Ousted southern Brooklyn Councilmember Chaim Deutsch’s staff will be out of work on Friday, leaving constituent services further in the lurch in the memberless district.
Deutsch was expelled from his seat in the Council’s 48th District — which includes Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Homecrest, and parts of Midwood — back in April after pleading guilty to tax fraud charges.
Residents at the time worried that constituent services, which were known to be particularly strong in that office, would decline in quality as the staffers knowledgeable of the district’s ins-and-outs were removed.
Now, the reality is worse than they could have imagined, said one staffer.
“We try to do our work, but it just sucks,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous fearing retaliation. “There’s no response from the agencies because there’s no member. No matter how hard we try, if an agency doesn’t respond to us, we can’t hold them accountable. We have no member. Usually it was the member’s job to cultivate those relationships, hold them accountable when they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. But there’s no check and balance anymore.”
Staffers were told back in May by the Council’s central office that they would be laid off on July 23. Some staffers managed to get jobs in the central office, some joined other offices, and some joined campaigns hoping to get a job with a new member — but much of the team will be packing their bags come Friday afternoon.
When Deutsch left, District 48 lost its legislative teeth, but the office did keep constituent services — such as providing information on vaccines and voting, helping businesses obtain various licenses, and helping obtain permits for different activities.
The former-Deutsch staffers technically worked for the Council’s central office, under Community Engagement Division staffer and alleged Bronxite Walter Algarin.
Deutsch staffers say that the central office is unresponsive to constituent concerns, are unfamiliar with issues in the district, and that translators who speak the district’s languages, like Russian, are difficult for residents to reach.
“The system we use doesn’t work, they have to call central office,” said Jack Plushnick, Deutsch’s legislative director, who will be laid off Friday. “A lot of people aren’t calling the office anymore because they think based on the messaging system that the office is closed.” He said that callers often don’t get a response and are asked to leave a message, which is then emailed to the central office, though a spokesperson for the Council Speaker noted that the phone number constituents can call is still the same as it was before.
Plushnick and another staffer said that soon after Deutsch was expelled, staffers from the central office went to the district office and seized the hard drives of staffers’ computers.
“The minute Chaim was thrown out of office, the next day, they took our hard drives, they were there for hours,” Plushnick said.
Staffers were then locked out of the district office, after already being locked out of the City Hall office, leaving staffers to either work from home or in the field, and without materials that had been left behind at their desks, he said.
“They changed the keys, we couldn’t go back to the office,” Plushnick said. “We were not permitted back to the office until about three weeks ago. Some of us last week.”
“When I went there, the place was a mess,” he continued. “It looked like things were out of place.”
Plushnick attempted to find work elsewhere, serving as campaign manager for Steven Patzer’s unsuccessful run for the Democratic primary in neighboring District 47, which was ultimately won by Ari Kagan. Now, he finds himself disillusioned with politics.
Plushnick and other staffers believe that Deutsch was booted from the Council for political, retaliatory reasons, stemming from animosity between Deutsch and Council Speaker Corey Johnson over Deutsch’s endorsement of David Weprin in the Comptroller’s race, which Johnson was running in. Johnson lost the Comptroller race to Brad Lander.
A spokesperson for Johnson refuted the notion that the ouster was an act of vengeance in strong terms. “This is an outrageous claim that is not backed up by any evidence and which ignores the fact that Mr. Deutsch pleaded guilty in federal court to defrauding the US government,” said the spokesperson, Jennifer Fermino. “He is no longer in office because of his criminal conduct, and to allege anything otherwise demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of state law.”
Moreover, they believe that Deutsch’s ouster from the Council was illegal.
The City Charter prescribes that members can be expelled “after charges and a hearing, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all the council members.” They noted that this process had been followed for former Bronx Councilmember Andy King, who was accused of a litany of offenses like sexual harassment, misuse of public funds, and retaliation against whistleblowers in his own office, among other things. Plushnick also alleged that Deutsch and his staff were given only about 30 minutes of advance notice before the announcement was made.
“I think what Corey did to our district by removing a Council Member without a hearing, without any input from other members of the Council, was a huge, huge mistake,” Plushnick said. “And I think it really hurt a lot of people.”
In a statement upon Deutsch’s ouster, Johnson cited the state’s Public Officers Law, which notes that a public office is considered vacated if the holder is convicted of “a crime involving a violation of his oath of office.”
A spokesperson for Johnson rejected the comparison of Deutsch and King.
“Mr. Deutsch vacated his office when he pled guilty to a crime that violated his oath of office as the Council and the Law Department determined,” the spokesperson said. “Upon his guilty plea, the Council seat automatically became vacant. Mr. Deutsch admitted to defrauding the US government. Mr. King’s case was completely different. He was not criminally charged or convicted. Instead, Mr. King was accused of ethics violations, and the Council investigated those allegations. He was expelled after that investigation substantiated several ethics violations against him.”
The spokesperson also referred to the hard drive removal and to staff being locked out of the office as standard procedure when a member’s office is vacated. “Recently, this was done in other offices who were vacated, including the offices of former Council Members Espinal, Constantinides, Cohen, Lancman, Richards, Torres, among others,” the spokesperson said in regards to the lockout.
Finally, the spokesperson noted that the staffers were given 90 days from Deutsch’s removal to get their affairs in order, and that only one full-time staffer was not offered a job elsewhere in the Council, and that the rest either took a job on central staff or in another office, or left “voluntarily.” Several staff members who worked part-time did not get job offers.
In the Council, Deutsch was a conservative Democrat often at odds with the broader Democratic caucus, but his office was largely considered to have strong constituent services.
“It’s the personal, knowledgeable contact of the folks who are on his staff for a long time,” said Ed Jaworski, executive vice president of the Madison-Marine-Homecrest Civic Association. “In these instances, they knew what the background of a situation was and they could get to it and address it quickly.”
But ever since Deutsch’s ouster and the takeover of the office by central staff (a standard procedure when a seat is vacated), staffers and residents say that constituent services have taken a nosedive, and that the central staff often seem unreachable. Local civic guru Judy Baron, president of the Manhattan Beach Community Group, says she is now fielding calls for constituent complaints that once would have gone to Deutsch’s office to be promptly solved.
“Ordinarily, people don’t call me and tell me their garbage isn’t being picked up,” Baron said. “But now I’m getting those phone calls.”
“I think leaving a community, an entire district, without somebody to call, is not the way I want my city to run,” she continued.
Jaworski, Baron, and other civic leaders had sent letters to the Speaker’s office pleading that Deutsch’s staff be kept in place, a position echoed by at least one of the Democratic primary candidates to succeed Deutsch, Mariya Markh, along with Republican nominee Inna Vernikov. The June Democratic primary was won by Steven Saperstein, who will face Vernikov in the November general election. Saperstein did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Since the office is vacant, the winner of the general election will assume office immediately upon certification of their victory by the Board of Elections, rather than take office on January 1 of next year as most new members will do.
Plushnick believes that constituent services, already diminished and depersonalized, will get even worse after Friday.
“It’s gonna get a lot worse because there’s gonna be no one able to handle it,” he said. “Nobody is doing anything. We were told there would be people to replace us on central staff but we don’t know who they are.”
Deutsch did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment.
This article has been updated with additional comment from Speaker Johnson’s office, and comment from GOP candidate Inna Vernikov.