Ryan’s Hope?

In early February of 2003, Robert Ryan was escorted from his office by public-safety officers and fired from his job

In early February of 2003, Robert Ryan was escorted from his office by public-safety officers and fired from his job as the head of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the state agency that manages the little island in the East River.

Until today, the reasons Mr. Ryan was fired have not been known to anyone outside of RIOC’s board of directors.

That changed today in a hearing at the Good Shepherd chapel on Main Street.

Assembly members Richard Brodsky, chair of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, Scott Stringer, chair of the Committee on Cities, and Alexander Grannis, whose Assembly district includes Roosevelt Island, along with state Senator Jose Serrono, held a hearing on Roosevelt Island to gain answers to the questions surrounding Mr. Ryan’s departure from the agency, and to address allegations of misappropriations of funds by the RIOC and mishandling of the island’s general development plan.

The hearing’s interim report questioned whether $3.4 million given to RIOC by the Department of Environmental Protection, earmarked to build the island’s Octagon Ecological Park, were actually diverted to construct the infrastructure for the Southtown residential development.

D.E.P. was giving the money to the island to compensate for damages to the island’s seawall incurred while the department was constructing the Third Avenue water tunnel.

But the assembly members allege that the money instead went to the Southtown development—even though those infrastructural improvements had been slated to be paid for by the Hudson Companies and the Related Companies, the developers of that phase of residential development on the island.

Under oath and addressing the Assembly members’ dogged questions regarding alleged misappropriation of funds by RIOC, Mary Beth Labate, the RIOC board’s chair, who was subpoenaed to appear at the hearing, called the operation of the island “our continuing success story,” eliciting scoffs from the assembled crowd, mostly residents of the island.

Conceding that RIOC had “hit a few bumps in the past few years,” she said the island was now on firm footing for a five-year, $21 million capital-improvement plan that will see an overhaul of the island’s tram system, new buses, renovation of historic buildings and development of its parks. She characterized some of the criticisms of her agency as misinformation.

Ms. Labate denied that RIOC transferred the funds specifically for use at Southtown, instead saying it went to RIOC’s general fund.

Ms. Labate also disputed residents’ claims that Hudson and Related are abusing a tax-abatement scheme where they trade tax breaks for building 20 percent of the units as affordable housing.

“We are not aware of any tax-abatement requirements” for the Southtown development, she said.

Then Mr. Ryan took the stand and an oath. Heavyset, with longish straight blond hair, Mr. Ryan’s hand visibly trembled as held his prepared statement. He paused before launching his loud booming baritone in his defense.

Mr. Ryan denied improperly awarding himself and select employees raises without the board’s knowledge; he said he never meant to conceal the “cost of living” increases, and that he “indirectly” notified the board. He claimed that RIOC’s chief financial officer at the time, Patrick Siconolfi, signed off on the raises, even originally suggesting them.

Another allegation was that Mr. Ryan enriched himself and fellow employees of the RIOC by crediting work done at Ground Zero immediately following the terrorist attacks in 2001. Mr. Ryan said, “It was a horrific, horrific scene,” and he told the assembled crowd how he walked in on an employee who was crying from the stress of working downtown and thought, “What can we do for these individuals?”

The solution: give them one hour’s credit for each hour worked at Ground Zero, with each credit convertible to cash. Mr. Ryan himself raked in 234 hours downtown, comparable to 29 full-time days’ worth of work. According to the hearing’s report, he even claimed 26 hours’ worth of work for some days spent at Ground Zero—a metaphysical impossibility.

Mr. Ryan denied that, but said, “I offer no apologies.”

Mr. Ryan’s testimony was defensive throughout the hearing, at times manic in volume and pitch.

At one point in the hearing, Mr. Brodsky questioned Mr. Ryan about the separate bribery investigation of Paolo Palumbo, a deputy commissioner for international business at the Empire State Development Corporation while Mr. Ryan worked there in 1999.

He asked Mr. Ryan if he had been physically threatened before he testified under oath about the bribery scheme, and Mr. Ryan asked not to answer. After being pressed on the issue, Mr. Ryan conceded that “there was one incident at one point—one could read it in a number of ways …. A lot of stuff happens in New York City.” He further pleaded to Mr. Brodsky to not have to answer any more questions regarding the bribery case at a public hearing, and Mr. Brodsky eventually relented.

Finally, Mr. Ryan charged that until last Friday, when he received a report commissioned by RIOC, he had no idea why he had been fired. He claimed that it looked as if there had been a conspiracy to remove him from RIOC, and had particularly bitter words for Mr. Siconolfi, who he said suggested some of the very things that eventually led to Mr. Ryan’s downfall—besides the “cost of living” increases, Mr. Ryan said Mr. Siconolfi advised him that performance-based bonuses, which are unusual in a state agency, were normal and legal.

Mr. Ryan, who testified that “no one returned my calls” after he was fired, eventually wended his way back into the Pataki administration; in 2003 he has hired as an assistant secretary of state, before moving off into the private sector earlier this year. He is now a political consultant.

Ending his testimony, Mr. Ryan said, “What [RIOC] did here is wrong; it’s shameful.”

– Matthew Grace Ryan’s Hope?