By Bill Parry
Joe Ponte, who has headed the Department of Correction since 2014, announced he was stepping down Friday after he drove his official vehicle to Maine on numerous occasions and failed to report his employees had listened in on city investigators’ calls to Rikers inmates.
He and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who defended his embattled commissioner amid the growing scandals, issued statements announcing Ponte’s retirement. No date was given.
Ponte, who had a national reputation as a prison reformer before being appointed by de Blasio in 2014, thanked the department “for the tremendous job they have done over the past three years to bring out meaningful reform and build a culture of safety.”
Under Ponte’s tenure solitary confinement ended for adolescents and 3,700 new Correction officers were hired, but violence continued to fester at Rikers Island, where some 9,000 inmates are held, as pressure mounted to shutter the notorious jail.
“New York City owes a debt of gratitude to Commissioner Ponte for his tireless efforts to change te culture and improve the effectiveness of one of the nation’s most challenging jail systems,” the mayor said in his 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.”
Ponte’s fate may have been sealed when City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan) broke with the mayor Wednesday asking him to turn in his resignation.
“There seems to be a lack of leadership and a lack of confidence within the agency,” Mark-Viverito said. “Those are real genuine concerns. For me, those are things that led me to this point.”
Councilman Rory Lancman, chairman of the Committee on Courts & Legal Services, said,” Joe Ponte is a decent man and I wish him well, but Correction commissioners come and go, while the nightmare that is Rikers Island is eternal.”
Ponte first ran into strong head winds April 28 when the city Department of Investigation reported he had driven his city-issued SUV to Maine and spent 90 days out of state, including 35 work days. The commissioner said he would repay the fuel costs and tolls. Several other Correction officials were also cited for violating city policy in the report.
Ponte was grilled by a trio of Queens City Council members during a two-hour-long budget hearing Monday.
“I’d like to go on the record saying that I do not believe proper management is in place to meet DOC needs or bring about real reform to the city’s jails,” City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) said in her opening remarks. “And that starts with those at the top of the department.”
The hearing grew more heated when City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) asked for the names of Correction officials who told Ponte 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, Mayor de Blasio had 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 on Monday, 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 “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 judgment,” de Blasio told NY1.
Lancman, a frequent critic of the mayor, questioned de Blasio’s strategy as the DOC scandal intensified.
“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.”
City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (D-East Elmhurst) was incensed to learn that Ponte, like the mayor, had not read the Lippman Commission report, which recommends closing Rikers Island and replacing the complex with smaller prisons in each borough.
“How can we as the Council and this city have confidence in your ability to run our jails if you haven’t read the document?” Ferreras-Copeland asked, “How can you implement this process if you haven’t read the report.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr