November 22, 2017

Ousted Queens Library Director Files $2 Million Suit

Tom Galante

Thomas W. Galante

Former Queens Library (QL) president Thomas W. Galante filed a $2 million suit against his former employer on November 1. Galante, who was placed on administrative leave by the library board of trustees in September 2014 and fired in December for alleged misconduct and mismanagement of library funds, is claiming breach of employment, among other points.

At issue is the more than $2 million in severance that Galante would have been granted under the terms of his contract if he had been dismissed without cause. In addition to naming QL as a defendant in the suit, Galante also named trustees Haeda Mihaltses and Judith Bergtraum, who, according to the complaint, allegedly leaked information to the press, including the contents of confidential email and facts about Galante’s contract, subpoenas served to the library, and Galante’s and QL’s legal representation.

UNDER FIRE

In January 2014 Galante drew scrutiny in an article published by the New York Daily News calling attention to his $391,594 annual salary, $37,000 car allowance, and his outside consulting position, as well as alleging that, at a time when QL branches were suffering staff cuts and closures, he had spent library money for his personal benefit. The Daily News pointed to a $140,000 renovation of the executive offices in QL’s Main Library, which included what it termed a $27,000 “private smoking deck.” The article and its several followups kicked off a round of intense scrutiny regarding multiple aspects of Galante’s fiscal stewardship. Shortly thereafter, the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched examinations of the library’s construction contracts in the face of allegations that Galante had steered capital improvement money to a contracting firm owned by an acquaintance. Galante defended his salary and renovation expenses before two New York City Council committees in February.

BOARD BACKGROUND

While the media—in particular the News—continued to focus on his spending, the QL board of trustees spoke out in support of Galante; a statement issued at the time read, in part, “The Queens Library’s record of accomplishment and its tremendous success as a leader in the field and as a critical resource for the people of Queens is largely attributable to Mr. Galante’s leadership.” Galante increased the Library’s capital funding from an average of $6 million per year to approximately $30 million during his nine years as president and CEO of QL; under his tenure, the library received LJ’s 2009 Library of the Year award.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer responded with an audit of all three of New York City’s public library systems—QL, Brooklyn Public Library, and New York Public Library. In April, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz called on the QL board of trustees to require Galante to take a leave of absence while the investigation was conducted. The board’s vote resulted in a 9­–9 tie, allowing him to remain.

In June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed new legislation giving the Mayor of New York and the Queens Borough President authority to appoint and eliminate members of QL’s board of trustees. A month after its passage, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Katz dismissed eight of QL’s 18-member board of trustees who had given Galante their vote of confidence; the ninth member who had supported Galante subsequently resigned.

Galante was placed on indefinite, paid administrative leave by the reorganized board on September 11, 2014. He was dismissed by the board on December 17, and immediately announced plans to sue for wrongful termination.

CAUSE OR CREATION?

Galante is suing for punitive damages as well as severance pay. His contract required that QL pay him $2 million if he was terminated for any reason other than “for cause”—failing to perform his employment duties; continued poor job performance following notice; misconduct injurious to the library; conviction of a crime; or breach of his contract’s rules on confidentiality, solicitation of employees and donors, or conflicts of interest.

According to the complaint, the library did not in fact have such cause, and the series of damaging Daily News articles were an attempt by QL “to create grounds for cause” by “selectively and misleadingly disclosing information … and making statements to the press.”

The complaint claims, “it seems as if the library was trying to fuel negative coverage in the press about Tom Galante,” Tom Rohback, a partner at Axinn Veltrop & Harkrider and Mr. Galante’s attorney, told LJ, “and then use that to turn around and say, ‘You’re not helping the library because there’s so much negative press about you, so we now have cause to terminate you.’”

LEAKS FROM WITHIN

Trustees Mihaltses and Bergtraum, the complaint alleges, leaked information to the paper, and Stringer, as an ex officio member of the board of trustees, had access to confidential library information as well.

The allegations of leaked information from within the library stem from several disclosures of confidential information in the press. On February 19, the Daily News criticized the amount of Galante’s severance payment, which was previously known only to Galante, the board of trustees, and the counsel who negotiated the agreement. In a March 5 article, the Daily News gave details of the subpoenas served to Galante and the library by the DOI and FBI, attributing the information to a “library source.”

Galante is not the only one to question how and why the News got its information. One of the trustees eventually removed by Katz, George Stamatiades, lodged a “whistleblower complaint” accusing QL of wrongdoing under the library’s Disclosure of Wrongful Conduct & Prohibition Against Retaliation Policy. And in her investigation into Stamatiades’s allegations, former federal Judge Barbara S. Jones concluded that trustees had made improper disclosures to the News. According to the complaint, Jones implicated Mihaltses and Bergtraum, reporting that “two of the Trustees that she had interviewed independently reported seeing Bergtraum and Mihaltses provide contact information to a member of the press during a public board meeting. One of the trustees stated that the member of the press was the Daily News’s Juan Gonzalez, who was the author of the January 27, 2014 article and subsequent articles attacking Galante.” Mihaltses and Bergtraum declined to be interviewed by Jones.

GALANTE MAKES HIS CASE

Rohback told LJ that a new political climate, rather than a history of wrongdoing, explains the case against Galante.

“If you look at it, [Galante] had performance reviews every year, they were always very high, his compensation was something that was established by outside consultants to make sure it was appropriate. The board of trustees reviewed this and passed upon it. And then with a change in politics [when both Katz and Stringer took office in January], suddenly they wanted him out.”

According to the plaintiff, Galante’s spending habits and compensation were all within appropriate limits: his salary was determined by the QL board at the time he was hired, and was in line with salaries earned by other New York City CEOs; the board was aware of Galante’s outside work with the Elmont School District all along, and agreed to allow him to continue consulting; the renovations to QL’s executive offices were part of a system-wide modernization campaign to both public and staff areas; and expenses that the Daily News deemed “excessive” are accountable as entertainment for the board, and consistent with dates of board meetings and library conferences.

Among other accusations, Stringer’s audit pointed out that Galante “incurred four separate fuel expenses that resulted in the purchase of a combined total of 50.91 gallons of fuel, with three purchases occurring at the same gas station near the CEO’s house in Wilton, Connecticut.” Item 192 of the complaint states, “Had Stringer talked to Galante, Stringer would have learned that these “charges on November 2, 2012” were incurred due to Super Storm Sandy. Galante incurred those charges filling both the Nissan as well as gas cans used by the Library during its recovery efforts in the Rockaways, as there was a gas shortage in New York. They were delivered to the Library, along with Galante’s personal generator and other equipment.”

“As we’ve pointed out, some of the items that they’re looking at are things like board of trustee dinners. After a meeting they would have a dinner and Tom Galante would put that on his card. It’s not like the board didn’t know this was happening, or didn’t approve of it,” said Rohback.

In a statement to LJ, Sharon Lee, director of communications/media relations for Katz’s office, said, “In the past year since his termination, the reformed Board of Trustees has worked very hard to repair the reputational harm caused by the former CEO’s actions and to restore faith in the management of the world-class Queens Library system.… The Queens Library exists to serve its educational purpose as a community hub of learning, literacy and culture for millions of patrons. Its precious resources are not unlimited, and it is a shame that further resources will have to be expended to deal with this lawsuit.”

The QL Board of Trustees said in a statement, “After reviewing the complaint brought by Mr. Galante, we believe his claims are without merit and our actions to remove him were completely justified.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Joe Dougherty says:

    The obvious question not being asked or answered here is “Why?” Why would Katz want him removed from the Library? What did he do that made him not a team player?

    The answer to this question is most likely found in four words of his complaint: Item 267, line 5: “which violated state law”. It would seem that the Mayor’s Office was breaking the rules, he called them on it, and then became a target. Politics as usual.

    • Roger McGonna says:

      You hit the nail on the head. Apparently there was some previous bad blood between Galante and Milhaltsis a year before this started, and I think it was political payback.

  2. The obvious question is why – why did it take so long to get rid of an inept board and corrupt director?
    Now, they can get back to the business of supplying a good, well staffed library to a deserving public.

    • Joe Dougherty says:

      I’m not sure how you can justify what you’ve said. Prior to the political nonsense of the last year, the QPL was known throughout library land as one of the best in the world, winning national and international awards, getting significant recognition for their accomplishments in library tech, etc. Can you point to any negative press or anything that was bad about the operations in the years prior to this? I don’t see how you can say they were inept when they were praised to be a world class operation by industry leaders.

  3. so this is what it looks like when the library’s 1% are fighting each other. there is no sympathy for a guy who ran the library like a true american ceo: get paid big money while lining their pockets with perks and then get paid even bigger money to get fired for running the system into the ground.