NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The head of New York City’s Department of Correction retired Friday amid growing pressure over his use of a city-issued vehicle.
Joseph Ponte announced his retirement several months earlier than he planned.
“New York City owes a debt of gratitude to Commissioner Ponte for his tireless efforts to change the culture and improve the effectiveness of one of the nation’s most challenging jail systems,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was out of town Friday, said in a statement. “While much work remains, there is no doubt that our city’s jails are safer, more rehabilitative, and more humane as a result of Commissioner Ponte’s work. As we continue the search for our next commissioner, I will be looking for the same experience and progressive commitment to smart, effective correctional policy that Commissioner Ponte’s career has epitomized.”
Said Ponte: “I want to thank the uniformed and non-uniformed staff of the Department of Correction for the tremendous job they have done over the past three years to bring about meaningful reform and build a culture of safety at the Department. Without their hard work, the comprehensive reforms of the 14-point anti-violence reform agenda would not have gotten off the ground. That agenda is their agenda.”
As late as Thursday, de Blasio continued to defend the embattled Ponte despite the controversy surrounding the commissioner’s use of a city vehicle for repeated trips to his home in Maine.
“How much longer are you going to keep him? How much longer will Ponte be in your administration?” CBS2’s Marcia Kramer asked.
“I believe he’s doing a very good job,” de Blasio replied. “I’d like to see him doing the job. He will make his own decisions.”
But the commissioner’s days at the helm quickly became numbered, further unraveling Monday when he allegedly lied under oath during a City Council hearing, CBS2’s Janelle Burrell reported.
Ponte told council members that he was told he was permitted to take the car, which he drove more than 18,500 miles — the city covering all of the expenses.
“What are the identities of the people who provided you the guidance that the mayor referred to?” one councilman asked during the hearing.
“Staff on the commissioner’s detail, the chief of staff, people in office at the time I arrived,” Ponte said.
But the people he said gave him the go-ahead disputed those claims.
“Commissioner Ponte, did you lie under oath in the City Council when you said Mark Cranston and others said you could take your car out of town when they say they didn’t?” Kramer asked Ponte earlier this week.
“I’m not going to get into who said what to who,” he responded.
Elias Husamudeen, the head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, was among those who demanded the commissioner be fired, saying Ponte, who had served in the role since 2014, should be held accountable.
“That says double standards,” he said. “The mayor chooses to stick his head in the sand and say, ‘Hey, nothing wrong.'”
Husamudeen was also critical of Ponte’s tenure.
“He’s leaving this agency in a worse condition than when he found it,” Husamudeen told CBS2’s Tony Aiello. “This is no retirement. He’s not retiring. This is a resignation. This is a firing.”
In addition to Ponte, the report slammed two deputy commissioners and the chief of staff for their own egregious misuse of city vehicles.
Good government advocate Dick Dadey said it reflects very poorly on the de Blasio administration.
“There seems to be a culture at the Corrections Department that we’re here to use the resources as we wish to use them without any respect for rules or guidelines or ethics,” Dadey said.
De Blasio said Ponte will reimburse the city for every mile, gallon of gas and toll. As CBS2’s Andrea Grymes reports, the costs total $10,000.
Now, the search is on for a replacement.
“I want the mayor to pick someone who knows what the hell they’re doing,” Husamudeen said.
The union says the bigger issue is the increase in jail violence. The report found there were a variety of serious incidents over the 90 days Ponte was out of state, including 27 inmate stabbings or slashings and three slashings of corrections officers.