By Lisa Dumas –
Three minority contractors who filed a discrimination lawsuit against Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci in 2016 will finally have their day in court.
Cheyenne Talbert–CEO of Cheyenne Realty Corp, Dino Dixie–CEO of 1 Point LLC, and Eli Smith–CEO of So Gone Trash Removal–filed a federal complaint that alleged Comptroller Antonacci violated their civil rights in October, and U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. has recently denied Antonacci’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
“At the motion to dismiss stage, the court’s role is to ask whether there is sufficient ‘factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged,’” Judge Scullin stated. “…The court denies defendant Antonacci’s motion to dismiss because plaintiffs have plausibly pled viable equal protection claims against him.”
According to the complaint, Antonacci personally monitored both Dixie and Smith’s accounts in an atypical fashion, which involved holding back payments “so that he or his employees could personally mail out the checks in line with his intimidating new custom.”
In addition, the plaintiffs said they had been harassed by Antonacci and other county employees, who showed up at work sites to perform unannounced inspections.
And, in the case of Talbert, the comptroller attempted to have his contract revoked.
Antonacci’s attempt to pull Cheyenne Realty’s contract to manage three county parking lots centered around the county’s potential to earn higher revenue from another company, Syracuse Parking Services, in 2015.
“The awarding of the contract to Cheyenne Realty was flawed, because the purchasing department disqualified the higher revenue from Syracuse Parking Services,” Antonacci argued before the county legislature.
However, according to a 2016 article in CNY Vision, Onondaga County Legislator Linda Ervin said Antonacci had overstepped his authority.
“Antonacci came to us a year ago, and the legislature didn’t agree with him,” Ervin stated. “I don’t know why, but it has been an unprecedented hands-on questioning and approach, to discredit and revoke the contract the county has with Cheyenne Realty. I feel badly, because I worked with legislator Monica Williams to push to have more minority contractors bid on county contracts. I feel these types of actions by the comptroller will deter them.”
As a result, “…a reasonable inference that a factfinder could draw from Ms. Ervin’s statement is that race played a role in defendant Antonacci’s crusade to revoke Plaintiff Talbert’s contract,” Judge Scullin wrote in his decision.
Scullin also said Antonacci’s departure from usual payment procedures “could reasonably be seen as a ploy that defendant Antonacci designed as a subtle way to inform plaintiffs Dixie and Smith that he was monitoring their accounts personally.”
And,“…if plaintiffs were able to prove that defendant Antonacci departed from normal procedures, and singled out African American contractors for this treatment, they would likely be entitled to relief,” he stated.
Onondaga County has also been named as a defendant in the lawsuit, and Scullin has also denied the county’s request to dismiss the complaint.
A representative from the county attorney’s office declined to comment on the matter, due to the fact that the litigation is ongoing, and Antonacci has not yet responded to a request for comment.
According to Wolf Haldenstein, one of the law firms representing the contractors, Talbert, Dixie, and Smith ultimately plan to proceed with the lawsuit.
Gregory Nespole, a senior partner at Wolf Haldenstein, has released the following statement regarding the matter:
“The plaintiffs are well established and respected self-made businessmen who do not deserve to be treated disparately by public officials, especially officials from the very same county in which each of these hard-working individuals raised their families and built their businesses. The plaintiffs are tremendously appreciative of Judge Scullin’s order, and that he recognized the defendants’ patterns of discriminatory treatment. We are looking forward to litigating this case vigorously, and ensuring that the plaintiffs’ dignity is restored. Most importantly, the plaintiffs want to ensure that no other minority business is exposed to such patterns of discrimination by a county elected official ever again.”