MIDTOWN — Department of Correction head Joseph Ponte and other executive staff misused their city-provided vehicles last year, racking up thousands of dollars in expenses for personal trips as far away as Maine and Virginia, according to a Department of Investigation report released Friday.
The commissioner and up to 25 staff members used their vehicles to make the trips or transport family members, which violates city policy restricting take-home cars from "personal activities, except for required rest periods, meals, and brief stops incidental to the conduct of official City business,” the DOI report stated.
Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted on his radio show with Brian Lehrer on WNYC Friday that Commissioner Ponte was “instructed” by internal staff that he could use his vehicle for some personal use — but the mayor was immediately slapped by DOI Commissioner Mark Peters who released a statement within minutes saying that City Hall was “misinformed” about the case.
“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,” Peters said in a statement.
“Indeed, one of the senior staff was previously fined by COIB for related conduct. There can be no defense of this behavior and City Hall harms government integrity by even trying. Regardless of City Hall’s response, our independent investigation will continue.”
Ponte racked up $1,043.44 in out-of-state gas charges and $746.56 in E-Z Pass expenses after driving 18,500 miles for non-city business trips, according to the DOI.
The investigation found that 21 DOC employees used their vehicles to travel to locations including Maine, Cape Cod, the Mohegan Sun casino, coastal Virginia and 16 trips to shopping outlets like Woodbury Commons
DOC spokesman Peter Thorne said such disregard for city rules were an “inadvertent misunderstanding” and their policy regarding vehicles would change.“Commissioner Ponte and his senior staff are on call all day, all night, all year. Despite the need for them to be away from the city periodically, thanks to cellphones and computers, the work of the department does not grind to a halt,” Thorne said in a statement.“The Department will comply with all DOI recommendations on how to improve its compliance with City rules and regulations governing vehicle use, and we consider this matter closed.”
The DOC is provided about 100 take-home vehicles, which are assigned to workers by the agency.
The agency’s own policy states, “New York City vehicles may be used only within New York State except when the vehicle operator’s chain of command approves such use prior to the out-of-state trip,” according to the report.
The investigation started last April after the DOE received an anonymous tip about Ponte.
Investigators analyzed 98 vehicle usage maps using GPS.
DOI recommended that citywide rules should be reissued to workers, city drivers maintain trip sheets and that DOC conduct annual audits looking at things like E-ZPass and gas card usage.