New York City’s embattled jails commissioner, Joseph Ponte, on Friday announced his resignation, two weeks to the day after he was scolded for breaking ethics rules by driving his official car on 18,500 miles of improper out-of-town trips and billing taxpayers for tolls and gas.
A statement from Mayor Bill de Blasio described the departure, expected for sometime in June, as a “retirement.”
“I am happy to have spent the last chapter of my career in New York City,” said Ponte, 70, whom de Blasio appointed in March 2014 to oversee the Department of Correction.
A successor has not been named.
A report issued in April by the city’s Department of Investigation criticized Ponte for his trips, mostly to his native New England, where he spent nearly a quarter of 2016 in Maine. The report also said 20 of Ponte’s subordinates improperly used their official vehicles too.
The Department of Investigation later accused Ponte’s top aide in charge of internal affairs, Gregory Kuczinski, of spying on its investigators — and continuing to spy even after being instructed to stop. Kuczinski was subsequently relieved of duty.
Amid the uproar, de Blasio defended Ponte, insisting that Ponte got incorrect oral advice from subordinates that personal use of city vehicles was allowed, although written guidelines explicitly ban the practice.
Elias Husamudeen, head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association union, called Ponte “a failure” and demanded that Ponte’s successor reverse his ban on solitary confinement for young inmates.
“He’s leaving this agency in a worse condition than when he found it. And this is no retirement! He’s not retiring! This is a resignation! This is a firing! And we should call it what it is,” Husamudeen said at a news conference.
Ponte could not be reached for comment, but told Politico New York on Friday: “At the end of the day, I feel there is no way to win a battle in the media.”
He described the car use as a “lapse of judgment,” adding: “I’m not trying to steal anything from anybody, they gave me a great salary to do this job, so I didn’t do that intentionally.”
Ponte came to New York City from Maine, where he had been in charge of the prison system. A former guard and warden himself, Ponte was tasked with cleaning up the city’s troubled jail system, which is under federal supervision. The U.S. Department of Justice called Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex, a place of “deep-seated violence.”
Ponte had been tasked with helping to carry out a plan to close Rikers within 10 years.
In defending Ponte, the mayor pointed to Ponte’s achievements, including eliminating solitary confinement for young people, providing more education for inmates, fewer assaults on staff with serious injuries and fewer uses of force. Other metrics, however, are up, such as inmate-on-inmate violence and injuries from inmate assaults on staffers.