News & Politics

De Blasio’s Correction Department Needs Correcting Twice In Two Weeks

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Top Department of Correction employees deliberately spied on city investigators for months after they were told to stop, according to a statement from the Department of Investigation released today. Yet the head of the correction department, Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who is still reeling from a separate investigation showing that he unlawfully used city vehicles, assured the City Council that the surveillance was inadvertent.

It’s a little long story,” Ponte told City Councilmembers, when asked why his department was spying on DOI investigators in the first place. According to Ponte, the communications were swept up as an “inadvertent” consequence of data-mining recorded phone calls. After being notified that this was happening, “we stopped listening to those calls,” Ponte testified. “We had no interest in impeding any DOI investigation.”

According to the statement by DOI Commissioner Mark Peters, correction employees, including Gregory Kuczinski, the deputy commissioner for the Department of Correction’s Investigation Division and Correction Intelligence Bureau, used DOC technology to listen in on conversations between DOI investigators and their confidential informants, presumably through the department’s Telephone Monitoring Unit, which listens in on the phone calls of inmates in city jails.

The DOI is the city government’s in-house watchdog, tasked with investigating and reporting on waste, fraud, and abuse within other city agencies. Because of this important role, city rules expressly forbid the sort of surveillance that Peters’s statement describes.

Peters says the surveillance was no accident. “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.”

Kuczinski told the New York Times that he first learned of the recordings in February, when another correction official told him he believed the recordings showed DOI investigators were seeking to frame correction officials.

Awkwardly for Ponte, the DOI’s announcement this morning came hours before he was scheduled to give sworn testimony before the City Council. Questioned by councilmembers, Ponte testified that he was told the DOI’s calls were “inadvertently” listened to.

Asked why they were listening in on DOI communications without authorization, Peters writes, “none of the DOC staff were able to provide a coherent explanation for this misconduct.” Kuczinski and other DOC employees were directed not to spy on DOI conversations, but the spying started back up immediately after Kuczinski and other senior correction staff learned that the DOI was preparing a report on their improper use of city vehicles for private business.

That report, issued a week ago, found that 21 correction employees repeatedly violated city policy and conflict-of-interest law, using their department-issued vehicles for personal business, including vacation trips to Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Coastal Virginia, the Mohegan Sun Casino, and “16 trips to the Outlets in Riverhead and Woodbury Commons.”

Kuczinski was among those who abused their department vehicle privileges, according to the report, making over twenty trips to Westchester County on personal business, including on a vacation day to go golfing. Kuczinski had special reason to know better: Just the year before, he’d been fined $1,500 by the Conflict of Interest Board for having a subordinate use a city vehicle to drive him and his family to the airport for a vacation, even though, by his own admission, the vehicle was for official business only.

The misuse of official vehicles went all the way to the top: Commissioner Ponte used his vehicle to go out of state 28 times last year, the investigation found, mostly to coastal Maine, where he had lived until joining the DOC in 2014. In the process of these trips, Ponte racked up 18,500 miles of out-of-state travel on his vehicle, along with more than $1,000 in out-of-state gas charges and nearly $750 in unreimbursed E-ZPass charges while on personal business.

Mayor Bill de Blasio dismissed the report, suggesting that Ponte and his senior staff had simply received bad legal advice, a suggestion Peters flatly rejected as false. The mayor’s press secretary, in turn, responded with performative dismissiveness.

This isn’t the first time the mayor has undermined a report from his own watchdog. Last summer, he dismissed as meritless the findings of a DOI report suggesting that then–police commissioner Bill Bratton’s strategy of “quality of life” policing was counterproductive.

The Voice posed a number of questions to the Department of Correction about Peters’s statement and Ponte’s testimony. Among them: What rules govern the Telephone Monitoring Unit’s activities? Why was DOC staff listening to DOI calls? Did Commissioner Ponte direct Kuczinski to order the surveillance of DOI investigators’ communications? If not, when did he learn that Kuczinski had done so? Does Kuczinski have a new position, or is he still a deputy commissioner? Was Ponte disputing DOI’s assertion that his department’s unlawful surveillance was deliberate and willful?

The DOC declined to answer these questions on the record. The only official statement the DOC made to the Voice was this: “DC Kuczinski has not been fired. He’s been relieved from his investigation and call-monitoring responsibilities.” [Update: On Tuesday, the Daily News reported that Kuczinski has been fired.]

The DOI sent a private letter detailing the improper surveillance to Mayor de Blasio. According to the public statement, de Blasio agreed to the letter’s recommendations, which include removing Kuczinski from his position, overhauling the policies governing the DOC’s surveillance of inmate calls, and turning over supervision of the Telephone Monitoring Unit to the DOI.

The Voice also asked the office of Mayor de Blasio for comment on his administration’s warring departments. Does the mayor believe the surveillance was deliberate or inadvertent? Is he satisfied with Kuczinski’s continued employment? Does Commissioner Ponte still enjoy his confidence?

Spokesperson Natalie Grybauskas didn’t answer those questions but offered the following statement: “These are serious and troubling allegations. 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.”

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