Forget Helping Kids, Roosevelt Islanders Attach Charlie

Youth Center Inquiry Devolves Into Character Assassination

Updated 35 weeks ago David Stone
Kids celebrate Roosevelt Island Youth Program SACC Registration, allowing expanded programing.
Kids celebrate Roosevelt Island Youth Program SACC Registration, allowing expanded programing.

It's taken RIOC over a year and a half to figure out who should run the Roosevelt Island Youth Center, but the State agency needed less than a day to find a law firm, Bond Shoeneck & King, headquartered, not in New York, but in Syracuse, to act as a venomous conduit for personal attacks on Youth Program Executive Director Charlie DeFino. 

DISCLAIMER: I have no personal investment in the results of the Youth Program award nor have I ever enjoyed a friendship with Charlie DeFino. I've met him exactly twice, the first time, six months ago, and only in the context of news-gathering. 

The firm, chosen in a hurry after a badly botched Board Meeting, also represents the New York State Thruway Authority, a public benefit corporation, like RIOC, tightly controlled by Governor Cuomo. Why was Bond Shoeneck & King, out of thousands of New York law firms, chosen? We don't know. Consistent with the mess they made of just about everything having to do with the Youth Center, RIOC never explained.

What do these things have in common...?

  • Charlie DeFino is accused of carrying on a consensual affair with an adult woman?
  • An apparent habitual Lothario, he's also accused of hitting on other adult women in public?
  • RIOC's team says DeFino is suspected of having something to do with the Mandana Beckman Must Go campaign.
  • Bond Shoeneck & King's eyebrows were raised in disapproval on hearing that DeFino referred to Youth Program funds as "my money."

Answers:

  1. None relate whatsoever to the effectiveness of programs DeFino has managed for kids over 22 years at the Youth Center; and
  2. None of them are my, your or RIOC's business.

Bond Shoeneck & King grilled DeFino for two hours, a torturous experience that few, if any of us who've had active lives, could suffer well. Nor should he or we have to.

Why is RIOC so titillated by gossip that a professional law firm wants to know if rumors of a consensual sexual relationship are true?

And what's the big deal with a single man asking women for dates in public? Even if it's true - DeFino denies the rumors - should he have done so in private where it might legitimately be sexual harassment? Is anyone in this ridiculous imbroglio thinking straight?

As for the drive to get PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman to go away, many would applaud anything he may have done to help. As he told the inquisition, "Beckman is a terrible Principal" at a poorly performing school considered by many to be Roosevelt Island's worst neighbor, and DeFino is far from alone in wanting to see her gone.

Here at The Daily, we've all but begged her to leave voluntarily. In spite of statements by City Council Member Ben Kallos, RIOC President Susan Rosenthal and PTA President Erin Olavesen, as reported in the Main Street WIRE, as well as the heavy hand of President Trump, free speech is still protected in America.

Why has DeFino been grilled over expressing an honest opinion? 

There's more to the story. And much it also has a funny smell.

RIOC Vice President Shelton Haynes told Bond Shoeneck & King that he once observed DeFino when he appeared to be intoxicated at the Youth Center. DeFino says all that happened was that he tripped over a piece of gym equipment.

The problem here is that Haynes never reported the incident to anyone, even though he has executive oversight of the Youth Center. Shouldn't Haynes be the individual being disciplined for dereliction of duty, if he indeed thought DeFino was drunk?

Haynes has been accused of misconduct in improperly skewing scoring results in the first Youth Center RFP, based on evidence secured in a FOIL request, and doing so in a way that worked against DeFino's program winning the contest. RIOC seems to have protected him in that incident by declining to make an official investigation. At least one community member argues that Haynes is being protected again.

Another claim of drunkenness comes from a resident who says that she observed DeFino from the Queens bound side of the Roosevelt Island subway platform as she walked to the elevator. DeFino, on the opposite platform, was so drunk, she says, that she feared he'd fall onto the tracks. It was 9:00 in the evening, but she says there were no other witnesses.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the station can tell you that there's a full time police booth about 25 feet from the elevator. Did this witness report the situation to the cop on duty? No, even though she says she thought DeFino might fall on the tracks. Was there any such incident reported by the cop? You guessed it. No, there was not.

So, why is DeFino being interrogated about it?

An accusation by RIOC community liaison Erica Spencer-El has to be taken seriously. There is no reason to doubt her honesty. Spencer-El accuses DeFino of making a racist slur as well as calling her "a bitch." 

DeFino denies it, and considering his relationship with David Dinkins, our city's only African-American Mayor, a relationship he leveraged to bring the first Beacon funding to Roosevelt Island, and his passionate championing of the rainbow coalition of kids that use the Youth Center, it would be completely out of character. And certainly not, on balance, grounds for dismissal. 

There is no question, when you ask around, that Charlie DeFino has rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. His passion for the job runs abrasive at times. He's not a man who beats around the bush. Some people don't like to hear it straight. So be it.

But, all that considered, the people who count, the kids participating in the Youth Program, those who grew up with "Mr. Charlie" as their guide and now send their own children his way, are nearly unanimous in their allegiance to him. Several of them spoke up in public for the first time at RIOC's January Board Meeting to defend him, and as far as we know, his accusers are all adults, several of them involved in a transparent campaign to take over the Youth Center.

In my opinion, the kids weigh the vote heavily in DeFino's favor.

But what should concern everyone on Roosevelt Island, regardless of the eventual findings of the inquisition, is RIOC's setting Charlie DeFino up for a public character assassination, relying on unfounded rumors, gossip and incidents without corroborating witnesses, all of it thrown at him as if he's guilty until proven innocent.

As I've written before, Charlie DeFino is no angel, nor does he claim to be, but nobody deserves the sleazy trashing RIOC sanctions here. His reputation has been damaged beyond repair by having malicious gossip honored as truth.

No matter how this turns out, RIOC and the political machine that controls it ought to be ashamed. They won't be, however, and the community will continue to be damaged by their spinelessness as will Charlie DeFino.

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