New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall last week rejected charges that election-year politics led to the firing of several senior analysts who criticized the financial condition of New York City under former Mayor David N. Dinkins.
McCall made the comments in an Aug. 31 deposition given to lawyers representing Joan Westmeyer, Jesse Ostrow, and Norman Gertner, former employees of the state comptroller's New York City office. The deposition was taken in connection with a suit filed by the former employees in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Westmeyer, Ostrow, and Germer are each seeking damages of $2 million for wrongful dismissal, according to court documents.
McCall fired all three last year following a dispute over the way his New York City office monitored city budgets. McCall wanted a less confrontatioaal approach, but the three analysts said that McCall was merely helping Dinkins' re-election chances by toning down their critiques. The lawsuit charges that McCall terminated their employment when they objected.
In addition to McCall, the deposition list includes Comer Coppie, McCall's first deputy comptroller; Rosemary Scanlon, his assistant deputy comptroller; and George Roniger, a director of financial planning. Jay Feeney, a deputy comptroller, may also be deposed, lawyers representing the plaintiffs say.
The lawsuit revives one of the most controversial events in McCall's short reign as the state's chief fiscal watchdog. The suit charges McCall with removing Westmeyer, Ostrow, and Gertner in retaliation for their tough analysis of Dinkins' budgets and financial plans.
Dinkins and McCall are close friends and political allies; McCall's wife, Joyce Brown, was a deputy mayor in the Dinkins Administration.
Westmeyer, Ostrow, and Gertner had served as analysts in the state comptroller's New York City office since the late 1970s, and were highly regarded among their colleagues at the various public and private agencies that monitor city budgets.
During his deposition, McCall said political favoritism was not a motive in the firings. Additionally, McCall denied that a conflict of interest existed through his direct involvement in the office's review of city budgets, even though his wife was a high-ranking official in the Dinkins Administration at the tune.
McCall's spokesman, Steven Greenberg, said the firings took place as part of a transition following McCall's appointment as state comptroller in May 1993. "This was standard procedure in a transition period," Greenberg said. In a prepared statement, Paula Chester, general counsel to the comptroller's office, said yesterday that the firings were initially requested by Feeney, who recommended various cuts in the comptroller's staff.
Feeney, a former deputy comptroller under McCall's predecessor, Edward V. Regan, recommended "the termination of four people to make the oversight and auditing operations at the [comptroller's office] more effective, and the comptroller accepted those recommendations," Chester said.
Brian W. Guillorn, the lawyer representing Westmeyer, Ostrow, and Gertner, said, "As far as we're concerned, the evidence supports our claim that the comptroller fired our people for their role in providing nonpartisan analysis."
McCall, a Democrat, is waging a tough re-election battle against Republican challenger Herbert London. Last week, New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani endorsed London, saying that McCall had been less critical of Dinkins and accusing McCall of having a "political agenda."
McCall recently issued a report blasting Giuliam's fiscal 1995 budget for containing a budget gap of as much as $700 million. Further, the comptroller has called on the state Financial Control Board to hold additional meetings to monitor the city's budget.
The comptroller, who is elected to a four-year term, holds the second-highest elected office in state government. In May 1993, the state legislature appointed McCall to the post following Regan's resignation. Only three months later, McCall fired Westmeyer, Ostrow, Gertner, and Brian Perlee, also an analyst in the office's New York City branch.
Perlee, who did not join the lawsuit, is now a deputy research director with the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog group. Like Westmeyer, Ostrow, and Gertner, Perlee could not be reached for comment.
In an amended complaint filed in March, Westmeyer, Ostrow, and Germer said that after McCall took office he demanded that they adopt a less confrontational approach in their reviews of city budgets and the budgets of its agencies.
In one instance, McCall requested that the staff members remove information from a report on the city's Off-Track Betting Corp. showing that the agency's fiscal 1993 financial plan was not balanced according to generally accepted accounting principles, the lawsuit says.
In another example, the lawsuit says, McCall delayed issuance of a report critical of the city's fiscal 1994 budget and tried to minimize shortfalls in Dinkins' financial plan.
McCall and his assistant deputy comptroller at the time, George Roniger, pressured the plaintiffs to "inappropriately [apply] the city's general reserve as an offset and [to claim] that the shortfall was merely 2% of the city's budget, and statistically not significant," the lawsuit says.