Speaking out for the first time since city investigators found he misused his city car to leave town for 90 days last year, Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte said he misunderstood city rules that barred his conduct.
“My personal understanding did not accurately reflect city policy,” Ponte said in testimony to the City Council.
The Department of Investigation revealed that Ponte had taken his city-issued car on frequent personal trips outside the city, mostly to his native Maine. It’s a violation of city rules to use government vehicles for anything except official business. Other top DOC officials were caught breaking the same rule.
“Given the unique nature of my work as commissioner of correction, pursuant to longstanding policy and practice, I am one of the select government executives who is entitled to a security detail, which includes staff and vehicle use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for city business and personal use. It is my understanding that the need for my protection and security is the same whether I perform an official or personal task,” Ponte said.
He claimed he didn’t realize those rules did not apply to his city car, although DOI says he was given paperwork outlining the regulations when he got his vehicle.
“I now recognize that this same standard does not apply to use of my personally assigned vehicle,” he said.
Ponte acknowledged he never actually took his security detail with him to Maine, and said he took his city car to Maine “probably every time I went.”
“I now recognize that this same standard does not apply to use of my personally assigned vehicle,” he said. “I misunderstood the city’s vehicle use policy.”
Mayor de Blasio has staunchly defended Ponte on the grounds that he was given bad advice that he was allowed to use his car for personal trips.
Pressed repeatedly to name the staffers who gave him that advice, Ponte said it came from his former chief of staff Sara Taylor and former first deputy Commissioner Mark Cranston, as well as members of his security detail.
The department is appointing a Department Vehicle Use Compliance auditor to make sure officials aren’t abusing their city cars, Ponte said.
“We now know that certain long-standing DOC practices did not accurately reflect the city vehicle use policy,” he said, adding the city is now updating its written rules on vehicle use.
Ponte has promised to reimburse the city for the gas, mileage and other expenses he racked up on his out of town trips.
DOC’s general counsel is determining whether other staffers should have to pay the city back, and if so how much, he said Monday.
Council members said that between corruption reports and persistent violence at Rikers Island, they’ve lost faith in jails leadership.
“I do not believe proper management is in place to meet DOC needs or bring about real reform to the city’s jails. And that starts with those at the top of the Department,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the fire and criminal justice committee.
Crowley pressed Ponte on how he could do his job while out of town for so many days, including 35 work days.
“I’m trying to figure out how you’re conducting real business in Maine, when all of the jail facilities are here in New York City,” she said. “How do you distinguish a work day from a vacation?”
Ponte said the distinction is “pretty obvious,” saying he does not believe DOI’s accounting of his travel schedule is accurate. He did not specify what in their report was incorrect.
Ponte said he relied on the aides’ advice because he thought they would know city rules. The guidance was never put in writing, but was “all oral,” he said.
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, chair of the finance committee, said the city has poured millions into Ponte and de Blasio’s plans to reduce violence, and seen persistent reports of “misuse of city resources and corruption.”
“All this, and Rikers is still in chaos,” she said. “It’s time, we believe, to scrap your plans and go back to the drawing board.”
The controversy over the cars — and revelations Monday that DOC officials were eavesdropping on DOI phone calls — overshadowed discussion of plans to close down Rikers, which de Blasio has pledged to do over the next decade.
Ponte revealed that like his boss de Blasio, he has not read a report by the Lippman Commission, which recommended closing the problem-plagued jail and laid out a detailed blueprint to get it done.
“It wasn’t a directive. It was a series of recommendations that will have to be vetted through City Hall,” Ponte said in explaining why he didn’t read it.
Ferreras was incredulous at the oversight. “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?” she said. “How can you implement this process if you haven’t read the report?”
Ponte ignored repeated questions from reporters as he left City Hall after testifying, walking out in stone-faced silence.