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Jennings’ future cloudy as DA reviews charge

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Jennings, meanwhile, is up for re-election in the fall, and while 20 of his supporters held up campaign posters and cheered for him from the balcony during the Council session on his misconduct, his wider popularity and record remain hard to gauge in the neighborhoods he represents: Jamaica, South Jamaica and Richmond Hill. It is also difficult to tell what effect, if any, his punishment will have on public opinion.After nearly three years of dealing with allegations against Jennings (D-Jamaica), the City Council moved swiftly April 20 to punish the controversial leader for misconduct charges filed by two female staffers and substantiated by a Standards and Ethics Committee probe.The committee found that Jennings created a hostile work environment, improperly fired a female employee after she complained of sexual harassment and improperly used public resources by making another staffer perform domestic chores. In turn, the Council voted 43-2 to accept the committee's recommended punishment: that Jennings be censured for only the second time in the chamber's history, fined, made to attend sensitivity classes, stripped of committee posts and required to have someone monitor his office. The public resource charge has been referred to the Queens district attorney and is under review, a DA spokesman said.During the session to determine whether or not Jennings deserved punishment, some Council members were quick to denounce the councilman, while others acknowledged discomfort in judging a colleague or said the process that determined his fate had been flawed.City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Jennings' colleague from southeast Queens, noted that he had been conflicted during the investigation."I, too, have had a difficult crossroads in this process," Comrie said. "(But) if this had been done in any other environment, the penalties would be much more punitive." Other members objected to the fact that the Standards and Ethics Committee held closed-door meetings without giving access to other Council members and hired a former prosecutor who both conducted the investigation and advised the committee, an apparent conflict of interest. Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) joined Jennings as the only two members to vote against the sanctions, while Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Jackson Heights) was one of four who abstained."The system was flawed, so I decided not to partake," Monserrate said after the vote. During a 10-minute rebuttal and an explanation of his vote, Jennings compared his suffering to that of Jesus Christ."I am a sinner, but the sins I am accused of today I did not commit," he said. "This process was far from fair."In a report issued two weeks ago, the committee substantiated charges that after the staffers rejected Jennings' advances, which included touching and rubbing against them, he called black women "bitches" that were too "finicky" and did not have their act together. Jennings also told the women he was a councilman and could do whatever he wanted, the staffers said.During the Council session, Jennings said one of his accusers had psychological problems but that his attorney was not granted access to her medical records. The Jamaica councilman has previously said he is the target of a conspiracy by the Queens Democratic Party and that his accusers were not attractive enough to draw his interest. During the committee's hearings, he brought pictures of the staffers to further prove his point, angering some members.Before casting his nay vote, Jennings said God would continue to bless him and told his Council colleagues, "I forgive you all, for you all know not what you do." He later said he would appeal the decision in court and would not resign but rather seek re-election.Up in the balcony, supporter Sidney Spruill of Jamaica said he did not believe the charges because he was hearing the testimony secondhand and felt he and other constituents were being disenfranchised with some of the sanctions."They hung this man," Spruill said. "What can he do? He can't do anything."Yvette Sledge, a member of the civic group Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors, said the punishment was the last act in a longstanding effort by the Queens Democratic Party to penalize Jennings for refusing to toe the line."I might not agree with everything he does, but he was found guilty before anyone said a word," she said. "This was a well-rehearsed play." Jennings has long been considered a pariah by the party. But while he is often criticized for his controversial behavior in other parts of the borough, in southeast Queens many people have a different opinion of his record and the misconduct charges."Most of us felt the process was not fair," said Ruth Bryan, the president of Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors. "I don't know that they were any more credible than he was-I can't really judge," she said of Jennings' accusers.Many of Jennings' defenders have noted that he secured laptop computers for children in his district, has visited most crime scenes and has attended many neighborhood meetings. Bryan said Jennings' office was often open late, but that recently he had been limited by the time spent with the probe."The constituents are really the ones who are suffering," she said.Jennings, a mortgage broker, was first elected to office in 2001 after defeating Anthony Andrews, the Democratic Party's candidate, by 4,437 votes to 3,991. Bryan said Jennings opposed a property tax hike compromise brokered by Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) soon thereafter, a position that earned him respect in the neighborhood but left him ostracized at the Council."That started everything," said the civic leader, who has never voted for Jennings. The councilman ran again in a redistricting election in 2003, narrowly beating Community Board 12 District Manager Yvonne Reddick in the primary, 2,245 votes to 2,149 votes.Jennings is likely to face Thomas White, a former area councilman who left because of term limits, this fall. White beat Jennings several times in earlier primaries, including 5,022 votes to 3,647 in 1997. One Democratic insider said, however, that Jennings will remain tough to beat since his constituents may respond to an underdog who is under attack.Jennings' misconduct charges have also been mentioned in the mayoral race, with Bloomberg saying Miller, one of his Democratic challengers, did not react quickly enough to the allegations.Miller defended his handling of the matter."I think this penalty sends a clear message that we will not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind," he said.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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