NEW YORK — Former Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau withdrew on Tuesday from his role overseeing the city's efforts to improve the hiring of black and Hispanic firefighters, citing the city's "resentment" of him.
Morgenthau, who as a longtime prosecutor was a model for the district attorney on TV's "Law & Order," wrote in a letter to a Brooklyn federal judge that he had decided to withdraw as special master to avoid "any unnecessary delays or controversy." He said it appears the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg "has exhibited resentment against me."
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis had appointed Morgenthau on May 26 after angrily denouncing what he called the city's tardy response to his January findings that the city had discriminated by adopting hiring practices designed to keep minorities from becoming firefighters. Those findings echoed claims by the U.S. Department of Justice and a black fraternal organization of firefighters.
But the city's lawyers had objected to the appointment, arguing Morgenthau's "known distaste" for Bloomberg would make it impossible for him to be impartial.
Morgenthau called that contention "absurd" in his letter to the judge and contended the reason the Bloomberg administration objected to his role was that his performance as district attorney had "not been to its liking."
He said he distributed ill-gotten funds between the state and city in defiance of the city's wishes, and he said the administration had accused him of being against the city when his office issued subpoenas as part of the investigation into a 2007 fire that killed two firefighters at a former bank building near the World Trade Center site.
"Although there is no basis whatsoever for this charge, it does appear that the current administration harbors resentment against me," wrote Morgenthau, who became district attorney in 1974 and retired at the end of last year.
The judge, in his order allowing Morgenthau to withdraw as special master, criticized the city for objecting to the choice of the former district attorney, saying that the city had further delayed the case "by attempting to disqualify the very person who was appointed to speed things up."
"Now, after years of discovery and two lengthy liability decisions, this case is still about the same thing: the city's obligation to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to treat its own citizens with the respect and fairness they deserve," the judge wrote. "These are not, one would think, obligations that the city's administrators would deny or shirk. And yet here, in the remedial phase of the litigation, this court is confronted with the odious specter of a city government taking every possible step to perpetuate a fundamental, decades-old injustice against its own citizens."
City attorney Georgia Pestana said in a statement that city officials "respectfully disagree with any suggestion by Judge Garaufis that we sought to disqualify Mr. Morgenthau to delay this case or that we have taken any other steps to do so."
The city's Law Department added that it looked forward to working with Morgenthau's replacement, Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney with the Southern District of New York. Like Morgenthau before her, she is tasked with developing a procedure for screening and selecting applicants who want to become firefighters.
The judge had ordered the city to retain an expert to revise its firefighter test.
There are about 350 black firefighters out of 11,500 firefighters working for the Fire Department of New York. Most city residents are minorities.