High-ranking officials in the Department of Corrections used their city-issued work vehicles to take personal trips to shopping malls, airports, beaches, spas and resorts last year, the city's Department of Investigation says.
DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte is among the 21 high-ranking staff accused of misusing city-owned cars and costing the city thousands of dollars in gas and tolls for the personal trips, the DOI said in its report Friday.
"This widespread disregard of policy undercuts DOC's ability to ensure order and discipline at an agency already struggling to control violence and crime in its jails, issues that DOI has been investigating for the past three years," said DOI Commissioner Mark Peters.
DOI tracked GPS and gas card data as well as E-ZPass statements, and found that the staffers were taking trips out of state or outside of the city on weekends and holidays without any corresponding trip sheets.
They justified their trips to DOI by saying they considered themselves to be on 24-hour call. But the DOI says none of them actually ever responded to any departmental emergency from their remote locations -- and besides, the city's Department of Administrative Services says no such policy or on-call exception exists.
Ponte drove his city-owned car out of the state for multiple days at a time last year, with many of those 28 trips to area of coastal Maine, the DOI says. He also used the vehicle out of the state on personal business for 90 calendar days in 2016.
Chief of Staff Jeff Thamkittikasem used his city car to drive to a friend's house in Virginia for a birthday party, and told DOI he considered it work because he was answering phone calls and emails while out of town, investigators said.
Acting First Deputy Commissioner Cynthia Brann told DOI she used her city car on weekends for shopping, including trips to Woodbury Commons Outlets and the Gallery at Westbury Plaza.
Deputy Commissioner Gregoy Kuczinski took over 20 trips to Westchester in his city car, including on a vacation day to go golfing, and taking multiple trips to Kennedy Airport and LaGuardia Airport to transport family. He had previously been fined $1,500 by the Conflicts of Interest Board for having a subordinate take him and his family to JFK for a family vacation in 2015.
The DOI also found sloppy recordkeeping by the DOC, and that staff routinely failed to submit or maintain monthly trip sheets.
It made several recommendations to the DOC, including reissuing rules and regulations surrounding the use of city-assigned vehicles and having staffers acknowledge getting them; enforcing better bookkeeping and trip-tracking; conducting periodic audits of E-ZPass and gas card usage; and conducting annual audits of vehicle usage.
Correction Department spokesman Peter Thorne says any rule violation was a misunderstanding and won't recur. He adds that Ponte and his senior staff are on call 24/7.
The mayor's office says Ponte has presided over "sweeping reforms" and it's not focusing on how often he has visited his family on weekends.
"He's the guy who created a system where our inmates get education training that keeps them doing positive things, it works on their rehabilitation instead of sitting around and fostering violence," de Blasio said Friday. "He's the guy who's brought down violence in a host of ways."
De Blasio reiterated that Ponte was following what he thought was proper guidanace: "That guidance was wrong. We're gonna go fix it across these agencies, and if there's anything that needs to be done to compensate, we'll work that out."