Under Fire on Pair Of Fronts, Ponte Resigns As Jail Commissioner

By: 
MARK TOOR

Concluding two miserable weeks of negative news about his personal use of a city vehicle and a deputy’s alleged spying on another agency, Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte retired May 12.

Mayor de Blasio appointed Mr. Ponte, who had headed the Department of Corrections for the State of Maine, in Spring 2014 in hope that he would reform the city’s troub­led jails on Rikers Island.

Not All Changes Welcome

 

With the support of Mr. de Blasio and millions of dollars in additional funds, Mr. Ponte eliminated solitary confinement for inmates aged 21 and under and limited it for older prisoners, created restricted housing units for violent inmates, added education and counseling programs, and increased the number of Correction Officers.

But correction unions contend that the solitary-confinement restrictions robbed them of a key tool for controlling dangerous inmates and that violence increased 18 percent last year over 2015. They say the Department of Correction has changed the way it classifies incidents to make it seem that violence is going down.

Mr. Ponte was damaged further by the Department of Investigation report April 28 that said he had spent 90 days last year out of state, mostly in Maine, with his city-owned vehicle, and had rolled up a bill of almost $1,800 for gas and tolls on those trips.

Pressure on him intensified May 8 when DOI char­ged that one of his deputies had broken city rules by eavesdropping on conversations between DOI investigators and inmate informants.

Speaker’s Call a Key

Mr. de Blasio defended him repeatedly, but seemed to lose some of his enthusiasm after a close ally, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, May 10 called on Mr. Ponte to resign.

He said the following day on WNYC that he still believed the Commissioner had “done everything that we asked him to do.” In an almost-plaintive note, he added, “It’s one of the toughest jobs in city government and all people want to talk about is the God-forsaken cars.”

“I am happy to have spent the last chapter of my career in New York City,” Mr. Ponte, 70, said in a statement announcing his retirement. “It was a privilege to work with the men and women of the department as we reduced violence and the overuse of punitive segregation [solitary], 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.

“I’m confident that all the hard work we’ve accomplished has positioned the department for even more meaningful reform,” he said.

Mayor: Made Jails Safer

Mayor de Blasio issued his own statement praising Mr. Ponte. “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. 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.

“As we continue the search for our next commissioner, I will be looking for the same experience and progressive commitment to smart, effective correctional policy that Commissioner Ponte’s career has epitomized.”

The unions were less kind.

“He created a mess,” Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers Benev­olent Association, said in an interview with THE CHIEF-LEADER after Mr. Ponte’s resignation. “It’s not a retirement. It’s a resignation in lieu of a firing. What’s more disheartening is they’re trying to act like the last two weeks never happened, like the last three years never happened.”

The statistics on violence behind bars were lower before Mr. Ponte took over, Mr. Husamudeen said.

Help They Don’t Need?

He added that he had received a teletype message from the Department of Correction saying Mr. Ponte would remain to help with the nationwide search for his successor.

“Why would we want him to help clean up what he messed up?” the union leader said. “What’s he going to tell them, how to take a car out of town?”

He noted that the city did not conduct a nationwide search to fill recent openings for Police, Fire and Sanitation commissioner; those jobs were filled from the ranks. “We have retired Chiefs and Commissioners who came up through the ranks and left this agency in better shape than it is now,” he said.

Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains Association, said that he didn’t agree with the limitations placed on solitary confinement, but that the problem was not Mr. Ponte but Mr. de Blasio.

Starts, Ends at City Hall

“I strongly believe any Commissioner under de Blasio is going to go in that direction,” he said. “Otherwise he won’t be Commissioner. De Blasio’s the one who’s putting us in danger, who made the correction officers the bad guys and the inmates into the victims. You need to replace de Blasio if you want change.”

As a union leader, he was happy with Mr. Ponte, he said. “When I needed to go to him because a guy was in trouble, he always took the time to speak to the Captain and make a quick decision, and 99 percent of the time he made the right decision. So I’m not kicking him when he’s down.”

The Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association said Mr. Ponte seem­ed to care about correction officers. But “his policies were ineffective, feckless and produced a negative result,” said former President Sidney Schwartzbaum, acting as a spokesman for the current president, Faisal Zouhbi.

“Mayor de Blasio saying there has been tremendous progress is a fantasy,” Mr. Schwartzbaum continued. “Eight correction officers were stabbed and slashed last year. In my 37 years in corrections, the number had never exceeded one a year.”

Major Complaints

He particularly criticized the elimination of punitive segregation for inmates aged 21 and under. “There can never be reform without control,” he said.

Discussing changes in the way DOC counts violent incidents, he said, “The fact that they eliminated throwing of urine and feces from the statistics on assaults on officers was a total manipulation.”

DOI dropped a second shoe with the statement by Commissioner Mark Peters May 8 that “over a period of months this year, DOC staff, including at the direction of [Deputy Commissioner for Investigations Gregory] Kuc­zinski, used DOC technology to listen to calls placed between DOI and certain confidential informants.

‘Deliberately Targeted’

“DOI’s investigation dem­onstrated that this was not inadvertent, but that DOC staff deliberately targeted DOI investigators for surveillance, and that they continued the surveillance even after written directives that such surveillance was to end. City rules expressly prohibit surveillance by DOC of calls made to DOI.”

DOC routinely monitors inmates’ phone calls, but is supposed to disconnect when it finds the conversation involves certain individuals, including attorneys, physicians or DOI investigators.

Mr. Peters said he had recommended that Mr. de Blasio fire Mr. Kuczinski. “His failure to demonstrate sound judgment in this matter raises concerns about his ability to oversee the Investigation and Intelligence Divisions,” the statement said.

 

DOI said it was particularly concerned that the surveillance took place after DOC learned that its officials were being investigated for use of take-home cars. Its report April 28 said nearly two dozen other DOC officials had employed their vehicles for personal use for trips including shopping, the beach and area airports.

Ponte Denied Spying

Mr. Ponte told the Times that there was no improper eavesdropping. Mr. Kuczinski, who had been previously fined by the city Conflicts of Interest Board for having a subordinate drive him and his family at the start of their vacation, told the paper that the allegations were “ridiculous.” But by the end of the day May 8 he was placed on modified duty.

The Mayor’s Office seemed to take this more seriously than the report about the take-home cars. “We will work with the Department of Correction and the Department of Investigation to determine what happened and what changes must occur to ensure that it doesn’t happen again,” said spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas.

In the wake of the report on the cars, COBA called for Mr. Ponte to resign, and the Assistant Deputy Wardens/

Dep­uty Wardens Association also criticized the double standard. Current and former correction officers bemoaned the perceived special treatment, asking what would happen to one of them after a similar violation.

Victim of Bad Advice?

In defending Mr. Ponte, Mr. de Blasio said he had done a fine job as Correction Commissioner, was an honorable man with no intent to defraud the city, and was acting on bad advice from subordinates. The Mayor said Mr. Ponte would repay the city for the gas and tolls he used on his out-of-town trips.

Mr. de Blasio kept insisting that Mr. Ponte was too trusting even after Mr. Peters said, “Our investigation conclusively demonstrated that Commissioner Ponte and others did not receive official ‘advice’ that they could use their cars for personal trips out of state.”

Where the alleged advice came from became a major question.

Denials by Ex-Aides

Mr. Ponte said during a City Council hearing May 8 that he got it from ex-Chief of Staff Sara Taylor and former Acting Commissioner Mark Cranston. He also said his driver, a Correction Officer, had told him he could take the car out of state for personal business.

“I never advised Commissioner Ponte that it is permissible to take a city-owned car out of state for personal purposes,” Ms. Taylor, now an Assistant Dean at the New York University School of Law, told the New York Times.

“At no time did I have a conversation with Joe Ponte telling him he was allowed to use any city-owned vehicle contrary to existing departmental policy,” said Mr. Cran­ston, now Director of Corrections for Middlesex County, N.J.

The driver, who is now retired, could not be reached for comment. Mr. Ponte told the Council that he was not clear on city rules governing the use of take-home vehicles. “My personal understanding did not accurately reflect city policy,” he said.

DOI countered that he was given a copy of the rules when he was assigned the vehicle.

‘Lost Confidence’

Two days after the Council hearing, Ms. Mark-Viverito said, “Commissioner Ponte should step down. I don’t have confidence in his leadership any longer.”

She noted that lower-level employees had been fined or even fired for similar misuse of city resources. “We don’t want to create double standards in this city,” the Council Speaker said.