NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A new report accuses Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte of using a city car to visit his home state of Maine and was away for 90 days last year while Rikers Island dealt with several violent incidents.
According to the report by the Department of Investigation, Ponte was at his home in Maine during 27 violent incidents at city jails, including the death of an on-duty staffer, three correction officer slashings, and an inmate escape.
“We interviewed the correction commissioner and he conceded that it would not be possible for him to return from Maine,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said.
Ponte is one of 21 senior correction department members who “systemically” misused city vehicles to take personal trips during the work week and go to casinos, resorts, birthdays, and shopping, according to the report.
“That is not acceptable,” Peters said. “It comes at a time that we are trying to bring order to Rikers, you can’t do that when the most senior people in the city’s jails are not following the rules.”
A correction department spokesperson said the commissioner and his staff are on call 24/7 and can work from anywhere thanks to technology, but that “any disregard of city rules and regulations was an inadvertent misunderstanding.”
But Peters said that’s no excuse.
“It is troubling for the commissioner of a law enforcement agency to say that he didn’t know the rules,” Peters said. “There’s no way for leadership to impose safety and order and to get people to follow the rules when they don’t follow the rules themselves.”
On his weekly radio appearance on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said he understands the concern and that he has “absolute faith” in Ponte.
The mayor said Ponte “was told by his own internal staff this was the right way to handle things.”
“He’s someone who is on call 24 hours a day. If he leaves the city – which he has every right to do on personal matters – for example he needs to get back as quickly as possible. A lot of times it’s quicker to get back by car,” de Blasio said, adding that Ponte “was advised. He followed that guidance. That guidance was wrong.”
Minutes after the mayor’s comments, Peters issued another statement saying, “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. Indeed, one of the senior staff was previously fined by COIB for related conduct. There can be no defense of this behavior and City Hall harms government integrity by even trying.”
The investigation is ongoing.