A felony hate crime charge was dismissed in City Court Tuesday against a longtime city Public Works employee who has admitted putting a "whites only" sign on a drinking fountain while on the job.
James R. Curtis, 52, of 80th Street, remains charged with misdemeanor aggravated harassment, however, according to the Niagara County District Attorney's office.
Prosecutors issued a statement that said the office reviewed the case and, after numerous interviews with Department of Public Works employees, including Curtis, decided to ask for the reduction in charges.
It was granted by City Judge Mark A. Violante.
Harvey F. Siegel, the defense lawyer representing Curtis, called it a "whole different case" without the felony charge. He said the aggravated harassment count is similar to making a harassing phone call.
Siegel characterized the sign as an "off-color joke, normal shop talk," and said dozens of letters from employees, including minority workers who supported Curtis, helped reduce the charges.
"It was a poor attempt at a joke, a really bad joke," he said after a morning court appearance.
Siegel said the case was never properly charged and called it a "run-of-the-mill crime, rather than the much more serious felony hate crime."
The felony crime could have carried up to seven years in state prison upon conviction; the misdemeanor crime would carry no more than a year in jail. Fines and community service would be other options if Curtis is convicted.
Richard Whistler is a lawyer who represents six African-American DPW employees who have an unresolved racial discrimination lawsuit against the city filed in 2003. He said he has spoken to each of his clients and the Curtis case is "not a joke we can forget about."
"Something has to be done," Whistler said. "Misdemeanor or felony, it doesn't matter. We just want this to be recognized as a crime by the powers that be. This [kind of behavior] must be stopped."
Curtis has worked in the city's public works yards for the past 26 years. According to court records, he told city police investigators when he was charged on Aug. 29 that he quickly realized on Aug. 13 that the "whites only" sign he posted was a really bad idea.
Investigators said the sign was written on the back of a time card.
Curtis told The Buffalo News on Tuesday that he did throw the card away.
"No one was ever supposed to see it," he said.
According to police reports, an African-American co-worker pulled the sign out of a garbage can, used his cell phone to take pictures and then turned it over to another co-worker, Emmett Cox, a black city DPW employee who has filed charges of racial discrimination against the city.
That "sign" remains as part of evidence against Curtis. It is being held by a crime lab in the State Attorney General's office, Mayor Paul A. Dyster said.
Dyster told The News on Tuesday that the city is continuing to stay in close consultation with the attorney general's office, to ensure "a workplace that is free from discrimination."
"We want there to be harmony, but there are rules too," Dyster said.
After his arrest, Curtis was suspended from his job for 20 days without pay, and now is suspended from his job with pay, under the rules of his union contract. He is free on $500 bail and is scheduled to return to court Nov. 10.
His defense lawyer suggested to The News that Curtis may now have a better chance to be reinstated, since the charges have been reduced.
"[That] doesn't bear on it," Dyster said.
The mayor said the city will continue its administrative proceedings to fire Curtis, and called the criminal court proceedings "independent" of that effort.