Personal Disputes Threaten to Spin Out of Control

Roosevelt Islanders Behaving Very Badly

David Stone
Roosevelt Islanders Behaving Very Badly
CCO Public Domain / John Hain on Pixabay

Simmering bad feelings festering between Roosevelt Islanders, originating in Common Council conflicts, were wrenched sharply downward with threats of lawsuits flying amid accusations of defamation and harassment.

"We represent Mrs. Lynne Shinozaki and have advised her regarding her legal rights," read a letter addressed to local activist and gadfly Frank Farance. "Mrs. Shinozaki informed us, as well as the police, that you have been stalking and harassing her."

The letter was composed on the letterhead of Fears Nachawati, a Dallas, Texas, law firm. It goes on to summarize, with little detail, charges against Farance, claiming he followed Mrs. Shinozaki around Roosevelt Island as she ran errands, photographed her and reported on her activities.

Farance's unacceptable behaviors, the letter said, began on February 21st, two days before The Daily published an article, Scandal! Roosevelt Island Women Caught Chatting Freely In Public. The article satirized Farance's reaction to a casual conversation between Mrs. Shinozaki and a friend.

There are major problems with the lawyer's letter, which threatens Farance with criminal and civil actions if he does not comply with  demands issued by Mrs. Shinozaki's.

Problem #1 involves The Daily. Mrs. Shinozaki's lawyers claims that Farance submitted to us an article involving a conversation Mrs. Shinozaki had with a friend while shopping at "Wholesome Foods." Presumably, the writer meant "Wholesome Factory," on Main Street.

We categorically state that, although welcomed to do so, Farance has never submitted an article of any kind on any topic to The Daily. The article in question is apparently one  written by me and, in fact, pokes fun at Farance.

The second problem is more serious. The lawyer who signed off on the letter to Farance, Kayla D. Argo, is not licensed to practice law in New York State, nor is or any member of her law firm, Fears Nachawati, which has only a single office east of the Mississippi - in Tampa, Florida. Practicing law without a license is illegal in every state.

Argo is a 2015 graduate of the University of Oklahoma College of Law and is licensed to practice only in the State of Oklahoma, according the website legalzoom. Her connection to Mrs. Shinozaki is unknown outside this letter as is the question of why she was recruited by Mrs. Shinozaki instead of local lawyer licensed to practice in New York.

Dated April 13, the letter was not received until the last week by Farance. In summary, it accuses him of stalking, harassment, defamation (of both Mrs. Shinozaki and her husband, RIOC Board Member, Michael Shinozaki) and negligence.

Farance denies all charges and says they were inspired by his objections to the recent and very messy Roosevelt Island Youth Center RFP as well as his complaints about how money was handled during the 2013 Cherry Blossom Festival, organized by Mrs. Shinozaki, partly out of funds provided by RIOC.

As Mrs. Shinozaki is an officer of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, a registered New York nonprofit, her husband a Board Member of a State public authority and Farance alleges the couple is "retaliating against me for my whistle-blowing on improper financial practices," the stakes are higher than they'd be if part of a simple dispute between unfriendly parties.

Frank Farance and Lynne Shinozaki

Frank Farance pisses people off. Sometimes, he goes too far in extracting from activities what he sees as malfeasance where others don't, but as I've written before, every community needs a Frank Farance, a watchdog who is willing to take flack for bringing unpleasant truths into public discussion.

(Full disclosure: Frank Farance is a friend of mine with whom I disagree about as often as I agree. Neither condition has affected our relationship. It's open, honest and sharpens my thinking by challenging it. Lynne Shinozaki has, for several years, granted me the magical attribute of invisibility, my reward for criticizing the Common Council, as far as I can tell. That's unfortunate because I admire her commitment to volunteering for many worthwhile local causes. Her shunning me has no affect on my reporting.)

Lost in the storm over Farance's outspoken criticism of both Shinozaki's and what he feels is an improper mingling of interests between public and private organizations, which Farance insists ought to operate at arms length, are positive contributions to the community on a regular basis by all three.

But somewhere in the crossfire of Roosevelt Island politics, it's been decided by a few that free speech is undesirable when exercised by people who disagree with or criticize them.

There is not a single viable detail offered that supports Argo's, "Mrs. Shinozaki will no longer be putting up with your abusive and defamatory statements."

In fact, the innuendo-laden comment seems based on two things that never happened: an article she falsely accuses Farance of submitting to The Daily and that, she alleges, Farance continuously accuses Shinozaki of "embezzlement of funds from the Cherry Blossom Festival." There is no evidence of such an accusation, although questions about mishandling were looked into by the Common Council, and Farance has called for an investigation.

It's hard to see the Argo/Shinozaki letter as more than a transparent effort to intimidate Farance by inhibiting free speech.

Enter Joyce Short

Reading the details of Argo's letter triggered a memory, and earlier today, I went back to a discussion thread on the Roosevelt Islander blog. There I found this comment directed at Farance from another Common Council Member and Shinozaki associate, Joyce Short:

'You're making it pretty obvious that you're defaming me. I'd be very careful if I were you. People don't get sued when they don't have a pot to pee in because there's nothing to be gained by it. It's the only thing protecting you from a civil suit."

Interpretation: If you had enough money, I'd sue you to get some of it.

But it was Short's next statement that caught my attention: "I'm not the only person who's looking into charging you," she wrote.

The source of Short's threats: Farance criticized Short's handling of the recent RIOC Board Nomination Election on the blog.

Short seems to have as much respect for free speech as Mrs. Shinozaki, and it's hard to avoid wondering if the two conferred over muzzling Farance and shutting down criticisms.

(More full disclosure: Short has also threatened me for publishing an article critical of her handling of the election, demonstrating that her intolerance of established freedoms extends from speech to the press. More on that in the next few days.)

Conclusion

While it's initially puzzling to see smart people like the Shinozakis and Short sinking into crude tactics of intimidation when confronted with opinions they don't like, it boils down to the influence of two factors. 

The first and most longterm is that for more than a decade, the Maple Tree Group that has controlled the Common Council's political agenda got cover from the once monopolistic Main Street WIRE, itself run by and internally operated by MTG members Dick Lutz, Linda Heimer, Matthew Katz and Sherie Helstien. Short is also a member of this group. Object to favored MTG initiatives and you weren't just ignored, you were shunned. 

The Common Council pretty much got accustomed to carte blanche coverage. Lutz was not about to let free speech frustrate MTG goals. One result is that he actually changed a longstanding policy in order to avoid publishing letters to the editor from Farance.

Free speech be damned. The public was just not going to find out about it when questions were raised.

In the second situation, Short and Shinozaki are guilty of nothing more than following their natural instincts. Nobody enjoys being taken to task in public, and the normal reaction is to dislike the free speech norms that allow it. What's missing, here, is leadership. Leadership is there to keep our natural reactions from turning into bad behaviors.

No one, so far, has been willing to step up and take control, especially not Common Council President Jeff Escobar, who as an attorney should know better than to allow the misconduct he shrugs off, or RIOC where administration is so conflict averse that people who should be reprimanded are given a virtual green light to carry on.

And sadly, until someone does step up and insist that disputes be settled by ideas, not emotions, the bad behavior will continue. If you need an example, you can look at the President of the United States. Because no one will say, "No," to him, he behaves like an undisciplined child.

Now, don't we deserve better, here as well as there?

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