.
On Dec. 4, 2003, while in the county legislative chamber awaiting the start of a scheduled presentation of the master plan outline she was to give before the planning commission, Morgenstern spoke into a live microphone that broadcast throughout the building. No one who testified as of press time is sure exactly what she said or who heard it, but the incident and Morgenstern’s statements have become the defendants’ main justification for her termination—decided by Cancellieri, carried out by Donnelly and Bourne.
Morgenstern testified she sat in the presiding officer’s seat and held a “mock session of the legislative session” and said something along the lines of “Welcome to Nassau County… the most corrupt county in the country.”
Her attorneys believe it was a minor incident. The county strongly disagrees.
Nassau County Attorney Lorna Goodman tells the Press the county categorically and vehemently denies all of Morgenstern’s allegations:
“Ms. Morgenstern was fired by Deputy County Executive Anthony Cancellieri because she made demeaning, disrespectful, and even libelous remarks about the county administration and the county executive over a live microphone in the Legislative chamber at One West Street which was broadcast throughout the building. She now claims that she was fired in retaliation for unfounded allegations that county employees were doing political work on county time, allegations which were unknown to Cancellieri at the time of the firing.”
The proceedings have gotten contentious at times. Both sides have provided scores of county documents to prove their respective arguments.
In The Hot Seat
On Aug. 3, Morgenstern, dressed mostly in black, painted a caustic, disturbing picture of the county for jurors. She testified witnessing county employees on multiple occasions organizing various political fundraising events on the taxpayers’ dime—during the work day, using county resources.
Morgenstern said one such county employee, Kate Randolph, who sat in the cubicle next to her, spent her days planning events for the county executive: coordinating, creating lists of people, writing invitations, making preparations for locations for the events. To Morgenstern’s knowledge, she told the court, the events were “non-county related.”
The employee was very proud of her work, Morgenstern testified, and told her so.
“She told me, herself, that she was very proud of the events that she was planning for the county executive,” Morgenstern said.
Morgenstern explained that she witnessed the fruition of this planning firsthand in spring 2003, at the Belmont Racetrack. Upon arriving there, Morgenstern said she observed signs that read “Friends of Tom Suozzi” and people writing checks. She told the court that she expressed concerns about the inappropriateness of the obvious political events to Randolph and Bourne, and was told to “just have a good time” and “That it was just not for me to question.”
The racetrack wasn’t the only incident, she testified. Morgenstern said she overheard planning for an event for North Shore/LIJ Hospital. There was also a golf outing at Eisenhower Park in the works. When Morgenstern complained about these and other concerns regarding the allocation of resources within the department to Bourne, she testified, “She kept reiterating that I was not a team player.”
Morgenstern also complained to Bourne, she testified, about “the use of county money for helicopter rides for potential donors.”
She broke down in tears on the stand, her face red, when telling jurors about the morning of her termination.
Sordi, during cross-examination, attacked Morgenstern’s credibility. He showed the jury e-mails that he argued called into question Morgenstern’s dedication to her job and highlighted her yearning for a higher position within the department. He also established that Morgenstern was told that besides organizing events for Suozzi, Randolph was a non-planning department employee who also planned events for the county.
“She’s confusing non-county events with county events,” explains Goodman. Those helicopter rides were “part of an economic development initiative,” she says.
Besides Morgenstern, the jury has also heard testimony in person or through videotaped depositions from former Executive Director of Civil Service Thomas A. Williams (who has a separate multimillion-dollar suit against the county and several of the defendants in Morgenstern’s case), Cancellieri, Bourne, current county employees Deana Huminski and Robert Brickman, Donnelly, and one of Morgenstern’s physicians, Dr. Leland W. Petersen, CP.
Some of that testimony didn’t exactly clear up Morgenstern’s seedy depiction.
Williams testified that he believed Morgenstern’s termination was illegal. Throughout the afternoon of July 28, he was presented with and identified a host of exhibits that listed Morgenstern’s probation period as 24 weeks. They were signed by Bourne, who has since said through depositions and testimony that she really believed the proper length was 26 weeks.
One document highlighted on a projector screen, a “report of personnel action” regarding Morgenstern’s termination, was visibly devoid of apparently crucial information.
“There are supposed to be names there and dates,” replied Williams when Gilly inquired about the missing data. “If there was no information included in that box that says Civil Service Commission, it meant that this document had not been accepted by the Civil Service Commission.”
“It means she was never officially terminated,” Wigdor explains to the Press.
Bourne’s affidavit and deposition testimony seemed to contradict each other. In her affidavit, she acknowledged Morgenstern’s probationary period was 24 weeks, but added that she believed it should be extended by the number of vacation days taken. In her deposition, Bourne said she believed the probationary period was 26 weeks and that there must have been a clerical error on the forms that stated 24 weeks. She said she informed Huminski, who prepared the forms, of the error and told her to correct it.
Huminski refuted Bourne’s claims during her testimony.
Bourne did acknowledge that Morgenstern had expressed concerns to her about county staff and resources being used for non-county fundraising events, however.
Cancellieri, former chief of staff of Suozzi’s gubernatorial campaign and currently a VP at Park Strategies LLC, the consulting firm of former U.S. Sen. D’Amato, testified that it was his sole decision to terminate Morgenstern following complaints from a handful of county employees in the wake of Morgenstern’s Dec. 4 actions. He didn’t recall who visited him or what exactly they said, Cancelierri testified, and he didn’t investigate the claims.
Cancellieri, also a former police officer, Wigdor stressed, also testified that he didn’t discuss the termination with Suozzi until several days afterwards—and that the county executive didn’t have a cell phone in 2002.
Wigdor had a field day.
“Oh, Mr. Suozzi, the county executive, did not have a cell phone?” Wigdor asked.
“That’s correct,” replied Cancellieri. “He had a pager.”
He later clarified 2003 for Wigdor: “I think it was a pager, I don’t know if there’s a difference, but a little different, and I believe that he had had the pager up until the time I left, we covered that,” Cancellieri testified.
“And no cell phone, correct?” asked Wigdor.
“He had a cell phone but he did not use it,” Cancellieri responded. “His secretary had it.”
Cancellieri testified he had never heard of Morgenstern’s claims about illegal fundraising. He also strongly refuted testimony from Williams that he had told the civil service director it was his “job to lie for Tom Suozzi.”
Donnelly testified in his deposition that he had no experience in civil service prior to coming to the county and was not aware of civil service rules, nor did he actively seek to learn them. He said he didn’t know Morgenstern’s civil service status and also didn’t investigate. Donnelly said he came to the county after being informed about an opening by Nassau County (recently named New York State) Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs. They went to college together, he said.
Back In Time
The period surrounding Morgenstern’s termination was particularly tough from a PR perspective for the county and its top executive. In late 2003 through 2004, the popular Democrat Suozzi faced his biggest political scandal to date, centered around the financial and sexual misdeeds of one of his main men, former Deputy County Executive for Economic Development Peter Sylver. It was a media frenzy.
Sylver sparked a firestorm of controversy when it was discovered he had misused federal funds and sexually abused a female aide. Sylver, who resigned from the county in November 2003, was arrested in July 2004 on felony and misdemeanor charges. He was sentenced to probation that September for racking up more than $5,000 in personal expenses on a county credit card.
Republicans in the county Legislature, as well as some of Suozzi’s fellow Dems, wondered just how far up the ladder the improprieties climbed. In January 2004, its rules committee began investigatory hearings. Critics believe they were shut down prematurely.
Sylver and Suozzi’s names will continue to be kicked around together in upcoming months.
Former county employee Robin Pellegrini, with Williams, filed a $70 million suit in December 2003 against the county and several others named in Morgenstern’s complaint with similar blockbuster allegations.
That case has recently been moved to Brooklyn federal court. Closing statements in Morgenstern’s trial are expected to take place Aug. 10.
No matter what the jury finds, however, in either case, it’s county taxpayers who are footing the bill.