Mike Bloomberg's Deposition In FDNY Discrimination Case: Highlights of Obfuscation
The two places that men reveal their inner selves, the adage goes, are behind a steering wheel and on a basketball court. All that contained aggressiveness grandstands to the surface.
For Mayor Mike, though, who neither duels with taxis nor elbows under a hoop, it is apparently depositions that strip away the camouflage and get right to the core personality. That may be the only moment when the city's richest man, who also happens to be its most powerful public official, has to go toe to toe with a sharp inquisitor, unprotected by his wallet or his wallop. As often as he does press conferences, he is still the Lord of the Blue Room, and reporters get one shot, which a potentate like Bloomberg can swat aside or ignore.
What's caught my attention now is the deposition Bloomberg did in the still-ongoing racial discrimination lawsuit about FDNY hiring practices. The case made the front page of the Times recently, when a judge ordered the hiring of hundreds of black firefighters, but Bloomberg's very personal role in it has gotten almost no attention. Before we get to the mayor's stunning 2009 deposition in that suit, however, let's take a short trip down memory lane. I promise you'll see the connection.
A couple of weeks before Bloomberg was elected in 2001, I got a sealed copy of a deposition he'd given in a sexual harassment lawsuit against his company back in 1998. A former sales rep, Mary Ann Olszewski, accused a Bloomberg executive of raping her in a Chicago hotel room. The company's defense was that the sex was consensual--in fact, claimed the executive, she "guided my penis into her vagina"--and that he didn't become her direct supervisor until shortly after the incident. Deposed for hours, Bloomberg derisively dismissed the claim. Asked if he believed false claims of rape were common, Bloomberg said: "I don't have an opinion." Asked if the company considered moving the executive to another floor, away from Olszewski, once the rape complaint was filed, salty Mike replied: "He seemed content with where he was."
That wasn't the worst of it. When questioned about what would "constitute satisfactory proof that the allegation was genuine," Bloomberg got downright cantankerous: "I guess an unimpeachable third-party witness." Pressed for his "conception of how there could be a third-party witness," the billionaire playboy said: "There are times when three people are together." Queried about "the circumstances when a woman claiming rape was in the presence of more than one man," Bloomberg shot back: "Why does it have to be a man?"
Maybe a threesome in every bed can become the slogan for his upcoming presidential campaign.
Shortly after I broke that story, Mark Green, the Democratic mayoral candidate, went up on the tube with a shrill commercial about a different sexual harassment lawsuit against Bloomberg L.P., featuring an unproven allegation from a woman who claimed that Bloomberg told her to "Kill it! Kill it!" when she informed him she was pregnant and needed a maternity leave. I have always believed that had Green chosen instead to feature the undeniable passages from Bloomberg's deposition, he would have won the extremely close race.
Though Bloomberg has never acknowledged that the Olszewski case was secretly settled, she got a new BMW convertible the day before it disappeared from the court docket and a $5000-a-month luxury condo a week later, then jump-started her own, Florida-based hedge fund. He hired the city's top political consultant to run his mayoral campaign the very day the suit vanished, and shortly thereafter, delivered his first political speech. Remarkably, no one in the New York media besides me has ever written a word about these and the many other striking statements that Mayor Mouth made in that deposition.
With the exception of a single brief Daily News story, the same can be said of Bloomberg's almost as disquieting deposition in the discrimination suit filed by those quota-happy, race-obsessed crusaders at the Bush Justice Department in 2007.
Justice only took action after a lawyer for the Bloomberg administration informed another Bush agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that it "declined to conciliate" two commission findings of probable cause against the FDNY in 2004 and 2005, when the EEOC concluded that the department's hiring tests had an adverse impact on black applicants.
The EEOC and Justice were following in the footsteps of the city's own Equal Employment Practices Commission (EEPC), which sent an unprecedented letter to Bloomberg in 2003 saying precisely the same thing. Indeed, a federal judge in Manhattan had reached an identical conclusion as far back as 1974, and while his ruling temporarily altered the city's hiring practices, the FDNY soon returned to form. Imagine the uproar were a black-run city agency to employ only three percent whites for decades, insisting its ranks were the natural consequence of merit testing, and then imagine that the first Republican mayor to ever get half the black vote declined, a month after he did it in 2005, to seek "a just resolution" of two EEOC findings pushing to remedy this blatant injustice.
The Times recently did a story about Bloomberg's "unerring faith in statistics." But when U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis relied on mountains of numbers, unchallenged by Bloomberg's lawyers, to recently conclude the city was engaged in "intentional discrimination," the mayor whose motto is "bring data" rejected every available performance measurement and announced his decision to appeal. As this case works its way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and possibly the Supreme Court, Bloomberg's deposition, a singular statement of aggravated indifference, is likely to become bigger and bigger news.
Actually, both depositions revolved around Bloomberg's snarky disregard for meddlesome restraints like sexual harassment or equal employment guidelines that get in the way of doing business, public or private. The lawyer in the harassment case, Sam Abady, asked Bloomberg if as the head of his company, he thought it was important that he be "familiar with EEOC guidelines," and Bloomberg said: "Yes I do." But when pressed about whether he'd ever read its harassment guidelines, he said no. "Are you aware it is available to you on the Internet?" Abady wondered. "I wasn't aware, but it doesn't surprise me," answered Bloomberg, foreshadowing his testimony almost exactly ten years later in the FDNY case.
Asked in the current case if he knew that the EEOC had made a "probable cause" finding against the FDNY, Bloomberg said: "I don't know whether I heard it or not. I hear things every day, all day long for many days." Pressed by attorney Richard Levy about what action the city took in response to EEOC, Bloomberg's retort was that he had "no recollection of hearing" about it "or doing anything about it."
Even though the mayor appoints the chair and the majority of the members of the other body that found discrimination, the EEPC, Bloomberg was asked if he knew what it does and replied: "Vaguely." Questioned about what he did in response to the only report the EEPC has ever sent a mayor about an agency's track record of discrimination, he said of its recommendation that the city conduct a formal adverse impact study of the FDNY: "I don't remember whether I read this or not and what I did if I did read it." He in fact wrote back saying he was "satisfied" with the department.
Bloomberg had the same response to the efforts of black leaders to draw his attention to the issue. When Levy pressed him about whether he discussed "diversity" at a City Hall meeting with Paul Washington, the head of a black firefighter group called the Vulcan Society, Bloomberg snapped: "We could've been talking about anything in the world. I just don't recall the specific conversation." He expressed the same studied ignorance about an extraordinarily detailed letter he received from the chair of the city council's fire services committee, and two other letters he got from eight prominent black leaders, some of whom had endorsed his reelection. The leaders asked for meetings that never happened and Bloomberg never replied to the council chair's long list of possible remedies.
The mayor was in such a dismissive mood during the deposition that he may even have gotten a key fact wrong. Levy, who is the lawyer for the Vulcan Society (which joined the Justice Department as a plaintiff), asked if he was aware that there was "a lack of diversity" in the FDNY prior to taking office in January 2002. "Before I became mayor," he claimed, "I had little interest in what went on in city government," insisting that he had "no recollection of it ever" coming up. But Tom Von Essen, the Giuliani fire commissioner whose book, "Strong of Heart," contained excerpts from his post-9/11 diary, noted on November 20, 2001: "Met Bloomberg today--he believes diversity major problem at FD."
Bloomberg also expressed his distaste for the case by stonewalling Levy and the Justice Department lawyers. Though the summons seeking his testimony asked him to search for documents and e-mails related to the suit and bring them to the city's law office where he was deposed, he said he didn't even bother to look. He drew a blank on his own interrogatories, which is a series of written questions submitted to him by the plaintiffs. Asked if he'd even read Judge Garaufis's first ruling in the case, which preceded the intentional discrimination judgment but did find a pattern of exclusion, Bloomberg declared: "I did not."
This disdain had its echoes in the harassment suit, which he branded "an attempt at extortion" during his testimony. In that case, he defiantly insisted that the company had a written policy against sexual harassment at the time of the alleged rape, citing language in its handbook that barred discrimination against gays. A dumbfounded Abady asked if Bloomberg believed "sexual orientation means sexual harassment," and Bloomberg said: "It certainly does." The reason Bloomberg clung so tenaciously to this absurd position, calling it "plain English," was because his company actually issued its first harassment proscription months after Olszewski told them she'd been raped. He was equally dismissive about when the company began any harassment training, or whether once a rape complaint had been made, he felt any need to consult psychologists or other possible rape experts, either to console Olszewski or to set broader policy.
Just as Bill Clinton had a hard time figuring out in his Monica Lewinsky deposition what "is" is, Bloomberg played word games in both of his. "I don't know your definition of sexual," he said in the harassment case. Pushed in the race case about whether he considered himself "responsible in any sense" for seeing that equal employment "laws and policies are followed," Bloomberg said: "I don't know what the word 'responsible' is, counsel," engaging in a protracted debate about that definition as well. Handed a copy of the city's own Equal Employment Opportunity Policy, which he'd revised and issued, and asked if he recognized it, the mayor responded: "I am not sure what the word 'recognize' means."
And if the Times thinks he's a data king, Bloomberg was just as stupefied by hard numbers. Levy wondered why the percent of black firefighters was "in the high twos up to 3.3" during Bloomberg mayoral years, but was "3.6, 3.8 and so on" in the early 90s. "Statistically, there doesn't seem to be a difference in the percentage," Bloomberg insisted. "In other words," Levy asked again, "3.87 percent is roughly the same as 2.97 percent in your calculus?" Yes, the mayor said.
When Levy put it in hard numbers, pointing out that were 336 black firefighters in 1991, when David Dinkins was mayor, and 226 firefighters in 2002, Bloomberg's first year, the mayor blamed it on 9/11. "We had just lost 343 brave men and women in the terrible tragedy," said the wizard, "so the size of the Fire Department was lower." He did not explain how a lower total number of firefighters might affect the percent of firefighters who were black, especially since just 12 of the firefighters who died on 9/11 were black, the only time that three percent has been a blessing for blacks at the FDNY. In fact, the department had graduated 548 new firefighters by the end of October 2001, partially replenishing the ranks before Bloomberg became mayor.
Later in the deposition, Bloomberg tried again to use 9/11 as a rationale for the city's hiring shortcomings, and Levy said "we will not wax on that subject right now." The mayor said that after 9/11, the FDNY "was reeling from having lost 343 people that you so blithely dismiss," a comment that Levy took "umbrage" over, cutting Bloomberg off. Levy also cited statistics showing how other major cities had much higher percentages of blacks in their department and Bloomberg replied: "I don't know whether their firefighters are qualified or not. I don't know whether their departments are well-respected or efficient." He said he knew nothing about fire departments "elsewhere."
Did the mayor ever "look at any statistic to see if the test was biased?"
"I don't know what statistics you could look at. To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever alleged that the test was biased."
Then, shown the report he received way back in 2003 from the city's own equal employment commission, which indicated that pass rates for whites was 91 percent and 61 percent for African Americans, he was asked if he ever talked to anyone about that "very large discrepancy."
"I don't recall, but I am sure I did," he said, insisting that there was still "no reason that I know of that the test would have discriminated one way or another."