No recent New York City mayor has gotten through his years in office without a corruption scandal, and Mayor Bill de Blasio is no exception. One critical difference exists, however, between this mayor and his predecessors: de Blasio has explicitly defended a top-level commissioner accused of serious, willful, repeated misuse of taxpayer resources.
Last week, the city’s independent Department of Investigation announced that, using GPS and toll-collection data, it had found that the Department of Corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, had, during 2016, driven “his assigned [city] vehicle out of New York State on 28 occasions, for multiple days at a time, with many of the trips to areas of Coastal Maine, and used his vehicle outside of New York State on personal business for 90 calendar days . . . approximately 24.6 percent of the calendar year.” Ponte logged 18,500 miles on his city SUV for personal trips during 2016, charging the city for $1,043 in gas and $746.56 in tolls. After investigators released their report, journalists found witnesses in Maine who said that Ponte’s wife was driving the SUV, as well.
A New York mayor oversees 26 major departments, from police to parks to recreation. Not all his appointments will turn out to be sound. Under former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, finance commissioner Martha Stark fell under scrutiny for, among other problems, keeping on board a deputy commissioner’s spouse after he was found to have billed the city for hours that he hadn’t worked. She resigned soon afterward. Bloomberg’s administration also had to use the criminal and civil legal systems to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in money stolen via kickbacks for the CityTime payroll-upgrade project.
Before Bloomberg, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani showed questionable judgment in hiring the son of a political ally to run the housing department. After Giuliani left office, the man, Russell Harding, was later charged with embezzlement and child pornography. And under eighties-era mayor Ed Koch, the top transportation official and much of his team resigned amid a bribery scandal that also led to the suicide of the Queens borough president.
But it’s hard to remember any of these mayors outright defending corruption. In fact, Koch reported years later that scandals on his watch had plunged him into severe depression. Not so with de Blasio, who maintains his what-me-worry arrogance even when it comes to top-level misconduct.
Commissioner Ponte’s behavior violates city rules and is outright theft. When one considers the depreciation of the city’s SUV, Ponte systemically and willfully stole thousands of dollars from the city. Perhaps most outrageously, Ponte didn’t even use this car for city business: investigators found that he commuted from his home to headquarters only four times, “either immediately before or after an extended trip out of town.”
Besides the theft, the investigators uncovered worrisome signs about Ponte’s work habits. He spent 35 full workdays—seven weeks—outside of New York, even as Rikers Island, the jail that he oversees, struggles with violence among inmates and between inmates and guards. On 29 of those days, he reported himself as on the job. “A variety of serious incidents . . . occurred . . . when Commissioner Ponte was out-of-state with the city vehicle, including 27 inmate-on-inmate stabbings . . . three slashings of DOC officers, an on-duty death of staff, an unexpected death of an inmate, and an inmate escape,” the report notes.
The city, then, has put not only a thief in charge of this critical agency but a shirker, too: imagine if your boss found out that you had clocked in for seven weeks when you were on vacation. DOI commissioner Mark Peters can’t fire or prosecute anyone. But he can—and has—referred this case for possible criminal prosecution, because, he says, senior officials “must be accountable for their actions.” The only appropriate response from the mayor is to get rid of Ponte immediately.
Instead, de Blasio has defended his corrupt commissioner. In a radio interview last week, the mayor professed “absolute faith” in Ponte. He went on to say that Ponte “was told by his own internal staff that this was the right way to handle things,” because “if he leaves the city . . . he needs to get back as quickly as possible,” and “a lot of times it is quicker to get back by car.” As for the thousands of dollars in misappropriated resources, de Blasio said that “if there needs to be anything done to compensate, we’ll work that out.” After the incredulous host, Brian Lehrer, pressed him on this response, de Blasio said that “I want to remind you that I just released an $84 billion budget, so the fact that there’s $1,000 in gas expenses, you know, it’s put in perspective.”
It’s hard to know where to start here. De Blasio seems uninterested in learning the facts. As Peters, the DOI commissioner, said after the radio exchange, “City Hall is misinformed. Our investigation conclusively demonstrated that . . . Ponte and others did not receive official ‘advice’ that they could use their cars for personal trips out of state . . . There can be no defense of this behavior and City Hall harms government integrity by even trying.”
Perhaps worst of all is the idea that the city can afford the odd felony theft by top-level employees here and there because it spends lots of money. De Blasio loves the idea of raising taxes, even when the city is flush with cash. This year, he wants the state to allow him to levy a new charge on New Yorkers struggling to buy an expensive city apartment. But even people who support higher taxes won’t do so for long if they see that the city is not safeguarding their money.
Behind seemingly inexplicable behavior, though, is usually a rational explanation. De Blasio and his top staff have themselves broken the “intent and spirit” of laws meant to discourage corruption, prosecutors have found (though they didn’t find enough to bring charges). Ponte was caught because of an anonymous tip. Perhaps the mayor is concerned that if he’s not nice to his appointees, even when they’re stealing, investigators will receive more such anonymous tips.
Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office