Mayor defends DOC commissioners use of city vehicle for out of state trips

Mayor defends DOC commissioners use of city vehicle for out of state trips
Photo by Bill Parry
By Bill Parry

Mayor Bill de Blasio has insisted on defending his embattled commissioner at the city’s Department of Correction over his misuse of government-supplied vehicles.

DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte, and several other high-ranking department officials, will reimburse the city after a scathing Department of Investigation report showed they had broken the city’s Conflict of Interest rules by using their city-owned vehicles for unauthorized trips.

Ponte was found to have used his assigned city vehicle outside of New York State on 28 occasions in 2016, mostly for trips to Maine, and that he drove the vehicle outside the state on personal business for 90 calendar days, charging the city for $1,043 in gas and $746.56 in tolls. He headed Maine’s prison system until moving to New York in 2014 to become commissioner.

During his weekly appearance on NY1 Monday, the mayor provided more cover for Ponte saying he simply received bad advice.

“We’ve said very clearly that what happened at the Department of Correction was a mistake,” de Blasio said. “Joseph Ponte’s done a great job as commissioner. He’s gotten a lot done for this city. He’s made our correction system a lot better, but he was ill-advised by colleagues, I believe, and made a mistake, and he’s been very straightforward about it. He never intended to do anything wrong, and I think he’s doing the right thing by making the city whole.”

When the mayor first used the in-the-dark defense to shield Ponte during a radio broadcast last week, Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, the former treasurer of de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, blasted his boss.

“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 the state,” Peters said in a statement issued last Friday. “Indeed, one of the senior staff was previously fined by the COIB (Conflict of Interest Board) for related conduct. There can be no defense of this behavior and City Hall harms government integrity by even trying. Regardless of City Hall’s response, our independent investigation will continue.”

And yet the mayor repeated the defense of Ponte Monday. Host Errol Louis asked if he was out of the city for 90 days last year, did Ponte have his head in the job?

“Judge by his results. Look what he achieved. This is the guy that got rid of punitive segregation for young people on Rikers Island who fundamentally changed the nature of how we handled violent inmates to make the situation safer, who instituted much greater training for our correction officers,” de Blasio said. “I mean, you go down the list of reforms he’s put in place in just three years in a place that had not been changed in many, many years before that. It’s a tough job, and he’s done it well.

“Some people take weekends, I don’t begrudge them. Michael Bloomberg used to go to Bermuda on the weekends. A lot of attention wasn’t put on that. Look, I think he’s done his job. He’s done it well. And I want to see him continue doing it.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.