Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1747 Tue, 24 Oct 2017 03:52:02 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Proposal Would Mandate Media Blitz for City's Anti-Corruption Efforts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7012:bill-would-mandate-awareness-campaign-for-city-s-anti-corruption-efforts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7012:bill-would-mandate-awareness-campaign-for-city-s-anti-corruption-efforts lead photo

Council Member Vincent Gentile (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on Monday to discuss three bills, including one which would require the Department of Investigation to conduct an annual public outreach campaign to inform New Yorkers about how to identify corruption and use the resources of the DOI to file corruption complaints.

The Department of Investigation, the city’s independent watchdog agency, is responsible for investigating wrongdoing by city agencies, officers, elected officials, and entities and individuals who do business with the city. Intro. 1618, sponsored by Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee, would require that the DOI launch annual advertising campaigns intended to educate the public about its anti-corruption efforts, as well as require the department to file an annual report detailing the complaints received and disaggregate them by “agency, month, type of misconduct, and the mechanism through which the complaint was submitted.”

“I commend the commissioner and the department for committing valuable resources to raising awareness of the importance the public plays in assisting the DOI in weeding out corruption,” Council Member Gentile said in his opening statement.

In 2016, the DOI launched a series of ads on city buses and subways with slogans such as “Bribery and corruption are a trap. Don’t get caught up,” and “Get the worms out of the Big Apple,” to encourage New Yorkers to report instances of corruption through its complaints hotline. The campaign cost $312,000, financed through asset forfeiture funds from defendants of DOI investigations. Within the first four months of the 2017 fiscal year, complaints filed to the DOI increased by eight percent compared with the number of complaints filed in 2016. The DOI cited the 2016 outreach campaign as the main reason for this increase. Gentile’s proposed bill would expand the campaign to print, radio, and other public forums.

Representatives from DOI were invited to testify at Monday’s hearing, but Commissioner Mark Peters was unable to attend. Other DOI staff were in attendance but did not testify. When Council Member Rory Lancman asked about the commissioner’s absence, Council Member Gentile stated, “I don’t know the particulars” and noted that “the Department of Investigation has indicated to me that they will send a letter to the Council by the end of this week, which will be used as testimony as part of this record.”

In an email to Gotham Gazette, a DOI spokesperson said, "DOI agrees with the City Council about the importance of public outreach and is working with the Council on the details of this legislation."

Brandon Muir, executive director of Reclaim NY, a non-profit organization aimed at increasing transparency in government, was the only member of the public to offer testimony on the potential impact of the bill. “As a strong defender of the taxpayer in New York, it will be important for the campaign to identify and make public specific metrics that judge the efficacy of the ad campaigns," he said. "Consistent citizen oversight relies on citizens understanding that the rules of the game exist.”

Council Member Gentile asked Muir if he believed an increase in advertisements would actually help in combatting fraud and corruption. “Of course, and I would look to ‘See Something, Say Something,’” Muir said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security’s national ad campaign that seeks the public's help in identifying potential terror threats. “I mean, that’s now something I think I’ve heard on Saturday Night Live, it’s become such a popular moniker,” Muir added.

But Muir also acknowledged that the success of the DOI's campaign would largely be determined by whether or not citizens would continue to stay involved in the oversight process in the long term. “I think we need to look at it in the context of an ongoing effort to increase transparency,” he said, “not just a one time statement or a one time bill.”

This article has been updated.

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Proposal Would Mandate Media Blitz for City's Anti-Corruption Efforts Mon, 19 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Investigations Commissioner Lays Out Budget Needs For Agency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6798:investigations-commissioner-lays-out-budget-needs-for-agency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6798:investigations-commissioner-lays-out-budget-needs-for-agency peters and bk da

DOI Commissioner Mark Peters (photo: @DOInews)


At a City Council preliminary budget hearing on Thursday, Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters laid out new funding and staffing needs for his agency, which is facing a $5 million proposed reduction in its fiscal year 2018 allocation by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The proposed preliminary budget for the Department of Investigation (DOI), the watchdog body that monitors and probes public corruption and other wrongdoing at 45 city agencies, is $41.7 million, down from $46.7 million in last year’s adopted budget. (That number does not include another $13 million in federal forfeiture funds that is available for the agency to spend through fiscal year 2018. Peters also noted that these funds are not affected by federal budget fluctuations.)

Testifying at the hearing, held by the Council’s oversight and investigations committee, Peters stressed the need for adequate funding as the agency’s work has grown in key areas, including monitoring construction safety, NYPD surveillance practices, the Administration of Children’s Services, and the Department of Corrections. The agency has over 700 personnel, Peters said in his opening statement, working towards a “comprehensive strategy of systemic investigations, high impact arrests, preventative controls and operational reforms, in a manner designed to ensure we leverage our resources effectively.”

Although Peters didn’t provide an exact budget ask, he said after the hearing, “There’s work we’re doing both around the Department of Corrections and ACS where we believe that we could make very good use of some additional staff so we’re talking with OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] about it.”

Peters also spoke of the need for additional staff to cover a massive backlog in background checks for city employees, an issue raised by Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee, during the hearing. The city currently has a backlog of 4,000 needed background checks, and Peters projected that number would grow by another 1,600 over the next fiscal year.

Gentile expressed a range of concerns about the DOI’s responsibilities and how DOI measures success. Pointing to the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, which gauges performance indicators for all city agencies, Gentile wondered why the report did not include data for individual Inspectors General at different city agencies. Peters, who had earlier in his testimony warned against a heavy dependence on statistics, instead emphasized the agency’s focus on citywide systemic change. Reporting on 45 city agencies, he said, would be “cumbersome” and “not necessarily helpful” to gauge effectiveness as DOI works to root out waste, fraud, and abuse.

At Gentile’s insistence, Peters also explained his reticence in relying on the length of an investigation as a performance metric. Quicker investigations, he said, could be less effective. “The biggest cases where we have the most impact are the ones where we don’t jump too quickly,” he said.

He added, “I think the best metric, that’s hard to put a number about is, ‘Is there a greater sense in these city agencies that there’s a cop on the beat watching and are we seeing significant institutional change?’”

Peters did provide numbers to illustrate the agency’s work, however. In the 2016 calendar year, DOI made 694 arrests, a 22% increase over 2015, stemming from more than 1,800 investigations. The agency also referred over 800 cases for criminal prosecution, a 14% increase.

The hearing also touched on agency financial savings, a particularly pertinent subject this year round with major risks in the city budget, including potential federal funding cuts, proposed state funding cuts, and slowing city economic growth. DOI identified a one percent reduction in its Other Than Personal Spending (OTPS) costs, amounting to about $22,000. “Have you considered other areas that might yield some cost savings,” Gentile asked.

Peters said the agency had little room for creating savings through efficiencies. “The real savings come from things like doing the monitoring of monies spent,” he said, referring to DOI’s role as a watchdog of others and citing the $40 million saved by the agency’s arrest of four people involved in defrauding the “Build It Back” Superstorm Sandy relief program.

Gentile, in closing out the hearing, said he anticipates an executive budget hearing for the agency, unlike last year when DOI saw a substantial 43 percent increase in its budget. The executive budget will follow on the heels of the Council’s official response to the mayor’s preliminary budget, after weeks of hearings like the one held Thursday. The next fiscal year starts July 1.

[Related: Under the Hood at Agencies, Investigation Department Increases Policy Focus]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Investigations Commissioner Lays Out Budget Needs For Agency Thu, 09 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Under the Hood at Agencies, Investigation Department Increases Policy Focus http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6648:under-the-hood-at-agencies-investigation-department-increases-policy-focus http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6648:under-the-hood-at-agencies-investigation-department-increases-policy-focus doi ad horizontal trap

Department of Investigation ad (photo via DOI)


Formed in the 1870s, the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) is a law enforcement agency tasked with keeping city government honest. Run well, DOI acts as a safeguard against fraud, abuse, and neglect in municipal government, an advocate for taxpayers, and an enforcer of ethics.

In 2013, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the agency as a "vigilant watchdog," and a "national leader in promoting transparency, efficiency, and accountability in government."

While DOI is often responsible for arresting bad actors in city government, its long-term impact is best seen in its investigative reports, policy recommendations, and follow through ensuring that agencies implement suggested reforms. As with many types of government reports, though, it is not always easily evident what type of oversight DOI provides to see that its recommendations are indeed implemented.

DOI has unlimited power to investigate any city agency, officer, elected employee, contractor, and those who receive city benefits: its jurisdiction spans 45 mayoral agencies and various other city entities, boards, and commissions. Through its subpoena power and by maintaining a working relationship with agencies under investigation, DOI has access to information and resources that can produce lasting reform.

Often, DOI investigations result in criminal prosecution. In the 2015 calendar year, DOI made 569 arrests from over 1,500 investigations, and received over 700 criminal prosecution referrals, nearly double the number from the prior year, as previously reported by Gotham Gazette. This data is from the tenure of DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters, who was nominated to the position by Mayor Bill de Blasio and confirmed by the City Council early in 2014 despite some concerns about the fact that Peters had worked on de Blasio’s campaign.

Under Peters, DOI has focused less on arrests and more on investigations and reports to identify root causes of malfeasance or ineffectiveness and push comprehensive reform. "DOI, in the last two years, instead of being a reactive agency, which tended to react to complaints and react to tips coming in, has now become a proactive agency," Peters said at a March City Council budget hearing. The office’s capacity and budget have expanded under Peters.

The key feature of DOI reports are Policy and Procedure Recommendations (PPRs). PPRs identify relevant violations, neglect, and criminal activity, and propose solutions to the agency under investigation.

A typical PPR recommends the sharing of data analytics or internal reports to ensure that recommendations are being met. Some task agencies to provide employee training to close loopholes that led to the infractions at hand. A PPR usually prompts an official response from the agency under investigation, which details steps taken to address DOI recommendations, and any areas of disagreement.

Inspector generals, grouped by category (i.e. social services, uniform services) are responsible for monitoring PPRs; there are separate inspector generals for NYCHA, NYPD, the New York City Housing Development Corporation, and New York City Health + Hospitals. Commissioner Peters meets with his inspector generals for each agency every three weeks, according to comments made at a March hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, which has oversight of DOI.

According to DOI, in fiscal year 2016, which ended June 30, it issued 693 PPRs with an implementation rate of 81%, up from the 74% implementation rate in fiscal year 2015. The number of PPRs was a 87% increase from the year before, DOI said.

"We have not, in the past, been as good at tracking compliance as I would like to be," Peters admitted at the same City Council hearing, noting that DOI was improving internal protocols.

IGs are responsible for monitoring DOI-issued timelines and delivering regular reports to the commissioner. Data collection plays an important role in this process, as does more regular tracking. According to Nicole Turso, the DOI press secretary, data that tracked progress had been updated only once a year, resulting in a lower implementation rate.

DOI has no legal authority to force agencies to accept the terms of PPRs, however, DOI typically has city government on their side. In some cases, the Mayor's insistence pressures agencies to adopt PPRs. In others, the agency in question will adopt recommendations to avoid public backlash. DOI also relies on the fact that compliance typically benefits both parties: there is a strong mutual interest in enacting reform. Still, agency pushback to DOI is not uncommon, especially during the initial investigatory phase.

"When you do the type of work that we do, there's always a certain amount of friction. But, having said that, we're all in it for the greater good,” said Turso, about city employees across agencies, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “We're all out for integrity and good government. We parse through the difficulties that we have and make it work."

Turso pointed to the recent Rivington House investigation as a prominent exception to this rule.

In March of 2016, the de Blasio administration was found to have signed off on a series of decisions that led to the conversion of a Lower East Side nursing home into a new apartment building of market-rate condominiums. A DOI investigation into the process had already begun, as de Blasio officials had recognized mistakes made and notified the agency.

DOI investigations include virtually unfettered access to government documents. But in July, the Daily News reported that the mayor’s team withheld a memo revealing prior knowledge of the sale that appeared to compromise some of the accounting of how key decisions were made in removing deed restrictions from the Rivington House property and its subsequent sale. When DOI issued its initial report on the matter, it cited restrictions to its access to de Blasio administration documents and computers.

After DOI threatened litigation against the Law Department, according to DOI only then did the Law Department produce documents previously classified as irrelevant.

The Daily News reported that this refusal to cooperate was nearly unprecedented, citing that no DOI commissioner had been forced to threaten litigation under the Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg administrations.

Outside of the Rivington case, which was a very public embarrassment for the de Blasio administration, DOI reports mostly strong communication and efficiency in their collaborations with city agencies.

DOI investigations vary in nature, and three 2015 cases show the scope of the agency’s oversight: the first involves fraud within the Human Resources Administration (HRA); the second, negligence by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS); and the third, lack of accountability at the New York Police Department (NYPD) around the use of chokeholds prior the death of Eric Garner.

While DOI provided insights into the three case studies selected by Gotham Gazette for this article, it did not respond when asked for a variety of details about how DOI representatives ensure compliance with PPRs on a daily basis, or track them. 

Human Resources Administration Fraud
In December 2015, the Human Resources Administration alerted DOI of internal fraud, leading to the arrest of one current and one former HRA employee on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. The culprits exploited a vulnerable computerized case management system and used benefit issuance procedures to steer $2.4 million to themselves and associates using Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.

In order to investigate and prosecute these cases, DOI joined forces with HRA, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, the FBI, the New York State Office of the Inspector General, and the Richmond County District Attorney’s Office.

In October, DOI Commissioner Peters announced the sentencing of one former HRA employee to 23 months in federal prison for her role in schemes totaling approximately $1.8 million, including the purchase of $120,000 worth of Red Bull, later pawned off to small retail locations.

Following its investigations, DOI issued a series of recommendations to HRA. These included the design and implementation of a secured, electronic, fraud report system. DOI also recommended an increased supervisory review of cases and frequency of training, and the design and implementation of a comprehensive EBT fraud identification training program.

In its report, DOI commended HRA for taking immediate action to implement recommendations, including an agreement to enhance controls to monitor program vulnerabilities. Most importantly, HRA would continue sharing data analytics with DOI and continue collaboration to develop new strategies.

As of November, DOI reports that each reform timeline has been met.

HRA spokesperson Lourdes Centeno emphasized the two agencies’ strong relationship to Gotham Gazette. "HRA has a long-standing partnership with the Department of Investigations,” Centeno said, “and we value their assistance in adjusting instances of potential staff misconduct interagency."

Department of Homeless Services Shelter Conditions
In March 2015, DOI announced that a year-long investigation of 25 DHS-operated shelters revealed serious health and safety violations, a lack of social service programs, and inadequate or missing certificates of occupancy. The shelters provided housing for approximately 2,000 homeless New Yorkers.

In the report, Peters explained that the investigation was requested by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who came into office with about 51,000 people sleeping in city shelters (the number has since grown to about 60,000).

DOI reached its conclusions by reviewing records, interviewing shelter residents, and collaborating with inspectors from the Department of Buildings, Fire Department, and Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Upon DOI review, 621 building, housing, and fire safety violations were issued, including accounts of vermin infestations, blocked or obstructed entrances and exits, and nonworking smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

DOI also discovered that DHS had not, for years, used the city's contracting process to secure providers, and was not enforcing existing contracts, eroding an important check that holds providers accountable for failing to meet health and safety standards.

Providers include faith-based non-profits like Volunteers of America, as well as organizations like the Women’s Prison Association, which serve groups like families affected by maternal incarceration, and others, including private landlords.

“Dangerous living conditions, rat-and-roach infested residences. And fire violations are the stark reality facing too many homeless families and children in the City’s shelters,” Peters noted in the DOI report.

Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said no one should underestimate the importance of building maintenance in providing shelter for homeless people and the role of shelter in helping people return to stable housing. "Poor conditions are problematic for very obvious reasons. There are health and safety issues—families are concerned whether roofs are caving in, versus actually being able to focus on getting the kids to school and getting out of shelter," Routhier said in an interview. "One of the best ways to make sure that you have a system that is capable of being operated with the proper oversight of conditions is to not always be concerned about having enough capacity," she said. "When capacity gets tight, everything else kind of false to the wayside."

The de Blasio administration has consistently struggled with several elements of combatting homelessness, in part due to the city's affordable housing crisis that leads to shelters busting at the seams. There are challenges with not only the conditions at shelters, but with helping to keep people in their homes through rental assistance and working with those ready to leave shelters on using vouchers to help pay for rent in stable housing. The administration has also seen significant community pushback to its efforts to open new shelters.

The essence of the DOI report, echoed in a damning December 2015 audit from city Comptroller Scott Stringer, was the deplorable shelter conditions. The two reports prompted significant city action, including the creation of a new shelter repair squad. The Department of Homeless Services’ Shelter Repair Squad has worked to aggressively address building violations, with significant progress, though many shelter issues remain.

“Being homeless is tough enough – no one in shelters, particularly children, should have to endure poor or unsafe living conditions,” said Mayor de Blasio in a May 2015 announcement of the shelter repair squad launch.

DHS pledged to bring in new shelter capacity through the city's procurement process. Lauren Gray, senior communications advisor at DHS, told Gotham Gazette that the agency has announced a commitment to increase the number of shelters city-wide as the administration transitions to a "borough approach" to help homeless individuals and families stay closer to their communities, jobs, and support networks. A more local approach is something de Blasio has recently promised as he has seen pushback to shelter siting plans in several neighborhoods.

DOI was especially critical of cluster sites, privately-owned residential buildings that the city has paid up to $3,500 a month to maintain the notoriously inadequate shelters. In January, 2016, de Blasio announced a three-year plan to phase out cluster sites completely, in coordination with DHS.

As 2016 nears an end, Gray reports that approximately half of the more than 1,700 cluster units have already been brought under contract. She also said that, as of mid-October, the shelter repair squad has helped see to “a 75% reduction in cluster unit violations since January 2016." 

As of November, DOI reports that each reform timeline has been met by DHS relative to the PPR from the March 2015 DOI investigation. 

NYPD Chokeholds & Accountability
On July 17, 2014, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Eric Garner in a chokehold, a maneuver forbidden by section 203-11 of the NYPD patrol guide, leading to Garner’s death. The confrontation, caught on video, spurred public fury, fueling the national debate about excessive force by police officers, quality-of-life policing, and relations between law enforcement and communities of color.

On December 3, 2014, a Staten Island grand jury declined to issue an indictment of Pantaleo, or other officers on the scene.

In January 2015, the DOI Office of Inspector General for the NYPD (OIG-NYPD) published its first-ever report, an investigation into the NYPD's management of improper use of force violations.

OIG-NYPD aimed to shed light on how frequently officers were using chokeholds, why they were doing so, and what discipline was imposed on those who violated the prohibition. In order to review comparable use of force violations, OIG-NYPD conducted reviews of ten chokehold cases substantiated by The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) between 2009 at 2014. The CCRB is the civilian panel that reviews allegations against police officers in New York City.

Use of force complaints are investigated by CCRB. Cases, if substantiated, would move, with recommendations, to the NYPD, which determines discipline. In DOI-reviewed incidents, CCRB recommended the most severe level of discipline in nine out of ten cases with a substantiated chokehold.

Next, NYPD's Department Advocate's Office (DAO), responsible for prosecuting substantiated use of force cases, downgraded seven of CCRB's recommendations, proposing the least punitive disciplinary measure in four, and no discipline in another.

Ray Kelly, police commissioner from 1992-1994 and 2002 through 2013, was tasked with making a final determination. Kelly sided with DAO and rejected six CCRB recommendations, opting each time for less severe penalties or no discipline at all. The commissioner provided no explanation for his decisions.

In sum, DOI found that CCRB's input was barely heard, if at all. By the time cases reached the police commissioner's desk, CCRB disciplinary recommendations had been watered down substantially, if not completely.

Peters summarized this point in the DOI report, citing “the extent to which the NYPD has disregarded disciplinary recommendations from the Civilian Complaint Review Board and thus minimized the role of the central body tasked with investigating individual cases of police misconduct.” 

"There is no indication from the records reviewed that NYPD seriously contemplated CCRB's disciplinary recommendations or that CCRB's input added any value to the disciplinary process," another section of the DOI report reads.

OIG-NYPD found that CCRB and NYPD measured accountability by different standards: CCRB, "an investigative agency," substantiated cases specifically on "credible evidence:" video footage, third-party witnesses and officer records indicated harmful contact. DAO, a “prosecutorial unit," defined chokeholds through “contextual” evaluations: circumstantial evidence, personnel history, and the viability of future prosecution.

As a result, OIG-NYPD found that the two groups were operating with different guidelines, and, likely, agendas.

OIG-NYPD evaluated NYPD's training for officer communication and de-escalation tactics. In several cases reviewed, OIG-NYPD found that NYPD officers had used chokeholds as a first act of physical force in response to "verbal resistance," making little attempt to resolve the encounter through nonviolent means.

In the NYPD response to OIG-NYPD recommendations, Deputy Commissioner Lawrence Byrne touted the new “Remand" process requiring NYPD to issue formal written requests for penalty reconsiderations, upon disagreement with CCRB. A 2016 OIG-NYPD assessment labeled this reform "partially implemented," citing that NYPD had yet to adopt a more transparent disciplinary process alongside CCRB.

In the same response, Byrne announced that the NYPD had instituted a three-day refresher tactical training program to promote nonviolent resolution, designed to reach 20,000 officers out on patrol, and, “eventually,” all 35,000 uniformed service members.

Citizens Union, a government reform group, recently released an agenda for improved police accountability and included in it a more transparent process around the NYPD commissioner’s reaction to CCRB recommendations. Citizens Union also argues that CCRB should be the “primary finder of fact in cases it investigates, except in cases of clear error."

Byrne emphasizes NYPD autonomy. “We agree with your observation that no definitive conclusions can or should be drawn from such a limited universe of cases, nor do we believe it is useful to revisit the factual circumstances,” Byrne wrote to DOI. “While we are fully committed to increasing the collaboration between the NYPD and the CCRB, as you note in your report, the Police Commissioner continues to retain the final authority and complete discretion to make all judgments about internal discipline,” he also said.

DOI successfully pressured the commissioner into providing public rationale for his decisions. In a 2015 annual report, OIG-NYPD said that the commissioner had agreed to write explanations to CCRB for any decisions that "deviate downward" from original recommendations. The recommendation was deemed “implemented.”

While NYPD has met certain DOI timelines, there are also ongoing related concerns.

On the day following the release of the inaugural 2015 OIG-NYPD report, Mayor de Blasio vowed to veto legislation that would make the use of chokeholds by officers a misdemeanor offense. However, according to a Daily News report, a new set of June patrol guidelines stipulate specific circumstances that a banned chokehold can be excused if the Use of Force Review board determines that the officer’s actions were "reasonable and justified.” The Daily News reported that City Hall claims the new guidelines are clarifying determinations of excessive force, and there is no change to the chokehold ban.

City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services and sponsors the chokehold misdemeanor bill, thinks otherwise. In an interview, Lancman admonished de Blasio for liberalizing the previously absolute chokehold ban.

“The mayor has made it clear that he is not going to push the police department to reform how it holds officers accountable to use chokeholds, and if anything the mayor allowed the NYPD to loosen the restriction on chokeholds, so I think it sends a signal to police officers that the chokehold ban is not really a ban,” Lancman said. “Even if a conclusion is reached that you use a chokehold improperly, the consequences are minimal.”

The mayor’s office has pushed back on such characterizations, citing de Blasio’s effort to enforce new trainings for all NYPD officers, reduce the use of stop-and-frisk, and institute neighborhood policing.

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by Benjamin Jurney for Gotham Gazette
     

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Under the Hood at Agencies, Investigation Department Increases Policy Focus Thu, 01 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Additional Information Means 'Ongoing Investigation' into Rivington Deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6487:additional-information-means-ongoing-investigation-into-rivington-deal http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6487:additional-information-means-ongoing-investigation-into-rivington-deal BdB holds paper hearing

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


A bureaucratic procedure gone wrong has turned out to be a major headache for Mayor Bill de Blasio that refuses to go away. Even after two recent and damning investigative reports, one city agency maintains its investigation is "ongoing" given newly turned over information and the state Attorney General is still looking into the matter.

The lifting of deed restrictions on Rivington House, a nursing home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which allowed the property owner to sell to a luxury condo developer at massive profit, has been scrutinized and criticized over the past several months. Mayor Bill de Blasio has admitted that his administration made a significant mistake, but there have been more questions than answers.

With allegations of impropriety swirling, de Blasio insisted that there was no inappropriate intent, only poor communication and an outdated deed restriction removal process. Two reports on the matter - one each from the city’s Department of Investigation and Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office - sought to answers some of the lingering questions and both painted a picture of City Hall mismanagement, though not criminality. A third investigation, by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, continues.

But while the DOI did release a report on the Rivington matter, that investigation featured condemnation of City Hall for redacting information and limiting access to computers. Now, after DOI threatened to sue and City Hall granted more access, DOI has indicated that it still has “an ongoing investigation,” according to a spokesperson for DOI, who declined to comment further.

The watchdog agency could issue a follow-up to its report given new information, which, it said in a press release upon receiving the unredacted documents, includes an essential de Blasio administration memo on the Rivington matter.

While DOI continues its Rivington investigation, the Comptroller’s office confirmed to Gotham Gazette that its report on the deal is final and that Comptroller Stringer has nothing else to add at this time.

The two reports mainly criticized City Hall for poor communication with city agencies and allowing the Rivington deal to go through without the proper checks and oversight that would have stopped such a transaction.

The DOI report, released July 14, found a stark absence of accountability in how the city deals with deed changes and a lack of vigilance among city officials who knew of the deal yet did little to ensure adequate public benefit. It stated that City Hall pleaded ignorance of the details despite having been informed at multiple occasions by agency subordinates.

The Comptroller’s report from August 1 was more pointed in assigning blame, stating that though the process could be improved, the problem largely stemmed from failure in execution and communication by city officials.

Both reports showed that First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris was not overseeing the related deliberations and processes with clarity, and no one from his office was reading reports that contained key information. Neither the DOI report nor Stringer’s report found that Mayor de Blasio was at fault or even aware of the deal.  

That the DOI should consider the matter still open is not surprising. Its report pointed out that it did not receive all the information and documents requested and that the Law Department denied access to computers at City Hall. DOI claimed that “a substantial number of documents” that it did receive were redacted by the Law Department. The report concluded, “Because DOI did not receive a full production of what it requested, it is unclear what Rivington-related information remains on the City Hall servers and computers, to which DOI was denied access.”

A tense back and forth followed, with Mayor de Blasio and the Law Department, led by Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter, at first denying claims that DOI’s investigation was hindered in any way. “There’s been a huge effort made by various elements of the administration to be cooperative and helpful to DOI and obviously the other entities that are investigating,” the mayor said following the release of the report.

“A huge amount of material was provided,” he said. “There was a lot of transparency. The Law Department has a job to do, to make sure things are done the right way. And there’s a natural institutional tension between the two agencies...I’m very convinced that everything was provided that was necessary, and clearly [DOI was] able to come up with a comprehensive report.”

The apparent attempts to obfuscate the investigation have been a separate but related source of criticism to the issues that led to the Rivington mishap, the likes of which de Blasio has pledged will never happen again. In part, he says, because all deed restriction lifts will go through the Mayor’s desk.

A week after DOI’s report, Inspector General Jodi Franzese wrote to Carter asking that the Law Department give them the information and access they were denied in the investigation. "DOI has the exclusive prerogative to determine how it conducts its investigations and what information is relevant to its investigations,” Franzese wrote. “Neither City Hall, Law, nor any other City agency or official is entitled to interfere or refuse to cooperate with a DOI investigation or determine what material is relevant to that investigation."

Five days later, under DOI’s threat of legal action, Carter released thousands of pages of documents and gave DOI access to City Hall computers. One of the crucial pieces of documentation to emerge was a July 2014 memo that showed city officials had reviewed the benefits and possible drawbacks of converting Rivington House to condominiums. (Carter had also redacted a deed restriction waiver for the Harlem Dance Theater in a separate transaction.)

The newly unredacted memo shows detailed consideration of the deed restriction removal and various options for the Rivington property, indicating a good deal of attention from administration officials about the situation. It is the type of deliberation that de Blasio had indicated did not go into the decision to lift the deed restrictions, which he assigned to miscommunication and bad process, which left a lack of scrutiny over whether lifting deed restrictions on any property advance the city's interests.

While DOI says the investigation continues, that does not necessarily mean that it will release additional findings, a new report, or an addendum to its prior report. A DOI spokesperson declined to give indication about what the public could anticipate may come from examination of new information.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, criticized the mayor and the Law Department about their cooperation - or lack thereof - with DOI, insisting that the response to the investigations was the “exact opposite” of what should have happened.

Zachary Carter’s obligation is to the people of New York City rather than the mayor, Dadey said, and that his actions came across as an attempt to protect de Blasio. “There are a lot of questions about this whole process and who is going to be held accountable for the mistakes that were made along the way,” Dadey told Gotham Gazette. “That the corporation counsel’s office now seems to have attempted to conceal needed information from the DOI raises even more questions about the integrity of this investigation and whether or not we will get to the truth about what happened.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Additional Information Means 'Ongoing Investigation' into Rivington Deal Sun, 21 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Investigations Paint Picture of City Hall Mismanagement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6471:investigations-paint-picture-of-city-hall-mismanagement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6471:investigations-paint-picture-of-city-hall-mismanagement BdB Shorris NYCTransition

Mayor de Blasio & First Deputy Mayor Shorris in 2013 (photo: @NYCTransition)


Two recent reports on City Hall’s role in the questionable lifting of deed restrictions on a nursing home property issued scathing indictments of both process and personnel in the de Blasio administration. They revealed mismanagement and miscommunication that belies Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own attempts to portray City Hall and its agencies as well-oiled machines that deliver swift and efficient services to the people of New York.

The reports, one by the Department of Investigation and one by Comptroller Scott Stringer, paint a picture of dysfunction and raise significant questions about oversight by First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris. De Blasio has acknowledged gaps in communication while defending Shorris unequivocally.

The Department of Investigation report, released July 14, found “a complete lack of accountability within City government regarding deed restriction removals and significant communication failures between and within City Hall and DCAS.”

Comptroller Stringer’s report, released August 1, stated that Rivington House, the nursing home property, “was allowed to slip away not so much because of poor City processes, but because of poor execution of those processes in a manner that undermined both public input and the interests of the City…[S]enior City officials required agency commissioners to prepare weekly reports but then chose not to read them...decisions were made but never communicated to subordinates, and...a lack of vigilance allowed a single individual to gain control of a valued community resource.”

The deal in question involved Rivington House, a nursing home on the Lower East Side that was restricted to use as a non-profit health care facility until last year when the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) allowed two deed restrictions on the property to be lifted. The owner, the Allure Group, paid the city $16 million to lift the deed restrictions, and then quickly sold the property to a luxury condominium developer for a $72 million profit.

In March, after the Wall Street Journal first reported that Stringer was looking into the Rivington House deal, the mayor said in a subsequent news conference that it was the first time he had heard of the problematic deal. Acknowledging that agency officials had made mistakes, the mayor promised to overhaul procedures at DCAS and at City Hall. He said that if he had been notified of what was going on he would have put a stop to it and that the moves did not represent the values of his administration. He also laid blame on the Allure Group for misleading city officials.

It later emerged that the Department of Investigation (DOI) was already looking into the transaction, referred to it by DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo in consultation with the Mayor’s Office. The deal also drew the attention of the state Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, whose office has yet to conclude its investigation.

On July 14, DOI issued its investigative report, which was critical of the role that DCAS, the Law Department, and the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services (MOCS) played in letting the deal go through without adequate analysis of whether it was in the best interests of the city. The investigation found that top officials at City Hall and DCAS were well aware of the deal and did not raise any objections or attempt to ensure the property would continue to serve a purpose for the community. It also pointed out that DCAS employees were aware that the Allure Group was considering selling the property to a private developer.

The investigation was also clouded by controversy. DOI revealed that the mayor’s office had withheld information from investigators, ultimately hampering their findings. De Blasio has persistently denied these allegations, while admitting that some paperwork had been redacted and pointing to natural tension between the Law Department and DOI.

In his report, Comptroller Stringer echoed many DOI findings. He pointed to failures of communication at multiple points between City Hall and DCAS and said the officials involved were at fault, not the process itself. This contradicted most of de Blasio’s focus on the need to update the deed restriction removal process as a result of the incident. While Stringer said updated procedures area  good idea, it was poor management and “information flow” that led to the mistaken deal on Rivington House.

Stringer’s report notes that more than 40 officials were involved in the deal, including three agency heads and three deputy mayors, but no red flags were raised. It also criticizes DCAS for undervaluing the property in its appraisal and stated that the efforts to solicit public input on the deal were inadequate.

Neither report directly faults Mayor Bill de Blasio, who maintains he had no knowledge of the proceedings until after the fact. There is one key email that was sent to de Blasio that the mayor says he did not read.

The comptroller’s report also placed individual blame; first on Joel Landau, Allure Group principal, for exploiting the system and misrepresenting the company’s intentions; and secondly, but more importantly, on First Deputy Mayor Shorris for ignoring memos about the Rivington deal sent to him by the DCAS commissioner and not ensuring adequate internal systems.

Despite the clear failings of his top functionaries, the mayor has presented a full-throated defense of his administration, blaming flawed procedures inherited from earlier administrations and the bad actor that deceived the city in this particular case. De Blasio has admitted that mistakes were made by his administration, but has been loathe to hold anyone to account.

At an unrelated news conference on July 25, in response to a question from Gotham Gazette about Shorris’ role in the deed change, the mayor said, “I don’t have a concern. I think Tony Shorris is one of the finest public servants I’ve ever worked with, and he has an immense amount of material he has to deal with. I think he deals with it very well in a very organized fashion.”

The mayor reiterated that the city’s policies on deed restrictions needed to be reevaluated and, taking full responsibility, he said, “[W]e should’ve understood that the underlying policy did not represent our values.”

Later that week, on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, the mayor said he had “total confidence” in Shorris, who “probably has the most on his plate” of anyone in the administration. “A deed restriction change – you can understand – might not be on the top of anyone’s list on a given day,” he added. Both investigative reports noted that Shorris was given updates of the Rivington deal at multiple occasions, receiving weekly memos which he did not read. Neither Shorris nor other top city officials thought that Rivington House was an important matter.

This was an unsatisfactory explanation for Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College’s School of Public and International Affairs, who believes Shorris dropped the ball. “He’s doing a million things,” Muzzio said of Shorris, “but that doesn’t absolve him of a management and communications error.”

What irks Muzzio most about the Rivington House situation was how the administration dealt with the fallout. “In and of itself, the Rivington case isn’t a major deal,” said Muzzio. “It’s the sidestepping and stonewalling, the half-truths, untruths, and sophistry,” which are. “It’s part of this administration’s DNA,” he added.

“One could argue it was a minor deal and people gave it perfunctory attention,” he said, “but it shows that, after the fact, communication was lousy.”

At the July 25 news conference, de Blasio said of Shorris, “I think if you look across the whole range of issues he deals with…this is one of the only things you can say like this. It’s a pretty damn good batting average on his part.”

Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, called the selling of Rivington House to a condo developer a “civic tragedy” considering the historical importance of the building as a home for HIV/AIDS patients. But Sherrill doesn’t believe there was any intentional wrongdoing or gross incompetence. “What ended up seeming to be massive incompetence could’ve been the cumulative effect of a lot of small mistakes,” he said in phone interview.

Sherrill said the administration was on its back foot once the news broke that the deal was being scrutinized. “It’s very difficult to get ahead of this kind of story once it’s broken so City Hall was playing catch up,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Investigations Paint Picture of City Hall Mismanagement Mon, 08 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Without Key Stakeholders, Administration Supports Council Police Misconduct Bill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6419:without-key-stakeholders-administration-supports-council-police-misconduct-bill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6419:without-key-stakeholders-administration-supports-council-police-misconduct-bill jumaane williams

Council Member Jumaane Williams (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations heard a bill on Tuesday, sponsored by Council Member Jumaane Williams, which would require centralized reporting of data on police misconduct from multiple agencies to identify systemic problems and help create an early intervention system for the NYPD. To the disappointment of Williams and others, though, key stakeholders to be affected by the bill and instrumental in implementing it if it becomes law, were not present to testify at the hearing.

The bill, Intro. 119, requires the Inspector General for the NYPD, whose office is part of the Department of Investigations, to provide a report every six months on cases of police misconduct, particularly civil cases filed against police officers, in order to develop systemic recommendations on training, disciplining and monitoring officers. Council Member Williams was a co-lead sponsor of the law creating the NYPD IG, which passed over a Mayor Michael Bloomberg veto in 2013.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the city’s Law Department testified in support of the bill, which has been through a number of revisions since it was first heard at the Council two years ago. At earlier hearings, Law Department representatives expressed concern that they lacked the necessary resources to provide the data required and that some of the information may be confidential under attorney-client privilege. The department represents employees of city agencies, including the NYPD, in civil and criminal litigation.

Thomas Giovanni, chief of staff and executive assistant for government policy at the Law Department, said the bill in its current form resolved those issues and “strikes an appropriate balance between the Law Department’s operational capability and its mandate to safeguard the attorney-client relationship with the desire of the public to know more about the performance of the city’s police officers.”

Other than the Law Department, there was no other testimony from the de Blasio administration or related entities. No one testified from the NYPD, the Department of Investigations, the NYPD inspector general’s office, the Civilian Complaints Review Board, or the Commission to Combat Police Corruption. Under the legislation, these agencies would coordinate to provide the required data. The absences of the IG and NYPD were particularly felt, considering the bill aims at reforming the police department and would be executed by the IG’s office.

“Certainly there were questions here that were relevant to the PD, the IG or the DOI, and those questions couldn’t be adequately asked or answered because they were absent,” Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee, told reporters after the hearing.

Council Member Williams also expressed disappointment that the IG and NYPD failed to show up at the hearing. “I think if they weren’t here, someone from the administration should’ve been here that can answer the questions as a whole because it does apply to more than just the law department,” he said after the hearing.

The Department of Investigation declined to comment for this article. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, an IG report that undermined the belief in aggressive policing of low-level offenses as preventative of felony crimes invited a sharp rebuke from the NYPD and led to an ensuing back-and-forth between the head of the DOI, Mark Peters, and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. One reporter asked Council Members Williams and Gentile if this might have been a reason behind the absences. “If there is a spat going on,” Gentile responded, “they shouldn’t hold our bill hostage as a result, so to speak. We’re gonna move forward in any regard. It would’ve just been a more complete hearing had they been here.”

(The same reporter, from Crain’s New York Business, said Council Member Rory Lancman, a member of the committee, told her after the hearing that the administration was “contemptuous” of the Council for not being there.)

Representatives from the Legal Aid Society and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also testified at the hearing. “This bill is an important first step in identifying patterns and trends of police misconduct and has the potential to improve both officer performance and police-community relations,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Unit in Criminal Practice. The two organizations also proposed amendments to the bill to make it more effective. These included expanding the data collected, specifying how civil action data can be used, and ensuring transparency in the collection and analysis of the data.

A concern brought up by Council Members Lancman and Helen Rosenthal was that the city should also collect and examine data on misconduct by precinct and geographical area. Law Department officials said this would be overly cumbersome and even possibly misleading in cases where police officers are assigned to different locations for specific events.

A second-order effect of the bill that emerged at the hearing is a reduction in the city’s expenditure on litigation arising from misconduct cases. Early in the hearing, Gentile cited Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allocation of $4.5 million to the Law Department to fight the increasing number of lawsuits against the NYPD, especially frivolous ones. The Law Department’s Giovanni stressed that this funding was meant for hiring more attorneys to deal with cases faster and more efficiently.

Later, in response to Gentile’s questioning, Giovanni said, “The more efficient information exchange we have, the more clear we are about trends, the more we know about what’s happening, I assume that hopefully more efficient our response will be, and ultimately that means cost savings. That’s the goal.” He estimated these savings would occur at least a year after the bill is approved.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Without Key Stakeholders, Administration Supports Council Police Misconduct Bill Tue, 28 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Independent Budgeting a Little-Used Practice for City Watchdog Agencies http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6373:independent-budgeting-a-little-used-practice-for-city-watchdog-agencies http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6373:independent-budgeting-a-little-used-practice-for-city-watchdog-agencies de blasio budget presentation independent budgeting

Mayor de Blasio makes a budget presentation (photo via Mayor's Office)


During the annual budget process, city agencies and entities are at the mercy of the Mayor and the City Council, who ultimately set the budget. But unlike many, the several agencies and officials who regularly monitor, regulate, or litigate against the mayoral administration are put in an awkward situation, annually appealing for funding in a dynamic that can hamper their ability to carry out charter-mandated duties and, in some cases, lead to politically-motivated budget cuts.

The Public Advocate, for example, is meant to act as a watchdog over the mayor, but relies on the mayor to determine the office’s budget.

Representatives of the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, tasked with training and regulating city employees including the Mayor and City Council members, have said this spring that their agency is underfunded but that repeated requests for additional funding have been turned down by the city’s Office of Management and Budget.

Independent budgeting for oversight or autonomous entities, which include Borough Presidents, the Public Advocate, Comptroller, Department of Investigation, District Attorneys, and Conflict of Interest Board, is a solution that was once widely promoted by members of the public and government officials alike. Under independent budgeting, offices would receive a fixed annual amount scaled to the budget for a larger pertinent office or some set percentage of the city’s overall expense budget.

The Independent Budget Office is the only city agency with fully independent budgeting, a position it enjoys because of its unique oversight duties. Rather than have its budget set by the Mayor, IBO receives "no less than" 12.5 percent of the annual budget of the Office of Management and Budget. The Campaign Finance Board also has a somewhat-independent budget—the Mayor must include an annual amount suggested by the CFB in the Executive Budget without adjusting it, but that amount is subject to recommendations made by the Borough Presidents, Comptroller, and Mayor, and can be amended by the City Council.

Support for independent budgeting seems to have peaked during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, seemingly fueled by dissatisfaction with an especially thin budget. According to a 2010 report by government reform group Citizens Union, “most” of the borough presidents, the Conflict of Interest Board, former Public Advocates Mark Green and Betsy Gotbaum, and then Public Advocate Bill de Blasio had requested independent budgeting for their respective agencies by that year.

“In this current structure, there is simply no way for a borough president to be a truly independent voice,” Marty Markowitz, then-borough president of Brooklyn, said in a 2010 testimony before the city Charter Revision Commission. “We go in and ‘pitch’ as if we were a nonprofit community group or cultural organization hoping upon hope that in the end, we get the funding we need for the staff and resources to do our Charter-mandated jobs.”

That Charter Revision Commission did not reach a conclusion regarding independent budgeting, but vaguely urged future commissions to “devote significant resources to studying the roles of both COIB and various elected officials so as to make an intelligent assessment of their fiscal needs” and “assure the independence and stability of such entities.”

In the years that followed, however, the $59.5 billion adopted budget for fiscal year 2010 swelled to an $82.2 billion executive budget for fiscal 2017 (the budget currently being finalized), and calls for independent budgeting waned. Between those two budgets, borough presidents’ combined operational budgets increased from $24.2 million to $26.7 million, the public advocate’s budget increased from $1.8 million to $3.3 million, and the five district attorneys combined budgets increased from $259 million to $324 million.

Under the current administration, officials are loathe to call for independent budgeting. Last week, Public Advocate Letitia James declined to comment on the prospect of independent budgeting via a spokesperson. In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams did not say he supported independent budgeting, but that he “would be interested in reviewing any proposal” that he deemed fair. The other four borough presidents either declined to comment or did not respond to repeated requests for comment, as did the five district attorneys.

One remaining proponent of independent budgeting is the Conflict of Interest Board, which has been especially vocal in recent years. The board first proposed an amendment to the city charter to establish independent budgeting in 2009. At the time, COIB said that its ability to fairly judge and regulate city officials was impeded by its place in the annual budgeting process, and requested that it receive no less than seven thousandths of one percent (0.00007%) of the city’s annual expense budget.

Last year, COIB reiterated its proposal with its request adjusted to four thousandths of one percent (0.00004%) of the city budget—a proposal that it stood by this year. The reduction corresponds to the Board’s decision to drop its request for investigative authority. Four thousandths of one percent of this year’s $82.2 billion Executive Budget would have given COIB $3.3 million; instead, it is allocated $2.33 million.

Because COIB is an independent ethics agency without a source of revenue or set constituency, the Board’s argument goes, it should not have to rely on the officials it regulates to pass on the board’s funding. COIB has cited similar independent budgeting systems already in place for the state of Michigan’s Civil Service Commission, New Orleans’ Ethics Review Board, and Philadelphia’s Board of Ethics.

Despite reiterations of this proposal by COIB every year, the city administration has not moved toward a charter amendment despite support from some City Council members. COIB Executive Director Carolyn Miller told Gotham Gazette that in her view, this inaction likely stemmed from administrative reluctance to increase the number of agencies not centrally monitored and controlled for financial reasons, which she acknowledged was “reasonable.”

“There hasn't been that much receptivity generally,” Miller said. “I think probably it's more of an administration issue than a Council issue.”

City Council Member Alan Maisel, chair of the Committee on Standards and Ethics, which has oversight of COIB, told Gotham Gazette that he agrees COIB should have independent budgeting.

“They should not be dependent on a particular budget item because then of course there's always the implication that they're being prevented from doing their absolute necessary job,” Maisel said. “But it's not getting much traction. I think when it comes down to assigning dollars to different agencies this is not a priority.”

COIB’s proposal is primarily an ethical one—although its independent budgeting proposal would increase the Board’s funding, Miller says COIB would still be underfunded. The board’s budget has been markedly anemic even after a 2010 charter amendment mandated that COIB provide biannual ethics training to all city employees. That year, the Board’s supervisors took two percent pay cuts in order to maximize training personnel, and although COIB’s adopted budget increased from $1.88 million for fiscal 2010 to $2.22 million for fiscal 2016, those pay cuts have not been reversed, according to Miller. Meanwhile, the city employee headcount continues to swell, giving COIB more people to train and assist with ethical quandaries.

This year, COIB testified at a preliminary budget hearing that it was underfunded and had made repeated requests to the city’s budget office for more funding. After being denied several times, COIB wrote a letter to the city budget office requesting just $26,000 in additional funds for its “most critical budget needs,” which was granted. Mayor de Blasio said he was unaware of the board’s financial struggle when asked about it by Gotham Gazette at a May 15 press conference, but promised to reexamine the board’s funding.

Although calls for independent budgeting seem aimed at an agency’s financial stability, arguments for independent budgeting are rooted in the ability to regulate, monitor, or prosecute independently. Independent budgeting would provide protection for agencies like COIB, the Comptroller, Department of Investigation, Public Advocate, and District Attorneys—all of whom are ostensibly watchdogs of the mayoral administration—against vindictive mayors who might seek to hobble their effectiveness for political reasons.

When the Independent Budget Office upset Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1998, its independent budget ultimately saved it from his attempts to defund the agency in retaliation. IBO had charged the mayor with violating the City Charter by withholding city finance information from the budget office, and Giuliani, a Republican, called IBO “the most partisan group of Democrats” and implied the agency should be abolished. Because of IBO’s independent budget, however, Giuliani was unable to weaken the budget office’s funding in subsequent years.

“IBO would not have come into being were it not for the guaranteed budget line, and it certainly would not have remained in business...Why would the Mayor or Speaker [of the City Council] want the city to fund an agency over which they had no control? You can understand the political calculus,” IBO Director Ronnie Lowenstein told Gotham Gazette. “In the past, borough presidents and public advocates have also fought with similar logic to get a budget guarantee.

Throughout his time in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, made his displeasure with the office of the Public Advocate clear in word and deed, calling it a “total waste of everybody’s money” even after reducing its budget from $2.9 million to $1.8 million. Last year, former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum told Gotham Gazette that mechanisms should have been in place to protect her office from Bloomberg’s personal motivations.

“The mayor…should not be controlling the budget of the person who’s looking over their shoulder,” Gotbaum said. “Because [Bloomberg] would get furious at me and then come June, July, he’d cut the budget.” (All four public advocates, including the current one, Letitia James, have been Democrats.)

As the first former public advocate to be elected mayor, de Blasio quickly increased the public advocate’s budget to $3.2 million for fiscal 2015 and then to $3.4 million for fiscal 2016. James took advantage of the budget increase to carve out an enhanced, especially litigious role for her office. While taking on certain issues and criticizing specific city agencies, James has not been publicly critical of de Blasio. She has also not called for independent budgeting.

Maisel sees the public advocate’s current power and budget as tenuous. “The job of the public advocate is to look into everything and try to correct the things that need to be corrected. Some people take it personally, like mayors,” Maisel said. “Betsy Gotbaum was not a malicious individual, she saw a need for her to do certain things. And Giuliani and Bloomberg both belittled whoever the public advocate was.”

Maisel’s view is in line with the 2010 Citizens Union report, which concluded that it “undermines honesty and integrity in our elected officials if they feel the need to couch their remarks and opinions for fear of having their budget cut.”

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan, independent budget watchdog organization, does not have a stance on independent budgeting according to Vice President Maria Doulis, who added in a statement to Gotham Gazette that CBC does “caution against dedicated formulas” for funding agencies.

The Comptroller and Department of Investigation are also responsible for weeding out fraud and abuse among city officials, but have not undergone the same level of financial turbulence from administration to administration as the public advocate. While the Comptroller’s funding has increased steadily from $66 million in the fiscal 2010 adopted budget to $96 million in this year’s executive budget, DOI funding has increased by nearly 43 percent in the past year to $47 million in this year’s executive budget, which scales with a newly proactive role the department has taken on. Spokespeople for both the Comptroller and DOI declined to comment on the prospect of independent budgeting.

Like the Public Advocate, who regularly files suits against the de Blasio administration, District Attorneys are responsible for pursuing public corruption cases against city and state officials. In a notable recent example of such action, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance subpoenaed City Hall last month as part of his investigation into the fundraising activities of Mayor de Blasio and his allies.

Some have pointed to a web of political connections between Vance and de Blasio, one strand being the simple fact that de Blasio sets the annual budget for Vance’s office. A spokesperson for Vance declined to comment on the topic of independent budgeting. All five district attorney offices recently testified at a City Council budget hearing that they are in need of more funds.

“In most cases you wouldn't have the investigative agency at the mercy of the executive when the executive is going to be the subject of the investigation, that makes no sense,” Maisel said. “There should be some impartial way of determining how much money a District Attorney gets so it's not subject to the whims of who happens to be in the administration doing the budget.”

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by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that IBO receives no less than 12.5% of the OMB budget, not 10% as previously stated.

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Independent Budgeting a Little-Used Practice for City Watchdog Agencies Thu, 02 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Budget Allocations Measure Mayor’s Commitment to Ethics Agencies http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6324:budget-allocations-indicate-mayor-s-commitment-to-ethics-agencies http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6324:budget-allocations-indicate-mayor-s-commitment-to-ethics-agencies bdb town hall mic crowd

Mayor de Blasio at a town hall (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


Over the last few weeks, facing the spectre of multiple investigations, Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly stressed that he, his administration, and his allies operate ethically. “We hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity,” the mayor has said repeatedly as reporters have questioned him about allegations of impropriety in his fundraising operations.

In support, the mayor has regularly referred to the city’s internal mechanisms for ensuring such behavior.

“Our Conflict of Interest Board, our Department of Investigation, all the different tools that we have here in the city that create accountability have gotten stronger and stronger, and we have the most rigorous campaign finance system in the country,” he told reporters at a press conference on April 13. It was not the only time the mayor has referenced the threesome in place to help keep government officials on the straight and narrow and reduce the influence of money in politics.

As the mayor has cited the training the Conflict of Interest Board delivers to city employees and the guidance he and his team sought from it while engaging in their fundraising, as well as the work of the Department of Investigations, the city’s annual budget process has been unfolding.

The season has shifted from the preliminary to the executive budget iterations, with a final deal between de Blasio and the City Council due by the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. As the mayor has touted both COIB and DOI, he has had an opportunity to put money where his mouth is, so to speak, while his administration has also had the chance to weigh in on pending tweaks to the city’s campaign finance system that include reducing the impact of donation bundlers who have business before the city. There are currently limits on how much entities with business before the city can donate to candidates. (A federal investigation is reportedly focused on whether donors to a nonprofit aligned with the mayor received favorable city action. Nonprofits face no donation limits.)

During a preliminary budget hearing in March, COIB representatives told City Council members that the agency was significantly underfunded and thus unable to retain good staff or complete its mandated trainings.

DOI on the other hand, had no complaints as its budget was already ballooning, with Commissioner Mark Peters simply left to explain how he is using the additional millions.

When the mayor released his executive budget on April 27, both COIB and DOI saw bumps in funding, though for COIB funding is still not where board officials or City Council members want to see it.

The Department of Investigation’s $47.4 million allocation in the executive budget is about $3.2 million more than the preliminary budget of $44.2 million. Over last year’s adopted budget of $30.9 million, that’s a 53.3 percent increase. During his preliminary budget hearing, DOI Commissioner Peters justified the agency’s budget increase, telling the City Council’s Committee on Investigations, chaired by Council Member Vincent Gentile, that the agency has become more proactive and has started to focus on overarching systemic issues that can lead to corruption and ineffectiveness.

“As the City's workforce continues to expand,” said mayoral spokesperson Karen Hinton, “the funding provided in both financial plans will directly support the additional staff required for [DOI] to fulfill its Charter-mandated mission to eliminate fraud, corruption and mismanagement of public fund and policies.”

Mike Bistreich, legislation and budget director for Gentile, said the additional funding would also help alleviate some of the lag in background checks that DOI is supposed to perform.

However, DOI’s budget did not include significant savings, which was a cause for concern for Gentile at the preliminary budget hearing. In response, Peters proposed that 261 investigators at other agencies be moved to DOI’s payroll so their overtime could be paid through federal asset forfeiture funds.

“As investigative staff from other agencies come onboard with DOI through the positions approved in the last financial plans, DOI will be able to cover their overtime with this funding stream,” said Hinton. “In effect, saving City Tax Levy that was previously dedicated to the overtime burden. This has not been fully implemented.” Hinton said that DOI will save at least $1.6 million over the next two years, though, by implementing this for current lease payments and employee overtime.

Peters, it should be noted, has recused himself from one investigation DOI is undertaking into the de Blasio administration, over a suspect lifting of deed restrictions on a former health care facility that will become luxury housing. Peters was de Blasio’s 2013 campaign finance chair. His potential conflict of interest in leading the agency charged with investigating the mayor’s office and other city agencies was the subject of his 2014 City Council confirmation hearing when de Blasio nominated him for the job. He was voted through by a wide margin.

At the Conflicts of Interest Board, which is largely focused on preventing corruption through education and guidance, the funding picture is a bit more grim. Although it receives a $2.32 million allocation in the new executive budget, about $90,000 more than last year’s adopted budget, it is not enough for an agency where the workload in recent years has skyrocketed and staffing has remained relatively flat.

COIB representatives complained at their preliminary budget hearing that the agency struggles to retain staff because of low salaries. Three proposals they made in 2015 for increased funding were rejected by the Office of Management and Budget, they said.

Raising salaries across the board would’ve required less than $200,000, according to COIB officials who testified at the preliminary budget hearing. Instead, the executive budget outlines fiscal 2017 salary increases totaling $22,000, along with an additional $4,000 for training equipment, according to Hinton. Part of the total increase since last year’s adopted budget was due to collective bargaining agreements that have been settled. Hinton pointed out that during Mayor de Blasio’s tenure, COIB has received about $292,000 in additional funding over various budgets.

“I wish it was more,” said Alan Maisel, chair of the Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee, which has oversight of COIB. “With more money, they could always do more -- more trainings in ethics rules, they could send teams out to site locations.”

Since 2010, COIB has been mandated with training city employees in ethics rules every two years. The city has nearly 320,000 employees and COIB has only four full-time staffers, out of a total of 22, who conduct these trainings.

Maisel agreed with the mayor’s assertion that the COIB is a strong accountability agency but insisted that it could do a better job with more staffing and resources. When Gotham Gazette asked if he’d push for more funding in the executive budget negotiations, Maisel said, “I’ve already done my pushing. I don’t know where it’s going to go...Hopefully we can get them to add more money. We’re not asking for a fortune here.”

Council Member Brad Lander, a member of the ethics committee, agrees. “I think it’ll be great to give them a modest amount of additional resources,” he said, noting that COIB budget demands were relatively low, so the $90,000 increase already made this year was significant. But, he added, “I think it’ll be good to give them a little more.”

Executive budget hearings began on Friday with the Committee on Finance, an opportunity for Council members to air any budget concerns with de Blasio’s budget director. The hearing included no mention of the Conflict of Interest Board. There is no specific executive budget hearing for the Committee on Standards and Ethics scheduled. This often happens when Council members decide there is little to discuss around agency allocations.

There is also no executive budget hearing scheduled for the Committee on Oversight and Investigations.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Budget Allocations Measure Mayor’s Commitment to Ethics Agencies Mon, 09 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000