Several former colleagues of the city Social Services Department’s new top spokesman are coming forward with allegations that he made them uncomfortable by using sexist and culturally insensitive language at work.
Stephen Witt, who was appointed last month as the department’s deputy commissioner for press relations, previously worked as an editor at the Schneps Media-owned PoliticsNY website. Before that, Witt ran the now-defunct news sites, Kings County Politics and Queens County Politics.
Witt’s deputy commissioner appointment comes as the Social Services Department scrambles to address overcrowding in the city’s homeless shelter system driven by a wave of recently-arrived Latin American migrants — and allegations of previous on-the-job misconduct against him could prove problematic for the agency at a critical time.
Morgan Mullings, who worked as a reporter at PoliticsNY for five months, said she quit this past February after Witt repeatedly subjected her to what she described as “very uncomfortable” behavior. Before resigning, Mullings said she went to the company’s human resources department to raise issues about Witt.
Emails reviewed by the Daily News confirm a Schneps Media HR rep met with Mullings on Feb. 9 to discuss her complaint about Witt.
After that meeting, Mullings submitted a resignation form — which was also reviewed by The News — that stated she went to HR because Witt was “consistently disrespectful” toward her, including by speaking “extremely negatively about coworkers.”
Mullings said Witt would use pejorative terms to describe female coworkers while complaining about them to her. In a recent interview with The News, Mullings recalled other incidents that she said drove her to go to HR.
“One time it was cold outside so I wore a very long black dress, and he told me I looked ‘like an Orthodox Jew,’ and he just kept repeating it,” said Mullings, who is Black. “And I wasn’t laughing, but he kept repeating it.”
She recalled another incident: “I wear headwraps a lot and he said to me, ‘I like your burka thing.’ I paused because I thought, ‘Does he not know what a burka is?’ I just couldn’t understand why someone like him would think that was OK to say.”
Christian Spencer, a freelancer reporter who worked for Witt’s Kings County Politics site in 2018, said Witt made him uncomfortable by openly discussing issues concerning other people’s sex lives.
“It was very sleazy,” Spencer said.
Two other former colleagues of Witt’s, who spoke on condition of anonymity because their current employers prohibit them from speaking to media outlets, said they were also unnerved by his habit of speaking about sex in the workplace.
Like Mullings, Spencer said he stopped working for Witt because of his alleged behavior. Before quitting, Spencer said Witt erupted on him in a December 2018 call after he made a suggestion for how to improve his website.
“What I was just really doing was offering suggestions that would make it work better, and he responded, ‘Are you out of your cotton-picking mind? I’m not handing this website over to you,’” Spencer said.
Spencer, who’s Black, said he interpreted Witt’s “cotton” comment as racially degrading.
After that exchange, Spencer said Witt locked him out of the accounts he used to access the site’s content management system. A few days later, Spencer said Witt apologized in an email for snapping at him.
Witt’s email, which was reviewed by The News, does not specifically reference the “cotton” remark, but states: “You just move way too quick for me … Again, my apologies and I do hope you stay on. If so, first thing in the morning, I’ll unlock you.”
Spencer, who briefly worked for The News on a freelance basis this year, said he didn’t take Witt up on his offer and never wrote for his outlets again.
Andrea Karshan, another ex-Witt employee, publicly accused him last month of acting in a “misogynist” manner toward her while she interned for Kings County Politics in 2016.
“He was a misogynist who treated me like I was lower than life,” Karshan tweeted on Nov. 11. “I told my college professor not to recommend any else (sic) do an internship there so they wouldn’t have to go through similar abuse.”
Karshan would not elaborate on her claims when contacted by The News.
Mayor Adams’ office declined to comment on the accusations against Witt.
Witt did not return requests for comment via phone and email this month, and neither did a deputy social services spokeswoman.
In announcing his six-figure salaried hire last month, a social services spokeswoman called Witt a “veteran journalist” who will spearhead press communications for the department.
Witt, 68, has a reputation in media circles for publishing controversial op-eds, including a 2019 piece that compared car reduction efforts in the city to the Holocaust.
Hank Sheinkopf, a political strategist who has penned columns for Witt’s outlets, said Adams is rolling the dice by giving Witt the social services job, which is managerial and comes with a six-figure salary.
“Should his past behavior be disqualifying? The mayor has opted for no, and the question then becomes: Will Witt meet the moment or will he embarrass the mayor?” Sheinkopf said.
Witt replaces Julia Savel, who was fired in August after accusing her boss, Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins, of attempting to cover up violations of the city’s right-to-shelter law. The Department of Investigation is probing the matter, and Jenkins has vehemently denied Savel’s accusations.