Even though he’s facing a raft of criminal charges, with rumors of more to come, Mount Vernon Mayor Richard W. Thomas exposed the city further to legal and financial jeopardy after ordering a phalanx of police officers to arrest longtime city resident Latt George, an inveterate critic of the mayor, during an impromptu appearance the embattled executive made before the City Council, Wednesday night.
A restive crowd of a hundred or so concerned residents packed into the sweltering council chambers Wednesday evening, eager to voice their concern about a lawsuit that was recently filed against the city by the federal Department of Environmental Protection. The city has failed to comply with previous directives to repair the city’s sewage system, the suit alleges, resulting in tons of untreated waste being discharged into local estuaries. After years of foot-dragging, capped by the failure of Mayor Thomas to file several reports mandated under a previous settlement, the DEP filed a suit that will result in a multi-million dollar fine, stoking fears of a hefty increase in residential property taxes.
About midway through the public comments period, the palpable tension snapped after George was goaded into profanity-laced exchange with Mayor’s older brother, Steven “Butch” Thomas, who’s been reduced playing to the role of provocateur after he suffered a crushing loss in last November’s council races.
From his position among the ten or more officers who were huddled around the mayor, well in excess of the two officers assigned to his security detail, the older Thomas began spewing insults at George’s mother, who is also a fierce critic of the mayor. Though the remarks weren’t picked up by the microphone on the speaker’s dais, George took offense to the remarks, and responded by voicing his readiness to defend his mother’s honor. The Council has sole authority to police goings-on in the legislative chambers, a rule that ensures the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government (Article 5 – City Council §32 – The City Council shall determine the rules of its own proceedings…)
Ignoring these longstanding strictures against executive interference in council proceedings, however, the Mayor directed officers to arrest Latt, overriding Council President Pro Tem Andre Wallace’s directive to the police to stand down, and refrain from removing Latt from the council chambers.
Acting Police Commissioner Shaun Harris was present to witness the fracas, and did nothing to stop his officers from making the arrest despite the Council’s protestations, but promised City Clerk George Brown, that Latt George would be released on a desk appearance ticket after the session ended. Hours later, after the council meeting ended, Councilman Wallace went to the police station, along with council members Marcus Griffith and Janice Duarte, the city clerk and a few residents, to personally secure George’s release, only to be rebuffed by the Desk Sergeant who was on duty.
According to Latt George’s mother, Denise Branch, this incident is just the latest instance of the MVPD targeting her son. Sometime last year, Latt was arrested on allegations he was caught peeping in a neighbor’s window. After months of legal wrangling, the charges were dropped by the District Attorney’s office, a move that gave credence to his claim that the charges were trumped-up. What’s more, in a presentation she gave shortly after her son’s removal from the chambers, Branch told the standing-room-only crowd that another of the mayor’s brother, DPW workers Preston Thomas, came to her house uninvited and threatened to have her and son killed, if they didn’t publicly recant criticisms they’ve made of the Thomas administration and his controversial trash-hauling Deputy Police Commissioner, Joseph Spiezio. Branch told the audience she has already notified the Westchester County District Attorney of the threat against her.
After months of being caught in the cross-fire between the Council and the Mayor, Commissioner Harris reached the breaking point after the unsettling display of the Mayor’s abuse of police authority. When contacted by phone as the Council members sought the release of Mr. George, Harris let loose a tirade, telling the council members to begin looking for another commissioner because he was planning on stepping down as soon as possible.
For any careful observer of the Mayor’s autocratic turn, the misuse of police authority comes as no surprise. The illegal detainment of Mr. George means yet another in a growing number lawsuits that have been filed against the city by those who’ve chafed at the heavy-handed, gestapo-like tactics the Mayor is quick to use to advance his agenda. With each new incident, the risk grows that rank-and-file officers who slavishly carry out unlawful orders will end up facing criminal charges along with the Mayor and other cronies now under investigation by state law enforcement agencies. Indeed, Councilman Wallace told the officers on duty that he would be adding this incident to a list of incidents he had already referred to Westchester County District Attorney Scarapino. A notice from Wallace to Commissioner Harris and PBA President Brent Gamble took the police’s top brass to task for allowing the Mayor to use the MVPD as a political enforcement squad after several uniformed officers, including Mount Vernon Police Department Million Dollar Man, Lt. Michael Marcucilli, who’s been successfully sued by several civilians for abuses, vandalizing the tennis courts at Memorial Field in June. “All officers have the right to refuse unlawful orders without fear of retaliation or intimidation,” Wallace reminded them.
It remains to be seen if Mayor Thomas and Spiezio will do time for the crimes now under investigation. What is certain, though, is that city residents will pay a hefty monetary fine for this brazen criminality that occurs daily under his watch.