City Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte is officially hitting the highway for good.
Mayor de Blasio confirmed Friday that Ponte is stepping down after it was revealed he’d spent 90 days out of town last year, cruising to Maine in a city car he should not have used for personal business.
De Blasio, who through Thursday night professed his confidence in Ponte, couched the 70-year-old’s resignation as a “retirement.”
“Joe Ponte has spent his life reforming jails. New York City owes a debt of gratitude to Commissioner Ponte for his tireless efforts to change the culture and improve the effectiveness of one of the nation’s most challenging jail systems,” de Blasio — who himself was out of state in a city car Friday — said in a 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 resignation came as the city’s Department of Investigation continued to investigate the commissioner’s claim that he worked multiple full eight-hour days during many of the workdays when he was at his home in coastal Maine last year.
The commissioner was in Maine 90 days in 2016, including 35 work days. He claimed he was working full eight-hour days during 29 of those days, and took vacation days on the other six.
On Friday when the Daily News asked for details about the 29 days, DOI spokeswoman Diane Struzzi declined to provide the requested information, stating, “This is an ongoing investigation and DOI declines further comment.”
DOI forward its report on the misuse of Department of Correction vehicles to the “appropriate authority” and declined to discuss the matter further. The city Conflicts of Interest Board — which could impose fines on Ponte and any of the other correction staff who used vehicles for personal use without reimbursing the city — typically handles these types of infractions.
It’s estimated that Ponte owes the city nearly $ 10,000 in mileage fees, plus $ 1,043 for gas and $ 746 in E-ZPass charges for his out-of-state trips. He has said he will reimburse the city.
Ponte didn’t mention the investigations in a statement, instead thanking the department’s staff for the work they’ve done “to bring about meaningful reform and build culture of safety” at the department. He also touted his 14-point plan to reduce violence.
“I am happy to have spent the last chapter of my career in New York City. It was a privilege to work with the men and women of the Department as we reduced violence and the overuse of punitive segregation, brought on 3,700 new officers, retrained a large part of the staff, added thousands of security cameras, and provided new opportunities for education and training for inmates, among many other initiatives,” he said.
Cynthia Brann, deputy commissioner of quality assurance and integrity, will be named acting commissioner after Ponte leaves in June, according to multiple sources. Brann spent 26 years with the Maine Department of Corrections where Ponte previously served as commissioner. The DOI report found Brann too had also misused her city issued car. She made 18 trips to malls in New York and New Jersey with the vehicle, according to DOI.
On Friday, a City Hall spokeswoman said Ponte’s last day had not been finalized and no immediate successor has been selected.
But de Blasio said he’d look for someone like Ponte.
“I will be looking for the same experience and progressive commitment to smart, effective correctional policy that Commissioner Ponte’s career has epitomized,” he said.
Not all of city government shared the mayor’s confidence in Ponte. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had called for him to step down this week.
“We thank Commissioner Ponte for his service and look forward to our continued work with the Administration to close Rikers Island and to make the criminal justice system more fair and responsive to the needs to of all New Yorkers,” she said Friday.
Friday morning, Controller Scott Stringer said the city ought to kick off a national search to replace Ponte.
“I think the outcome was fairly predictable — this was not gonna end well and now the real challenge is the mayor and the administration must engage a nationwide search to immediately, sooner rather than later, get a new commissioner in there,” Stringer said.
Replacing Ponte will be no easy task: De Blasio will have to find a commissioner committed to reform and who is on board with his promise to close Rikers Island in the next 10 years.
Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice at the Legal Aid Society — whose lawsuits have led to federally mandated action in the city’s jails — said Ponte had shared a desire to achieve reform, though she wasn’t sure whether he’d consider the goals he shared accomplished. Commissioners come and go, she said, and it would be up to the mayor and the City Council to hold the next one to promises of reform. She urged the city to choose someone who’d read former chief judge Jonathan Lippman’s report on how to close Rikers Island, which both the mayor and commissioner haven’t read in full.
“There’s a real opportunity here. So now that there is a plan and there is a written plan — and hopefully everybody will read the plan,” she said. “The next person should be somebody who is going to help you do that, who has done this before and who buys into the plan.”
The next commissioner will also have to contend with the correction officers’ union, which has railed against Ponte’s reforms, especially the ending of solitary confinement for 18 to 21 year olds. Elias Husamudeen, the union’s president, said Ponte had left the department worse than he’d found it, citing spikes in several categories of violence.
“They can say that he found it in a mess,” Husamudeen said. “He found this house in much better condition than the way he’s leaving it.”