Two Bronx Defenders attorneys have resigned and the organization’s executive director has been suspended after New York City officials demanded action upon learning that the two attorneys participated in a music video that advocated killing police officers.
In an exchange of letters Wednesday, The Bronx Defenders board of directors told city officials that, among other remedial steps, attorneys Ryan Napoli and Kumar Rao had quit while Robin Steinberg, the organization’s executive director and founder, would be suspended for 60 days without pay.
Though Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week that every option was on the table as a consequence for the “Hands Up” video, including defunding The Bronx Defenders, Elizabeth Glazer, director of the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice told the group Wednesday that she accepted the plan.
Last week, the New York City Department of Investigation found that Rao, director of strategic initiatives/communications, and Napoli, a supervising attorney, knew about the song’s violent rap lyrics but still took part in the video. The pair engaged in “serious misconduct,” said the agency, which also faulted Steinberg for “gross mismanagement” (NYLJ, Jan. 30).
The video depicted a police officer with a gun pointed at his head. “For Mike Brown and Sean Bell, a cop got to get killed … time to start killing these coppers,” the lyrics said.
The video was posted weeks before two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were fatally shot in their car.
Rao, Napoli and Steinberg said they did not see a final version of the video before it was posted and tried unsuccessfully to have it taken down.
On Wednesday, Earl Ward, board chairman and a partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, said the board “deeply regrets the organization’s association with the video and takes the [Department of Investigation’s] findings very seriously.”
Ward said while Napoli and Rao were “competent, skilled young attorneys who have served their clients with diligence and care up until this incident, their involvement with, and appearance in, the ‘Hands Up’ video as posted online was inappropriate for lawyers at The Bronx Defenders.”
Though their actions “did not, and should, not affect their fitness as members of the legal profession or their ability to competently serve their clients, the board has concluded that Mr. Rao and Mr. Napoli both failed here to exercise the judgment that The Bronx Defenders expects and demands of all its employees.”
Ward called Steinberg a “gifted, passionate and highly effective leader.”
Though the Department of Investigation said Steinberg “gave the misleading impression” that her organization “unwittingly” went along with the video shoot, Ward said he was confident Steinberg did not mean to mislead.
“Nonetheless, this incident represents a significant instance of mismanagement,” Ward continued.
Steinberg’s suspension is effective Feb. 27. When she returns, Ward said she will be subject to a six-month period of “enhanced supervisory oversight and review.”
The board will retain Jason Lilien, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder and a former bureau chief in the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau.
Ward said Lilien will “conduct a complete review and advise the board on policy and governance reforms” to address the Department of Investigation’s findings.
Ward said the organization would also appoint a general counsel or chief compliance officer, as well as implementing new training.
Glazer said her letter “confirms and accepts the plan.”
The board originally said it was prepared to give 30-day suspensions without pay for the trio, as well as demotions for Rao and Napoli. Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said the sanction was not good enough (NYLJ, Feb 2).
Johnson had no comment on the resignations and 60-day suspension announced Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman.
The Bronx Defenders receives about $20 million a year in city funding; its 250-employee staff serves about 35,000 clients a year.
In a statement, the organization said it “looks forward to continuing to do what we do best, providing zealous and compassionate legal representation and advocacy.”
In a resignation letter after six and a half years with the organization, Rao told Steinberg, “I am heartbroken to leave The Bronx Defenders under these circumstances, but I believe it to be the right thing to do. I am certain you understand and will accept my resignation.”
He said throughout the video’s production, he received assurances the organization would get a chance to review and edit the lyrics and the video.
“To say I regret our involvement with this video would be an understatement,” he wrote, apologizing to anyone who may have been hurt by the group’s involvement.
In the past several days, Glazer’s office received letters from law professors and the Federal Defenders of New York.
The letters characterized the organization’s participation in the video as a major mistake. Nevertheless, they credited Steinberg and the legal representation that the group offered as a whole, the video notwithstanding.
They urged against actions such as defunding.
“The political climate could not be worse for The Bronx Defenders, but the office should not be a casualty of the unfortunate vitriol that permeates too much of the current discussion about the state of New York City’s criminal justice system,” said one letter, which was signed by professors at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, the City University School of Law, Cornell University School of Law, New York Law School, New York University School of Law and the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University.
In an interview Wednesday, Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor at Cardozo Law School, one of the letter’s cosigners, said the governance review and reform plans were thorough and the disciplinary measures “appear to be a necessary political compromise.”
Yaroshefsky said the organization’s “excellent track record will allow it to move beyond the animus created by the video towards programs and practices to improve community-police relationships.”