What to Know
A Metro-North supervisor was promoted in 2014 despite employee complaints about a photo of him dressed in blackface
The supervisor, Richard Ranallo, received five days of sensitivity training for the incident, but then went on to manage even more workers
The message it seemed to send, the employees say, is that Ranallo is "untouchable," and the employees are instead punished for speaking up
The head of the MTA says he was "shocked" to learn of what he called an unacceptable "coverup" in the case of a high-ranking Metro-North supervisor who was promoted to his position in 2014 even after several employees reported shocking photos of him in blackface.
On Wednesday, Joe Lhota, referencing an exclusive I-Team report that dropped a day earlier, described Metro-North's lack of action in the blackface case as "reprehensible" and said in no uncertain terms, "wearing blackface is racist."
"Those who decide to wear blackface are maintaining I believe a legacy of marginalizing and dehumanizing African Americans," Lhota said. ""The employee in question was, and still is, represented by a union. We will work with our labor partners to ensure that all understand what our expectations are and that actions like this, they understand, are unacceptable and that employees that participate in actions like this – and those employees who cover up actions like this – have no place at the MTA."
The I-Team broke the story Tuesday about Richard Ranallo, who was seen wearing blackface in photos snapped at a private Halloween party in October 2013 and posted on Facebook, according to the employees.
"He's dressed up in blackface, which is abhorrent to many people on many levels," said former employee Randy Morgan, now retired from Metro-North.
In the pictures, Ranallo is carrying what appears to be a railroad-style lantern and is wearing a jockey uniform "reminiscent of the black jockey that people used to put on their lawns," said Morgan.
"It's kind of like wearing a KKK outfit, just kind of screams at you," he added.
Morgan recalled thinking, when he first saw the photos, "'You don't know this is offensive? You don't know this is wrong? Or you think this is funny? It's not funny.'"
"Racism isn't something that people wear proudly. It's kind of insidious."
Morgan complained, telling the assistant of Ranallo's superior about the pictures. The assistant told Morgan they were aware of the pictures.
Morgan, who worked at Grand Central, said he also complained to the railroad's Equal Employment and Diversity office. A former employee in that office confirmed that Morgan reported it, along with four other former employees.
Electrical foreman John Barrow was among those who reported the photos.
"It was a hurtful feeling to see someone, especially a supervisor, displaying that kind of behavior," he told News 4. "I reported it to my direct supervisor."
The supervisor said he'd look into it, but never mentioned it again. Instead, what the employees did hear stunned them even more than the photos: in June 2014, eight months after the photos were posted, and after several complaints by employees, Ranallo was promoted to general supervisor, managing even more workers and keeping his pay of more than $200,000 a year.
The only repercussion Ranallo faced for the photos, according to Metro-North, was being ordered to take the photos down from Facebook, and getting enrolled in five days of sensitivity training.
Ranallo refused to answer the I-Team's questions on the complaints from former employees. Tracked down recently near Metro-North's Tarrytown station, Ranallo avoided the crew, insisting, "I've got a train to catch," and driving off.
Cathy Rinaldi, an attorney and the new president of Metro-North, says she first saw the photos a week ago.
"It's hard for me to understand what would have been in his head," she told the I-Team. "I recognize it's a Halloween party, but still, I'm concerned about this. I'm very disturbed by these pictures."
Asked why Ranallo wasn't fired, and why he in fact was promoted after people complained, Rinaldi said, "This is five years ago. I really can't look back and second-guess the decisions that were made at this time."
As for whether she believes Metro-North's diversity office handled the matter properly, Rinaldi said, "Again, I can't look back there in terms of how it was handled at the time. I think the fact that it was not a workplace incident might have affected how it was handled at the time."
MTA board member Larry Schwartz said at Wednesday's meeting there should be no statute of limitations on racism.
Chair of the Metro-North Committee Susan Metzger said at the meeting that the behavior the I-Team reported doesn't represent what she has seen in the past.
"It's to me very sad that this had to happen this way," she said.
Lhota said Wednesday that Rinaldi has ordered a complete review and investigation of the case, and will reinforce no retaliation for workers who report such acts. Previously, Rinaldi said she thought Ranallo may need more training.
"What I need to do going forward is making sure that Mr. Ranallo – who still works for me, and I’m very concerned about that – he needs to have the training to treat the people he works with every day fairly, appropriately, and with respect. And if he doesn’t have that training I need to make sure he gets that training," she said.
She added, "I would be tremendously upset if employees were afraid to come forward with an allegation of racism. That cannot be."
A day after speaking with the I-Team, Rinaldi sent a letter to Metro-North employees, dated June 19, reiterating that she only learned of the photo of Ranallo in blackface in the past week.
"I want to be very clear that I find this type of conduct shocking and completely unacceptable," she said. "It is a betrayal of our core values of respect, honesty, and pride."
Rinaldi added that she was also "also very disturbed by comments reported in the news media about employees who feel that they cannot come forward and report incidents of discrimination or harassment because of fear of retaliation."
"I want to be very clear that employees have a right to report their concerns and that retaliation against anyone making such a report will not be tolerated," she wrote.
Rinaldi said she's asking the training department to assess current anti-discrimination training, as well as programs on promoting respect in the workplace, and to return to her with recommendations within two weeks.
The EEO office will also be conducting additional outreach at all Metro-North locations, she said: "It is only by continuing to educate people about respect in the workplace and counseling them about their absolute right to seek redress when confronted with discriminatory conduct that we will truly be able to create a workplace environment that is inclusive, tolerant and respectful."