By Bill Parry
Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted on defending the embattled head of the city’s prison system as a scandal over the commissioner’s improper use of official vehicles deepened.
Hours after Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte was grilled at a City Hall hearing Monday and a deputy commissioner was stripped of most of his duties, de Blasio continued to provide cover for the man who was brought to town to reform the culture of violence on Rikers Island.
“The most important thing is, does a commissioner do a good job? Is the department doing what it is supposed to be doing,” The mayor said during his weekly appearance on NY1. “Obviously, he has done a very good job and he’s helped to change the culture on Rikers Island profoundly and make that department work a lot better.”
Earlier in the day at the hearing, City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) asked Ponte for the names of DOC officials who told him it was alright to use city-issued vehicles on frequent trips to his home in Maine last year, following allegations made by the city’s Department of Investigation 11 days earlier. On several occasions since, the mayor has given his commissioner a pass saying Ponte was given incorrect guidance from staff members.
“It serves no purpose to name people,” Ponte began. “It was people who worked in the commissioner’s office at the time, people who –”
Lancman cut off Ponte, who was testifying under oath.
“Maybe you’re not aware of the way this works,” Lancman said. “This is the City Council. We ask you questions, you’re under oath. It’s not for you, sir, to decide what serves a purpose or what doesn’t serve a purpose. So I’m going to ask you again. What are the identities of the people who provided you the guidance that the mayor referred to?”
Ponte went on to name two officials from the Bloomberg administration: Mark Cranston, a first deputy when Ponte came on board in 2014, and former chief of staff Sarah Taylor. Both have denied giving Ponte such advice. Earlier in the day, Deputy Commissioner Gregory Kuczinski was put on modified duty after listening to Department of Investigation phone calls.
“They had inadvertently listened to some calls,” Ponte said. DOI Commissioner Mark Peters called for Kuczinski’s ouster after a probe found he had “engaged in unauthorized undercover operations.”
Again, the mayor provided cover.
“Our understanding, based on the information received so far, it was not necessarily a situation to remove him entirely from the agency or from public employment but remove him from work that involved that kind of judgement,” de Blasio told NY1.
Lancman, a frequent critic of the mayor, questioned de Blasio’s strategy as the DOC imbroglio grows.
“The mayor is setting a very poor example by fomenting a culture of corruption and indifference by brushing off this kind of conduct at the highest levels of his administration,” Lancman said. “I think people are growing more outraged at the mayor’s indifference to the legitimate questions that are being asked more than the questions about a commissioner’s use of a city vehicle. Look, it’s a big bureaucracy and people make mistakes. The commissioner should have gotten up and explained he had a lapse in judgment and the mayor should have called it unacceptable.
“We don’t expect perfection or sainthood from our officials, but when you start making up stories, that’s not acceptable.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr