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Former DOC chief of staff didn’t want black secretary, was criticized by Commissioner for making up statistics: court papers

2019-09-11

A jails captain in Human Resources said he demanded a secretary who wasn’t black. His boss, Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, admonished him to “stop lying.” Then he got promoted to City Hall and worked on the plan to shut down Rikers Island.

New allegations about Jeff Thamkittikasem, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, emerged Tuesday, one day after the Daily News reported that he approved a nearly $1 million payment to McKinsey & Company in July 2017 over the objections of staff.

Thamkittikasem, a donor to Mayor de Blasio who climbed the ladder from the Department of Correction to City Hall, served on a task force overseeing the Rikers closure and spoke about the plan in least one community meeting last year.

But his rapid rise was not without controversy.

Capt. Carolyn Maraj, who worked in DOC’s Human Resources office in 2016, later received a $45,000 settlement from the city after alleging that DOC brass had mishandled her promotion to captain because she was black. She was deposed in connection with a lawsuit brought by three former senior officials at DOC who said they were discriminated against because they are black. That suit was settled earlier this year for $275,000.

“(Thamkittikasem) did not want any African-American secretary. When I was doing the staffing, hiring for the secretaries in that office, he did not want an African-American assistant,” Maraj said under oath in January. .

“He told you not to hire an African-American assistant to work for him?” attorney Rocco Avallone asked.

“For him, correct," Maraj replied.

Thamkittikasem, who is Asian, never gave a reason why he did not want a black secretary, Maraj said. Thamkittikasem got his wish though there were black applicants qualified for the job, she said.

A City Hall spokeswoman said Maraj’s allegations had been investigated and were untrue.

“This never happened. Baseless attempts to defame Jeff’s character will not be dignified with a response from this administration,” the spokeswoman said.

Thamkittikasem stopped serving on the city’s Close Rikers task force in January — the same month Maraj was deposed. The City Hall spokeswoman said the timing was coincidental. The task force’s website still listed Thamkittikasem as co-chair of its “working group on culture change” until The News alerted City Hall late Tuesday.

“As a woman of color, as an African-American woman, I always felt he respected me,” Board of Corrections member Jennifer Jones Austin said.

“I can’t fathom it. It’s not the Jeff I know.”

Ponte was deposed in the same discrimination case — and said he’d rebuked Thamkittikasem during reviews of data on jail violence that would be presented to City Hall.

“Did you ever admonish (Thamkittikasem) at any of the meetings by saying anything to the effect of ‘stop lying, stop pulling stuff out of your a--' or something to that effect?” Avallone asked.

“Probably,” Ponte replied.

He said that Thamkittikasem, who was a “very hard worker,” occasionally presented information to City Hall that had not been properly vetted.

In his own deposition, Thamkittikasem admitted that his boss jokingly told him he made stuff up.

“Both of us would joke around sometimes on some of the things that were coming out of the press and whether or not it was real or not," said Thamkittikasem, who did not respond to an email from The News requesting a comment for this story.

“I have a memory of him at one point just saying, ‘Are you making that up?’ as a joke.”

Thamkittikasem, along with Ponte and seven other top jail officials, were faulted in 2017 for using their city vehicles on personal trips. Ponte retired that year.

“These allegations are wildly off base and untrue. Throughout his time at the Department of Corrections, Jeff treated all members of staff with the utmost integrity and respect, and never once did I question the veracity of his statements," DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said.

In an email to The News, Thamkittikasem responded that “None of this is real, but I’ll refer you to the press office.”