Anonymous Letter Rocks New Rochelle City Hall

Written By: Robert Cox

UPDATE 2:30 PM EST: 4 hours after this article was published, New Rochelle Mayor Yadira Ramos-Herbert moved to fire City Manager Kathleen Gill. She lined up 4 votes (Sara Kaye, Matt Stern, Shane Osinloye and herself) and is expected to call a Special Meeting to hold a vote on terminating Gill.

NEW ROCHELLE, NY (March 25, 2024) — On or about July 21, 2023, the seven members of the New Rochelle City Council received an undated anonymous letter, postmarked July 18, 2023.

The letter targeted City Manager Kathleen Gill and Development Commissioner & Deputy City Manager Adam Salgado with a page and a half of unsupported allegations of criminal conduct and malfeasance based on hearsay, coupled with vague claims and insinuations of fostering a toxic workplace.

The allegations in the letter were dismissed by a majority of council on September 19, 2023.

It has been the long-standing practice of the City of New Rochelle not to act on anonymous complaints. Not this time.

Between July 21 and September 19, Mayor Noam Bramson, Council Member Yadira Ramos-Herbert and Council Member Sara Kaye sanctimoniously, and some say giddily, sought to justify an unprecedented two-track investigation of Gill and Salgado with an eye towards criminal referrals based solely on the anonymous letter.

According to Ramos-Herbert, that effort came to nought when, during a rare Super Executive Session on September 16, 2023, Democrats Bramson, Ramos-Herbert and Kaye were unable to convince even one of the four other members of council, including the three other Democrats, to join them.

An attorney representing Gill and Salgado described Bramson’s conduct as his acting in “an arbitrary, capricious and bad faith manner, to accomplish what he was unable to accomplish via his pressure tactics on the former City Manager, Charles B. Strome III,” a continuation of the conduct which led to sustained ethics charges against him, and a criminal investigation by the Westchester County District Attorney in 2022.

The lawyer painted Bramson as out for revenge against Kathleen Gill. Ramos-Herbert and Kaye enthusiastically sided with Bramson. Their enmity towards Gill is well-known at City Hall. They were Bramson’s only supporters when he attempted to pressure Strome to rescind Gill’s appointment as Deputy City Manager in 2022.

Bramson sought to oust Salgado, who was given the Development Commissioner job coveted by Bramson, get rid of Gill, who he believes blocked his efforts to convince Strome to appoint him as Development Commissioner, and install Alisa Kesten as City Manager who, in turn, would appoint Bramson as Development Commissioner.

Kesten is not remotely qualified under the City Charter to be City Manager. She was, however, a longtime Bramson ally, his former campaign manager, and the retired director of Volunteer New York!, a non-profit which had been showered with taxpayer money while Bramson was Mayor.

Bramson never disclosed his conflict of interest with Volunteer New York!, repeatedly voting to approve municipal contracts with the organization in violation of New York State law.

The battle over the anonymous letter took place amidst the 2023 Mayoral campaign, when Bramson was actively supporting Ramos-Herbert in her successful bid to succeed him as Mayor.

The letter arrived a few weeks after we first revealed a massive dark money campaign donation to the Yadira for Mayor campaign. Louis Cappelli and his business associates bundled a $100,000 contribution to the Westchester County Democratic Committee which, in turn, made a direct transfer of $60,000 to Ramos-Herbert’s nearly insolvent campaign.

Ramos-Herbert was the first to act against Gill and Salgado. She pounced on the letter, immediately by taking the unprecedented step of sending the letter to the personal email accounts of Charles Phipps and David Blumenthal, outside the required official channel. Phipps is the New Rochelle Board of Ethics Chairman and Blumenthal is a Member of the ethics board.

We spoke at length with Ramos-Herbert about her decision to send the letter to the personal email accounts of Phipps and Blumenthal rather than go through the required official channel.

Ramos-Herbert said she did not include the third member of the ethics board because she was “concerned” about Gill and not sure if it was proper for City Clerk Michelle Oliveros to see the email because she reports to Gill.

Not only was it proper for the City Clerk to see the email, but city policy requires that all ethics complaints be filed with the City Clerk.

Complaints alleging “violations of the criteria of reporting requirements or any other related matter as noted in the City Code shall be addressed directly to Board of Ethics”.

The city website provides three means of contacting the Board of Ethics: the City Clerk phone number (914) 654-2159, the City Clerk email cityclerkinfo@newrochelleny.com, or by mail to the Office of the City Clerk.

The personal email accounts for Charles Phipps and David Blumenthal are not listed on the city website. Ramos-Herbert did not say how she obtained the personal email addresses for Phipps and Blumenthal.

Although Ramos-Herbert sent her July 21 email to Phipps and Blumenthal from her city email address, Phipps replied to her personal gmail address on July 24. It is not clear how Phipps obtained the personal gmail address for Ramos-Herbert, or why he appears to have hit “reply”, removed her city email address from the TO field then replaced it with her personal gmail address. Phipps CC’d Blumenthal on his July 24 email to Ramos-Herbert. Ramos-Herbert forwarded Phipps reply from her personal gmail address to her city email address the next day, on July 25.

Ramos-Herbert told us Blumenthal replied by email and Phipps replied with multiple phone calls but no email replies from Blumenthal were provided to us under FOIL.

Ramos-Herbert says she did not confer with her council colleagues, even Mayor Bramson, before sending the letter to two members of the ethics committee. It is not clear that she ever directly informed the council of her outreach to Phipps and Blumenthal, but it appears not based on our talking to other current and former council members.

Ramos-Herbert sent her email to Phipps and Blumenthal on Friday, July 21, 2023, the day she says she received the letter.

From: Ramos Herbert, Yadira

To: David Blumenthal, Charles Phipps

Sent: Friday, July 21, 2023

Subject: Letter

Dear Mr. Phipps and Mr. Blumenthal:

Today I received an anonymous letter. Based upon the content, I knew this needed to be referred to you in your capacity as ethics board members. I am including a copy of the letter and a copy of the envelope. There is no return address on the envelope. Please note, given the content, I refrained from including Michelle Oliveros as she is a direct subordinate of one of the two people referenced in the letter.

Yadira Ramos-Herbert

Councilwoman, District 3

New Rochelle, NY

Charles Phipps responded to Ramos-Herbert on the following Monday.

From: Charles Phipps

Date: Mon, Jul 24, 2023

Subject: Fw: Letter

To: Yadira Ramos Herbert <yadira.ramos.herbert@gmail.com>

Cc: David Blumenthal

I am in receipt of your email of 7/21/23 to me and David Biumenthal (sic). I do think a copy should be sent to Michelle Oliveros as the starting point. I am sure she will take the necessary steps to get the ball rolling to start the process and recluse (sic) herself from participating.

Ramos-Herbert says that although Phipps and Blumenthal both told her to contact Oliveros, she never did do that because, she said, she believed there would be an investigation by an outside counsel. But she did not contact Oliveros even after the council rejected hiring an outside counsel on September 16, despite telling her council colleagues the week following that she continued to believe the City Charter required an investigation.

The author claimed to be a current employee, writing anonymously for fear of retaliation, while stating (implausibly) that their only purpose in making a raft of criminal allegations and personal attacks based almost entirely on hearsay was to encourage the city council to send Gill and Salgado off for remedial management and ethics training.

In the anonymous letter, the author claimed: (1) Louis Cappelli was given “special treatment” in the form of “waiving permits, fees, and other city requirements; providing tax breaks and development bonuses; awarding land contracts and deals; prioritizing requests” because Kathleen Gill had a personal relationship with a Cappelli employee; (2) Developers and “contractors, consultants, and city stakeholders” provided Salgado (and Gill) with “free meals, gifts and favors”; (3) Bob Young gave Salgado a discount on an apartment lease, obtained for him by Gill; (4) Nissan of New Rochelle, a city contractor, gave Salgado vehicle discounts; (5) city construction contractors gave Salgado discounts on home renovation; (6) Gill gave Salgado multiple raises in a single year; (7) Gill authorized up to $500,000 in construction and decoration for a “lavish” new City Manager’s Office for her and Salgado.

Salgado was said to be unqualified for his position.

Both Salgado and Gill were accused of mistreating employees and otherwise creating a “toxic and intimidating work environment”.

No supporting documentation, names, dates, or details were provided.

We reached out to Louis Cappelli, Bob Young and Nissan of New Rochelle for comment but did not receive replies.

Bramson seized on the anonymous letter to demand the hiring of an outside counsel to investigate the allegations, with the support of Ramos-Herbert and Kaye.

During the first week of August, Bramson set up a meeting with council members Albert Tarantino and Ramos-Herbert. The meeting took place at Ramos-Herbert’s house, a stone’s throw from City Hall. Ramos-Herbert said Bramson asked that she and Tarantino serve as a subcommittee to determine how to respond to the letter. Ramos-Herbert did not disclose at the meeting that she had already responded to the letter with her backchannel communications with members of the ethics committee.

On August 7, 2023, Bramson sent an email to Tarantino (but not Ramos-Herbert) with a draft letter attached and a note reading “per our conversation”. Based on the content, style and format, the letter appears to have been prepared by an attorney.

Bramson proposed that the City Council would ask Kathleen Gill to submit a written response to a detailed interrogatory, loosely based on the anonymous letter but going far beyond the scope of the allegations in the letter, then determine whether to close the matter or hire an outside counsel to formally investigate the allegations in the anonymous letter.

Please describe all City actions and decisions, occurring or concluding after January 1, 2023, related to Louis Cappelli and/or the Cappelli Organization, its subsidiaries or employees. These should include, but not necessarily be limited to: permits for construction and associated road closures, temporary or permanent certificates of occupancy, determination of community benefit bonus obligations, utilization of space for publicly supported programming, tax benefits granted by the Industrial Development Agency, and any other discretionary actions or approvals provided by the City Administration, the IDA, or the CLD.

If possible, please illustrate how these various actions and decisions did or did not differ materially in process and outcome from analogous actions and decisions associated with other developers and property owners.

The Council has no appropriate basis to inquire into your personal relationships, except and only insofar as such relationships pose potential conflicts of interest that may require disclosure or recusal. Please indicate whether, in your estimation, such potential conflicts may have existed with respect to any of the City actions or decisions noted above.

Please describe the nature, intent, and cost of improvements to the City Manager’s office complex, presently under construction. In addition, please identify the specific source of funds utilized for these improvements, noting the date of legislative authorization for such funds, and the manner in which such expenditures were characterized for the Council’s review and approval.

Please describe the steps you have taken to investigate and resolve the letter’s claims concerning Mr. Salgado, making specific reference to payments for temporary housing, the use of contractors for home improvement, and any associated preferential treatment, discount, or potential conflict of interest.

In contrast to the City Council’s direct oversight of the City Manager, our relationship with any other City employee is indirect and, therefore, we are not in position to compel an account from the Deputy City Manager/Commissioner of Development. If, however, you conclude that such an account would be helpful, then please append it to your own response.

The letter makes several other assertions concerning managerial style and competence. These are perhaps more appropriately addressed in the context of the City Manager’s annual performance review than in the present examination of alleged misconduct. If, however, you wish to address these assertions within your response to the letter, then we have no objection.

We request that you transmit your response to the City Council no later than the first week of September.

After receiving and reviewing your response, the Council may judge the matter closed, or may instead elect to discuss these issues with you in executive session and/or retain outside counsel to further examine, confirm, or clarify any outstanding issues or questions.

Bramson, along with Ramos-Herbert and Kaye, envisioned a formal hearing where Gill would be grilled by an outside counsel acting as prosecutor while council members would sit as a sort of Grand Jury, watching, listening but also able to ask their own questions.

The Bramson letter was never signed nor sent.

On August 8, 2023, Kathleen Gill sent an email to Mayor Bramson and all council members, with a copy to Adam Salgado.

Subject: anonymous letter

Good evening,

I have become aware that an anonymous letter was sent to the Mayor and members of City Council raising allegations against Adam and me. We are preparing a response to this letter with supporting documentation, which will be submitted to Council within the next two weeks.

Thank you and have a great night.

Kathleen

On August 18, 2023, labor lawyer Antonia Kousoulas sent the promised response, a letter addressed to Noam Bramson with copies sent via email to the six council members. Ramos-Herbert later characterized the letter as a point-by-point “rebuttal” of the anonymous claims.

Kousoulas dismissed the allegations as “baseless”, adding that “any such investigation would be undertaken in bad faith, motivated by retaliatory animus toward my clients,” —and teeing up future litigation.

“Past anonymous allegations of corruption against Mayor Bramson, former City Manager Charles Strome, and former Commissioner of Development Luiz Aragon were routinely dismissed without any review or input from City Council, let alone an investigation”, she wrote.

The anonymous letter makes sweeping, uncorroborated allegations against my clients and provides no specifics as to date, time, circumstances of alleged “toxic and intimidating” acts. Given the disparity in treatment, the obvious misrepresentations in the anonymous letter, and the recent history of the Mayor’s actions to challenge my clients in their respective positions as City Manager and Commissioner of Development, the motive for any investigation is apparent.

As the Mayor and City Council well know, in March of 2022, Robert Cox filed two complaints alleging that Mayor Noam Bramson violated the New Rochelle City Charter, the New Rochelle Ethics Code and New York State law by 1) exerting pressure on the former City Manager to appoint him to the position of Commissioner of Development (held by Mr. Salgado), for which he did not meet the qualifications as per the City Charter; 2) seeking to have the former City Manager rescind the appointment of Ms. Gill to the position of Deputy City Manager/Corporation Counsel; and 3) seeking to install a person who did not possess the required qualifications as City Manager, the position that Ms. Gill holds today.

If there is any question about my clients’ role in the investigation by the New Rochelle Board of Ethics, I respectfully refer you to the Advisory Opinion, sent to each of you on June 16, 2022.

It appears that Mayor Bramson is now embarking on a course of action, albeit in an arbitrary, capricious and bad faith manner, to accomplish what he was unable to accomplish via his pressure tactics on the former City Manager, Charles B. Strome III. (emphasis added)

Kousoulas then responded point-by-point to each of the allegations in the anonymous letter.

  • Louis Cappelli did not receive any land use and tax abatement approvals since 2020; none since Gill became City Manager in January 2023 as alleged. Any permits and fees associated with Mr. Cappelli’s projects were paid as required by City Code.
  • Gill is aware of her ethical obligations and would never allow any personal relationship to jeopardize her responsibilities as a lawyer and City Manager.
  • Salgado applied for his apartment online and did not negotiate a special rate. Gill had nothing to do with the lease. Salgado offered to provide the City Council with copies of his residential lease and rent ledger.
  • The renovation of Salgado’s house was done at above market rates. Salgado offered to provide the City Council with copies of the contract that detail the scope of work on his home, as well as copies of invoices for the purchase of his appliances and HVAC system.
  • Salgado’s qualifications for the position of Development Commissioner are on par with the qualifications of the individuals who formerly held that position. Salgado has over 20 years of progressively responsible experience in the field of development and public infrastructure planning, nine of which have been in New Rochelle, specifically in the department where he served as Deputy Commissioner since 2018.
  • Salgado did not receive multiple raises in a single year (a fact that could be easily verified by the City Council). He received two consecutive promotions that increased his responsibilities as well as his pay in different calendar years. Salgado received raises and promotions from various managers in New Rochelle based on his excellent work performance, beginning in 2014.
  • Salgado previously leased a Pathfinder that he secured through the New Rochelle Nissan dealership, but that lease ended in 2022. Salgado offered to provide the City Council with copies of the lapsed lease agreement.
  • None of the allegations of alleged improper behaviors and statements by Gill or Salgado contains any dates, names or any other supporting details. Gill or Salgado are unaware of such claims made and dispute the allegations, in their entirety. They offered to cooperate fully with any such investigation if a complaint were to be properly filed with the Commissioner of Human Resources as per the City’s administrative policy.
  • City Council authorized $500,000 in ARPA funding to make improvements to numerous City departments and facilities, including without limitation: renovations to the departments of DPW, Development, Parks and Recreation, and City Manager in addition to furniture and equipment for two new Youth Centers currently under construction.

Kousoulas concluded by indicating that Gill and Salgado would not cooperate with an investigation by an outside counsel, but only to a formal complaint made per City policy.

The anonymous letter should be handled in the same way that similar letters that raised allegations against Mayor Bramson, Manager Strome and Commissioner Aragon, which were summarily dismissed, with no ensuing investigation.

As to the unsubstantiated statements and behaviors attributed to my clients, no further action should be taken unless and until such allegations are submitted through the City’s internal complaint policy. In the event that the Council would like to review the actual documents, particularly as to the claims against Mr. Salgado, we will present those documents in a closed executive session under condition of confidentiality.

On September 13, 2023, former City Manager Chuck Strome spoke with Al Tarantino then sent an email, later shared with council, memorializing their telephone conversation.

Hey Al:

It was good catching up with you during your phone call to me earlier this morning. As to what I recall about proposed improvements to the City Manager’s office, this is what I remember to the best of my recollection.

Early in 2022, after we hired two new positions in the City Manager’s Office (Assistant to the City Manager), I decided to renovate the office to reconfigure the office to accommodate the two new positions. We also included new officer furniture and other improvements since the office had not been updated in well over 50 years.

As a result, we began planning and designing the renovation last year. The funds for the improvements were included in the City’s 2022 Capital Budget. My recollection is that we included approximately $500,000 in the Capital Budget under the line “City Hall Improvements”, which included improvements to other offices in City Hall.

The main item under this budget line and the first to be undertaken was for major improvements proposed in the Engineering office of Public Works, where we had added several new positions.

As mentioned above, the proposed improvements required in the City Manager’s office were designed and appropriated in 2022. However, I decided to delay moving forward with any renovation last year because a long-serving member of my staff expressed a concern, which I ended up agreeing with, that a renovation project would create significant disruption during my last (and her) last year in the office.

Additionally, we were still in discussions about possibly moving City Hall downtown in conjunction with the development project proposed for 45 Harrison Street. That possibility was not ruled out until late 2022 which is when I decided to add funding to the contingency fund in the proposed 2023 budget to complete the renovation.

If you have any further questions on the matter, I would be pleased to discuss it with you further.

Hope to see you soon,

Chuck

On September 19, 2023, the City Council held a rare Super Executive Session with only Council Members present. City Manager Kathleen Gill, Corporation Counsel Dawn Warren and City Clerk Michelle Oliveros were excluded from the meeting.

In the Super Exec meeting, Ramos-Herbert said Bramson, with her support and that of Kaye, dismissed the Kousoulas letter. He argued for hiring an outside counsel to investigate the claims made in the anonymous letter. Council Members Martha Lopez, Liz Fried, Ivar Hyden and Al Tarantino, she said, were satisfied with the Kousoulas letter and uncomfortable with setting a precedent of hiring an outside counsel based on an anonymous letter. The effort to hire an outside counsel failed 4-3.

The alignment on this issue mirrors how, in early 2022, Bramson lined up the support of Ramos-Herbert and Kaye, when pressuring Chuck Strome to appoint him Development Commissioner and rescind the appointment of Kathleen Gill as Deputy City Manager. Lopez, Fried, Hyden and Tarantino opposed Bramson, Ramos-Herbert and Kaye in both instances.

During early 2022, in a deposition for the Bramson ethics investigation, Ramos-Herbert testified under oath that no matter what she would oppose hiring Kathleen Gill as City Manager.

By late 2022, Gill had the votes to be named City Manager. Democrats Lopez, Fried, and Hyden, held firm for Gill and, along with Republican Al Tarantino, mustered the 4 votes needed to hire her. Bramson and Ramos-Herbert capitulated, joining Lopez, Fried, Hyden and Tarantino in voting 6-0 to approve Gill as City Manager.

The vote was 6-0 not 7-0 because Kaye refused to attend the executive session or the public meeting or cast a vote on the council resolution to hire Gill.

Bramson began his remarks that night by making up an excuse to explain Kaye’s absence.

“Let me note for the record we have been in Executive Session since four o’clock today. Council Member Kaye is sick and not able to join us,” he said. She was angry, not sick.

Before voting aye, Ramos-Herbert gave a statement justifying her previous position opposing Gill, then voting but not to hire Gill per se but rather voting to support you in your role as city manager.

In the days following the Super Exec session and the failed attempt to hire an outside counsel to investigate the allegations in the anonymous letter, Ramos-Herbert attempted to re-litigate the matter one more time.

On September 22, 2023, Yadira Ramos-Herbert wrote an email to her council colleagues under the subject line “Clarity”:

I am still having a hard time processing all that has transpired over the last few weeks and feel compelled to send this message. I have refrained from calling each of you individually as I do not want to risk anything I say being misinterpreted. While I still firmly believe our Charter requires us, the elected members of the City Council, to investigate the claims received, I want this email to make clear that my goal in pursuing an investigation was not to attack our City Manager nor was it to bring negative attention to our City. On the contrary, my goal was to uphold an obligation that I believe our neighbors are counting on when they elected us and supported our candidacies. We are elected to not only be a part of shaping our city but to also review information and ask what are sometimes going to be tough and uncomfortable questions; to serve as the proverbial checks and balances to our government.

I do however appreciate and understand that we do not have a majority that feels we should pursue an investigation. I do hope we are able to work together through this next budget cycle and find ways to bring about the “teachable moment” raised in our last meeting in a way that allows us to learn from the experience but also make things better for those members of council who will come after us. I thank you for taking the time to read this message.

Yadira

The consequences of what took place last summer will continue to reverberate for years.

It takes two to tango.

Ramos-Herbert seems not to have considered the implications for the City of New Rochelle, and her tenure as Mayor, that she so readily pursued adversarial legal proceedings against Louis Cappelli, Bob Young, and Nissan of New Rochelle. After all, if bribes and kickbacks were paid, they would have been the ones paying out and kicking back.

Every developer and contractor now has good cause to be concerned that the new Mayor firmly believes that she has an obligation under the City Charter to investigate any and all claims made in undated, anonymous letters without a hint of due process, such as facing your accuser or being told of specific charges. They have to consider that the risk of doing business with New Rochelle now includes that any person with an axe to grind can send an anonymous letter to Yadira Ramos-Herbert and trigger a criminal investigation led by the Mayor.

They can plainly see Yadira Ramos-Herbert has effectively declared open season on companies doing business with New Rochelle.


This article is Part I of a series.

Future articles will include an interview with Mayor Ramos-Herbert on her thoughts on the efforts to bring about investigations based on the letter, our effort to identify the author of the anonymous letter, the battle over spending $250,000 on improvements to the Mayor’s Office, and more.