A councilman fires a staffer with an arrest record; another councilman says he’d ‘be proud to work with him now’

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David Segal (Azi Paybarah via flickr)
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When the New York Post revealed today that a Council staffer had been arrested seven years ago for throwing a flaming rag at an army recruitment center, the story quoted a Council lawyer who said it would have been illegal to take the conviction into consideration when the staffer was hired.

“It would be a violation of state law for the Council or any employer to consider a criminal conviction in making an employment decision unless the conviction directly relates to the position the person has applied for," said Elizabeth Fine, the Council lawyer.

Nevertheless, the staffer, David Segal, 26, was fired today by Ydanis Rodriguez, the councilman who hired him.

Rodriguez said he didn't have all the facts about Segal's 2005 conviction (despite the fact that the Times reported Segal's arrest at the time).

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"I was not aware of the nature or the circumstances surrounding that incident until yesterday," Rodriguez said in a statement.

Several lawmakers and Council employees said they were shocked at Rodriguez's firing of Segal, in part, because of the councilman's own run-ins with the law. He was arrested during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration, but had the charges dropped when the Manhattan district attorney failed to get information from a key witness.

Segal has since moved to Brooklyn, gotten married, enrolled in Brooklyn College for his masters, and, ironically, has been on the receiving end of multiple stop-and-frisks. (Segal, who is white, lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant.)

He grew up in Litchfield, Connecticut, and told me last year, "The town I grew up in had one cop that you never saw."

Segal is a vegan, and training to be a boxer. He also has tattoos along his arms that he hides by keeping the sleeves of his dress shirts buttoned at all times.

The chairman of the political science department at Baruch College, Thomas Halper, said the incident raises questions about disclosure, privacy and political reality.

"It's one thing if he's fired because he didn't disclose this material fact," Halper said. "It's another thing if he disclosed it and then the councilman is later embarrassed."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to protect would-be municipal employees with criminal records, announcing an executive order last August "ensuring that City agencies do not place undue barriers in their own hiring processes for people with criminal convictions unrelated to the jobs for which they are applying."

The firing was a surprise to Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Democrat from Brooklyn who was arrested during an altercation with police officers last year when they failed to recognize his City Hall credential while entering a restrict area near the West Indian Labor Day Parade on Eastern Parkway.

Segal "worked with my office," Williams said. "I think he did good work ... I would be proud to work with him now." Williams said the incident highlighted the difficulties faced by people with criminal records as they try reentering society after serving time in jail.

"It's very bad if people are not allowed to do better," he said. "The problem we see with many people [is that we] continue to punish them. It's an ongoing problem."

When I asked Williams if he had ever hired anyone with a criminal record, he said, "That in and of itself wouldn't matter to me." What does matter, he said, is "has everyone paid their debt? Can they do the work I'm asking them to do?"

One lawmaker who asked not to be named said he had mixed feelings about Segal.

"I just read the kid was 19 when he did this," the lawmaker said. "I hate seeing young people pay a price as adults for stupid things done when immature and foolish. That said, I wish he had renounced the act itself. Seems he didn't, despite his apology."

UPDATE: The head of public policy for the Fortune Society, a nonprofit group that helps former inmates reenter society, said, "This dismissal may violate state law," and said that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its guidance and reissued it nationally, "making it clear that this sort of practice is illegal and discriminatory."