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.