High-Ranking DOC Used Cars to Go to Beach, Amusement Parks, Airports
BRONX– Top Department of Corrections staff, including the commissioner, used their city vehicles to go to the Hamptons, the airport, beaches and amusement parks as well as traveled out of state, a new report claims.
Mark G. Peters, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation (“DOI”), announced the findings of an investigation into the use of Department of Correction (“DOC”) assigned “take home” vehicles by high-ranking DOC staff, including the Commissioner of DOC. DOI’s Report uncovered misuse of the City-owned vehicles for unauthorized travel, including trips to Maine, the Hamptons, Cape Cod and other transportation to beaches, amusement parks and local airports.
Using City-owned vehicles for these purposes is expressly prohibited by City policy, DOC’s own policy, and Conflicts of Interest laws. DOI’s investigation revealed 21 senior-level employees routinely abused take-home vehicle privileges and cost City taxpayers thousands of dollars in wasted money spent on gas and tolls to cover personal trips. As a result, DOI is referring the findings for these 21 individuals to the appropriate enforcement bodies for further review and has issued recommendations to address the vulnerabilities identified in the Report that contributed to this systemic misuse.
Commissioner Mark Peters said, “DOC staff, including the Commissioner, routinely misused City vehicles and violated City rules. 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. Most disturbing in this report is the conduct of senior officials who must be accountable for their actions.”
DOI’s investigation began with an anonymous allegation that DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte, and other high-ranking and executive staff, were misusing their take-home vehicles for personal use. DOI reviewed vehicle usage in Calendar Year 2016, mapping over 24.5 million GPS data points, analyzing dozens of vehicle usage maps, vehicle assignment records, gas card data and E-ZPass statements to determine if unauthorized trips were taken. Of the 98 take-home vehicles and corresponding maps that were reviewed, DOI determined that approximately 40% of those maps demonstrated irregular travel to locations out-of-state or outside of the five boroughs on weekends and holidays, with the most egregious examples including multiple trips to shopping malls, area airports on nights and weekends, beaches, spas, resorts and other destinations without corresponding timesheets.
DOC vehicle policies expressly prohibit unauthorized out-of-state travel, E-ZPass usage for non-official charges, and requires all DOC drivers to maintain vehicle usage logs or “trip sheets” to prove compliance with the policies. Interviews with DOC’s Transportation Division revealed that each of the subjects in DOI’s Report received copies of the City Handbook, which describes City take-home vehicle policy and DOC’s vehicle policies.
DOI’s investigation revealed misuse of take-home vehicles by DOC top-level executives:
Commissioner Ponte drove his assigned vehicle out of New York State on 28 occasions, for multiple days at a time, with many of the trips to areas of Costal Maine, and used his vehicle outside of New York State on personal business for 90 calendar days in 2016 – approximately 24.6% of the calendar year.
Chief of Staff Jeff Thamkittikasem used his City vehicle to drive to a friend’s house in Virginia for a birthday party, informing DOI that since he answered phone calls and emails while he was out of town he considered it to be the equivalent of being at work, even submitting his timesheet to reflect he had been at work during that time.
Acting First Deputy Commissioner Cynthia Brann told DOI that she used her City vehicle on weekends almost exclusively for shopping, including trips to Woodbury Commons Outlets and the Gallery at Westbury Plaza, among others.
Deputy Commissioner (“DC”) Gregory Kuczinski, who oversees the Department’s internal investigations, took over 20 trips to Westchester County in his take-home vehicle on personal business, including a vacation day to go golfing and multiple trips to John F. Kennedy (“JFK”) and LaGuardia airports to transport family.
DC Kuczinski was previously fined $1,500 by the Conflicts of Interest Board (“COIB”) for having a subordinate transport him and his family to JFK Airport for a family vacation in 2015, in which Kuczinski admitted in a statement that he did not have authorization to use the vehicle which was, by his admission, “to be used for official business only.”
All of these senior staff members informed DOI that they considered themselves to be on “24-hour call” and therefore needed to respond from wherever they went, making the use of their City-assigned vehicles permissible during these times, however, no staff member reported having ever actually responded to any departmental emergency from the locations cited by DOI in its Report and some staff admitted that personal response from long distance was not practical in any event. The City’s Department of Administrative Services (“DCAS”) also confirmed that no 24-hour, on-call allowance or exception exists.
Beyond misuse of vehicles, DOI’s investigation also found DOC recordkeeping and maintenance is unorganized, with staff routinely failing to submit or maintain monthly trip sheets. As a result of this systemic abuse of car privileges and additional compliance issues, DOI has issued recommendations to DOC, including:
DOC should reissue to all staff who drive City-assigned vehicles the Citywide rules and regulations that prohibit the use of City vehicles for personal use, and each driver acknowledge receipt of the policies.
DOC must enforce existing policies related to vehicle usage, including the requirement that drivers maintain trip sheets, and DOC should have a centralized way of tracking these trip sheets.
DOC should conduct periodic audits of E-ZPass and gas card usage to ensure that unauthorized out-of state travel is not occurring.