If New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio decides to run for president, he may face questions about his treatment of the Serpico of pencil pushers.
Back in the 1970s, Officer Frank Serpico of the NYPD was hailed as a hero for refusing to go along with corruption and telling investigators about cops on the take.
In present-day New York, there was Deputy Commissioner Ricardo Morales of DCAS, as the Department of Citywide Administrative Services is known.
A DCAS tale lacks the immediate punch of an NYPD one and Morales was in the suites rather than the streets. There is not likely to be a book or a movie about Morales. And he is in no danger of getting shot in the face, as befell Serpico.
But as he tells it in court papers, the corruption Morales stood up against originated with Mayor de Blasio himself. And Morales was just as resolutely honest as the hero from decades past. He also told investigators all he knew.
In February of 2017, Morales was summarily fired hours after de Blasio met with the feds. Morales was given only minutes to collect his belongings before being escorted from the building by an armed guard.
“After his 20 years of educated civil service, Morales was treated like a common criminal,” states the complaint accompanying a wrongful termination suit he has filed in Manhattan federal court.
Morales likely would have been a star witness against de Blasio had the feds not announced in March that they had decided not to charge him. He got a pass even though there had been what the feds described as “several circumstances in which Mayor de Blasio and others acting on his behalf solicited donations from individuals who sought official favors from the City, after which the Mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant City agencies on behalf of those donors.” The feds noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had recently narrowed the definition of corruption. And such cases are in any event more difficult to prove when they involve political contributions rather than personal monetary gain.
De Blasio pronounced the feds’ announcement a vindication. He subsequently insisted that he had nothing to do with the dismissal of Morales and that it was unrelated to the pay-to-play investigation.
“I think there was a performance issue and there was a desire to change the way the agency was structured,” de Blasio told the press. “But again, I can’t speak to the details because I wasn’t involved.”
A spokesperson told The Daily Beast on Friday that the mayor’s position has not changed.
“Personnel decisions are made based on performance,” the spokesperson added. “That’s all there is to it.”
De Blasio has been left feeling so unsullied that he is considering a run for president. Whatever he decides, he may well be deposed under oath in Morales’ suit. He would almost certainly be asked about the supposed “performance issue” that led to Morales’ firing.
As described by the complaint, Morales fell afoul of the mayor for refusing to accord special treatment to a big-time donor. The complaint says Morales also refused to go along with what he describes as a “false narrative” concerning a real estate deal turned windfall for another mayoral favorite.
And, the complaint says, Morales compounded matters by telling the simple truth when he was interviewed by federal, state and city investigators, as well as when he was summoned before a grand jury
“In all of these meetings, Morales gave truthful testimony regarding the conduct of de Blasio, as he was required to do,” the complaint reports. “His truthful testimony was adverse to de Blasio.”
What Morales had to say was likely among the topics when the feds met with de Blasio at his lawyer's office on Feb. 24, 2017.
Later that same day, Morales was summoned to a conference room outside the offices for DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo.
“One armed guard stood visibly in the hallway,” the complaint notes.
Morales entered and sat down. Camilo and First Deputy Commissioner Emily Newman came in not long afterwards.
“They told Morales in substance, that effective immediately his services were no longer needed and he was being terminated,” the complaint says. “When Morales asked why, Camilo said the City Had decided to go in a different direction. Morales asked whether his firing was ‘for cause,’ and they repeated only that it was because they had decided to go in a different direction.”
Morales was then given what the complaint estimates as “less than a minute or two” to collect his personal effects.
“[Morales] was then physically escorted from the building,” the complaint says.
The complaint suggests a reason for the way Morales was treated.
“Upon information and belief, the Mayor caused Morales to be fired and publicly humiliated him in order to send a severe message to all City servants about what would happen to them if they reported wrongdoing by the mayor,” it says.
The treatment was particularly hurtful for an upstanding, church-going Catholic who suddenly found himself jobless after a lifetime of hard work and adherence to basic principles. His parents came from Puerto Rico to the Bronx in the 1950s. His father fought in the Korean War, then returned to work in a Downtown Manhattan hat factory. The son worked there as a clean-up boy and a delivery boy after school as well as during summer vacations.
“You want pocket money, you gotta earn it,” Ricardo Morales told The Daily Beast.
His studying took him from Holy Rosary grammar school to Cardinal Hayes High School to Amherst College, where his roommate's lineage traced back to the Mayflower.
“The economic and social differences between me and my classmates was just extraordinary,” he recalled.
From there, he went to Georgetown Law School, where he met for a second time a woman who had also gone to Amherst. They married and settled in the same Bronx parish where he had been raised.
“I’m at the same church where I did my first Holy Communion,” he reports.
He and his wife had three boys as he worked his way up as a professional civil servant, proving an honest pencil pusher can be as worthy of our admiration as an honest cop. He eventually became deputy commissioner in charge of asset management at DCAS. He oversaw a capital budget of more than $1.5 billion and managed 37 million square feet of real estate and a staff of more than 1,300.
Among the properties was the site of the Water's Edge, a restaurant on the East River in Queens owned by Harendra Singh, one of de Blasio's biggest early donors. Singh had held a number of de Blasio fundraisers at the restaurant.
The complaint says that Singh was more than $2 million in arrears in his financial obligations to the city, but was nonetheless pushing for a new lease with a rent reduction and without the competitive bidding usually required.
“He was seeking special treatment,” the complaint says.
In the summer of 2014, Morales received a call from his immediate boss, then DCAS Commissioner Stacy Cumberbatch.
“[She] reported to Morales that the Mayor had called her and asked she meet with Singh who the Mayor said had done a lot of good things for the public,” the complaint says.
Morales had a series of meetings with Singh. The complaint says he was about to convene one on July 15, 2015, when he was delayed by Cumberbatch.
“Cumberbatch wanted Morales to know that she had received a call from the Mayor's office with the message that it desired the meeting with Singh go well,” the complaint says.
The complaint goes on, “When Morales arrived late to the meeting, he was immediately upbraided for that by Singh and his representatives… Not withstanding the pressure he had been placed under by the Mayor's office, Morales refused to abandon his legal obligations to act in the city's best interest.”
The complaint adds, “When Morales refused to accord special treatment to Singh—the special treatment that Singh thought he had paid for with his bribes to the Mayor —Singh and [his representative] expressed outrage.”
The complaint reports that after this meeting Morales was removed from the negotiations. The talks were thereafter conducted between Singh and Cumberbatch at City Hall.
“The substantial involvement by the Mayor's office [was] unprecedented in Morales’ twenty years of experience as an executive level civil servant,” the complaint says.
Cumberbatch declined comment when reached by the Daily Beast.
In September of 2015, Singh was indicted for bribery in two unrelated cases. He pleaded guilty the following month to bribing de Blasio as well as Ed Mangano, the then-Nassau County executive.
Investigators reportedly interviewed Morales about the Water’s Edge case. They also asked about a real estate deal in which the city had lifted a use restriction on a former AIDS hospice, allowing a real estate developer with ties to de Blasio to make an eight-figure profit selling the building to be converted into luxury apartments.
According to the complaint, Morales attended a meeting at which the mayor’s office prepared a “false narrative” blaming DCAS for lifting the restriction. Morales could not have endeared himself to the mayor’s office by observing that there was a signed Mayoral Authorization concerning the deal.
“Morales noted that the Mayor’s office had been directly involved,” the complaint says.
The complaint suggests that Morales’ statements at various meetings and to investigators regarding the lifted restriction as well as the restaurant lease led to him being fired.
One of his sons had followed a combat tour in Iraq by becoming an architect. A second son was a policy analyst. The third son was a PhD candidate.
But now Morales himself was suddenly out of work for being honest in a dishonest age. He had been a Serpico to a mayor who sometimes seems as morally flexible and expedient as an old-school plainclothesman.
One difference is that this plainclothesman is contemplating a run for White House.
In the meantime, Morales put his law degree to work representing a 78-year-old man in a psychiatric facility who has encroaching dementia and esophageal problems. The man was refusing a life-saving medical procedure and the facility had petitioned the court to order the procedure.
“You want to live?” Morales asked the man, who seemed more depressed than disoriented.
“Yes,” the man nonetheless affirmed.
“Good, let’s start with that,” Morales said.
Morales determined that the man was under the impression that the doctors intended to insert a permanent tube down his throat. Morales truthfully assured him otherwise. The man agreed to the procedure if he were guaranteed there would be no blood transfusions, as he is a Jehovah's Witness. The judge agreed and and matter was settled.
“Sometimes you still can do good things,” Morales told the Daily Beast afterwards.
He added, “Maybe not on a grand scale...”
He caught himself.
“Maybe that was a grand scale,” he said. “Maybe a life is on a grand scale.”
So spoke the Serpico of pencil pushers who had been fired by a mayor who is thinking of running for president.