Whites Only, Please

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Department of Public Works truck driver James Curtis was sentenced to three years of probation for his guilty plea to a charge of second-degree aggravated harassment. The charge stemmed from an incident at the DPW garage in August 2008 when Curtis posted a whites-only sign above a drinking fountain.

"Although Mr. Curtis did something stupid, he never meant to hurt anyone," defense attorney Harvey Siegel told Chief City Court Judge Mark Violante before his client was sentenced. "Mr. Curtis did something foolish and he's regretted it ever since."

Curtis, 54, 218 80th St., was originally charged with second-degree aggravated harassment as a hate crime. The charge was later reduced and the hate crime designation dropped, after prosecutors said they believed Curtis' actions were not racially motivated.

"I'm terribly sorry for what happened," Curtis told Violante.

"It isn't a joke and it shouldn't be considered a joke," Violante told Curtis. "Think of what you have placed at risk for this act of foolishness."

Curtis, a 26-year DPW veteran, has been suspended from his job since his arrest and faces an effort by the city to have him fired.

Siegel showed Violante a letter, signed by 44 other DPW employees, asking that Curtis not be fired and suggesting that racial and ethnic jokes were not uncommon in the department. The letter was signed by six African-American DPW workers, including Hugh Leftwich one of the Niagara Falls 6, a group of black employees suing the city over alleged racism in their workplace.

The letter called Curtis "a friend to all of us" and said "we believe (posting the sign) was a joke, as we all joke about our nationalities."

Violante said he considered the letter in determining Curtis' sentence, but was not particularly swayed by it.

"The fact (that DPW employees engage in racial and ethnic humor) doesn't make this act one to be tolerated," the judge said. "I take offense to this."

Siegel asked Violante not to impose any penalties against Curtis.

"He has been, from day one, remorseful and sincere," Siegel said.

In addition to the three years of probation, Violante ordered Curtis to perform 50 hours of service in the Niagara County Sheriff's Department Work Program. The judge also ordered Curtis to attend diversity and sensitivity training programs and to undergo random drug and alcohol testing.

Lawyers for the city observed the proceedings. They are now expected to move ahead with an effort to fire Curtis.

"I thought (the sentence) was appropriate under the circumstances," Siegel said. "I don't think anyone is going to be joking like that at the DPW again and that's probably good."

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This page contains a single entry by writch published on February 27, 2009 9:38 PM.

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