National News

Ex-Correction Chief Pays $18,500 Fine for Car Use

Posted July 17, 2018 10:35 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Former New York City correction commissioner Joseph Ponte has paid the city $18,500 as a penalty for his improper use of a city vehicle for personal trips, including many to his former home in Maine, according to the Conflicts of Interest Board.

In a signed disposition, Ponte acknowledged that his abrupt resignation last year was “in part because of the conduct” related to his improper vehicle use — contradicting statements made at the time by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Ponte was fined $1 per mile for his vehicle use in 2016, when he drove 18,500 miles on personal trips. That is a little less than double the rate of 54 cents a mile that the city typically uses to calculate the cost of vehicle use.

After Ponte’s far-flung travels were revealed last year in a report by the Department of Investigation, de Blasio said that Ponte would reimburse the city for every mile driven and all gas and tolls “from the day he came on board.”

“Tolls, mileage, gas. The city should be made whole for all of it,” the mayor said then.

But the conflicts board, which announced the penalty on Tuesday, did not appear to have sought to document any improper vehicle use from 2014 through 2015, his first two years as correction commissioner.

Ponte also benefited from another lenient arrangement with City Hall, with the approval of the mayor.

Instead of paying a departmental penalty, as numerous subordinates in the Correction Department were made to do for similar improper vehicle use in 2016, Ponte was made to only reimburse the city for gas and tolls. He was not made to reimburse for the mileage, as others were, and instead was allowed to report the vehicle use as part of his compensation. His compensation as reported to the Internal Revenue Service was amended to include $13,000 for vehicle use, city officials have said.

An analysis by The New York Times last year found that Ponte and other top jail officials received more lenient treatment than their subordinates when discipline was meted out through the Correction Department’s internal disciplinary process, or, in Ponte’s case, by the mayor’s office.

The Investigation Department issued its report on Ponte in April 2017, and he announced in May that he would retire. But de Blasio insisted at the time that Ponte had been planning to retire and that his departure was not prompted by the vehicle use scandal.

The mayor’s office even posted a rebuttal online of a New York Times article on Ponte. The post, on the website Medium, titled, “The New York Times is Wrong that Commissioner Ponte Was ‘Forced to Resign,'” said that Ponte had been planning to retire and it praised his tenure at the department.

But Ponte’s signed disposition with the conflicts board detailed his personal travel in the city vehicle and stated, referring to Ponte, that “respondent represents that he retired from DOC in part because of the conduct described above.”

The disposition also said that Ponte “erroneously believed” that it was OK for him to use his city vehicle for personal travel.

“We appreciate COIB’s decision to take this matter so seriously,” Diane Struzzi, a spokeswoman for the Investigations Department, said in a statement.

Natalie Grybauskas, a mayoral spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement: “Making the city whole is the appropriate and necessary resolution.” When it was pointed out that the conflicts board fine did not encompass possible improper behavior before 2016, Grybauskas said that questions on the scope of the settlement should be addressed to the board.