Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte is among several high-ranking DOC employees who routinely misused city-owned vehicles, taking regular trips out of state and racking up thousands in taxpayer money for gas and tolls on personal vacations, according to a new report released by the Department of Investigation.
In total, 21 DOC staffers are accused of abusing their vehicle privileges on trips to Niagara Falls, the Hamptons, Cape Cod, the Mohegan Sun casino and the Poconos—something “expressly prohibited by City policy, DOC’s own policy, and Conflicts of Interest laws,” according to the report. The DOI estimates that corrections employees owe the city over $20,000 in unreimbursed gas expenses.
The DOI specifically cites Ponte, the commissioner brought in by de Blasio to clean up Rikers in 2014, for “most serious misuse.” It found that Ponte spent 90 days out of the state in 2016, 35 of which were during the workweek. According to the DOI, Ponte was absent during a series of infamous incidents at Rikers, including the death of at least one inmate and one on-duty corrections officer.
Asked about the report during his regular Ask The Mayor segment on The Brian Lehrer Show, Mayor de Blasio brushed away concerns about the commissioner, noting that he’d “just released an $84 billion budget, so the fact that there’s $1,000 in gas expenses—let’s have some perspective here.”
He reiterated his “absolute faith in Commissioner Ponte,” and claimed that “he was advised, he followed that guidance, that guidance was wrong.” When pressed by Lehrer about whether he was at all concerned that the commissioner had spent over a quarter of the year outside the city, de Blasio responded: “Bottom line to me is that the job is getting done. The statistic, the facts, are stunning.”
Minutes after de Blasio’s comments, Department of Investigations Commissioner Mark Peters released a statement saying that, “City Hall is misinformed. Our investigation conclusively demonstrated that Commissioner Ponte and others did not receive official ‘advice’ that they could use their cars for personal trips out of state.”
“There can be no defense of this behavior and City Hall harms government integrity by even trying,” the DOI Commissioner added. “Regardless of City Hall’s response, our independent investigation will continue.”