Borough President Markowitz turned his office into a macho frat house featuring sexist jokes, double standards and possible violation of campaign regulations, bombshell court documents revealed this week.
New details about the inner workings of Markowitz’s top staff have emerged from the sex discrimination suit brought by Markowitz’s former communications director, Regina Weiss, which portray a work environment filled with dim-witted chauvinist wisecracks and even “volunteer” work for Markowitz’s re-election campaign.
The descriptions of the goings-on come straight from Markowitz himself, along with former chief of staff, Greg Atkins, in depositions the two took under oath. Both lengthy interviews — conducted in late February — hint at Weiss’s claim that Markowitz ignored “inappropriate sexual activity” — though the activity itself is never specifically addressed.
But the interviews do address at length how other problematic Borough Hall staffers were fired or forced to resign — an aspect central to Weiss’s claim that she was unfairly forced out of her job despite having done it well.
A complaint by a former staffer mentioned by Atkins in the deposition provides an example of the macho humor at Borough Hall that contaminated the workplace.
In the deposition, Atkins, who was chief of staff from 2003-8, recalls a male staffer’s inappropriate “joke about a sausage” that offended a female employee, Brigette Geary. Despite having recently attended a “staff-wide class on a safe workplace and all that stuff,” — in his own words — Atkins failed to file the proper paperwork related to the incident.
Despite handling the matter without documentation, the joke apparently disturbed Geary a great deal: she “started calling the borough president in the middle of the night over the weekend and leaving voicemails,” Atkins said.
A nickname Markowitz gave to one of his staffers follows a similar vein.
In the deposition, Markowitz admits referring to a former press secretary, Regina Afram, as “Tinkerbell,” due to her tendency to leave various items scattered about the hallowed offices of Borough Hall like “pixie dust.”
“Wherever she would go in the building, she would have a habit of dropping off her things sort of like dust here, dust here — that’s what Tinkerbell did,” Markowitz said in the deposition.
But the Beep quickly added that he meant nothing insulting about his possibly demeaning characterization.
“Tinkerbell was not a bad character, she was a loving character,” he testified. “But just dropping off stuff, forgetting all of her stuff everywhere … you could follow her [track] by where she went in the building. … I certainly would not announce in the whole building, ‘Tinkerbell is here.’ Come on, it’s in the family here.”
In the deposition, Weiss’s lawyers frequently try to unearth evidence of unequal treatment depending on gender. Reinforcing this is the handling of one of Weiss’s predecessors as communications director, Michael Kadish.
According to Markowitz, Kadish failed to show up for work on occasion, and when he did appear, he looked “like he didn’t go home at night anymore.”
Nevertheless, he continued getting paychecks despite his poor performance until he resigned and left the country and — in the words of Markowitz — “decided to follow love somewhere in Venezuela.”
Another central claim in Weiss’s suit is that Markowitz used his paid staff for work on his 2005 reelection campaign — a possible breach of regulations.
Markowitz admitted that Weiss “may have” helped prepare him for debates. But the Beep added, “It’s completely appropriate for members of the staff to prepare their principal in terms of public policy that the office of the borough president has been involved in.”
Atkins also touches on the same subject, saying Weiss may have examined campaign press releases, but only in her capacity as a volunteer — a claim that she disputes.
In response to the new revelations, Diana Goell Voigt, a city lawyer who is representing Markowitz, said that Weiss’s claims “are baseless.”
Another of the Beep’s lawyers, Jason Otaño, sought to debunk the notion of an immature boy’s club at Borough Hall.
“Our staff is majority-minority, and 62 percent of our staffers are women. Of 12 management-level employees, two are under age 40, and seven, including the deputy borough president, are women,” Otaño said.
But one final detail hints at the rampant machismo at Borough Hall. Markowitz’s testosterone-fueled staff was so full of bluster that it even had lengthy internal discussions on how best to pick a fight with The Brooklyn Paper because the Beep had become irked with the paper’s hard-hitting, award-winning coverage of the Atlantic Yards project.
“At a staff level [there were] numerous discussion about how they [The Brooklyn Paper] were going about their … unfair and unbalanced coverage of Atlantic Yards,” Atkins said, adding that the staff discussed cutting off The Paper from the borough president’s regular press releases.
“I was not sure if it was ever agreed upon,” he said. “I certainly wished it.”
Brooklyn Paper Editor Gersh Kuntzman declined to comment.