Joseph Ponte arrived in New York with a national reputation as a prison reformer in April 2014 when he was recruited by Mayor Bill de Blasio to head the Department of Correction. His resume included successful overhauls of prisons in seven states, including his last posting as head of the Maine correctional system.
Ponte, a former Marine who started off as a guard and worked his way up to commissioner, introduced a 14-point plan to reduce violence in New York City jails, particularly at Rikers — a notorious penal colony with about 10,000, often unruly, inmates.
He ended solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds. Serious incidents also dropped at Rikers.
Despite these achievements, Ponte, 70, seems to have lost his footing at some point during 2016.
An anonymous tip that Ponte and other high-ranking DOC employees were using their city-owned vehicles for personal business led the city Department of Investigation to launch an aggressive review.
In the early stages, DOI discovered that Ponte had driven his vehicle outside New York state on personal business for 90 calendar days in 2016, including 35 work days. The majority of those 28 trips were to coastal Maine, where he used to live.
Ponte took leave on only six of the 35 days and reported he was working an eight-hour day on the remaining 29 days, DOI said. His car was driven to DOC headquarters only four times at the end of these trips.
He put 18,500 miles on the odometer at taxpayers’ expense in violation of city policy, which prohibits personal use of work vehicles and unauthorized out-of-state trips.
It is ironic that DOI investigators left no stone unturned, consulting E-Z pass statements, gas card data and GPS data points to track the behavior of 21 DOC officials charged with making inmates toe the line in jail. The mayor defended Ponte, saying he was misinformed about the city vehicle usage policy.
But as Ponte was zipping around out of state in 2016, DOI pointed out there were 27 inmate stabbings or slashings, three attacks on Correction officers, the death of an on-duty staffer and an inmate escape in city jails. Although the commissioner said he was on 24-hour call, he never responded to these incidents from Maine, DOI said.
Ponte has agreed to pay the city back for $1,345 in gas and $746.56 in tolls, but that will not repair his damaged reputation. He and the other DOC brass will be referred for discipline while three lower-level city workers were just suspended and fined for less serious violations of city car policy.
The question remains: Is Ponte still fit to run one of the toughest correction departments in the country after these ethical lapses?