Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2677 Sat, 28 Nov 2020 13:04:20 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Department of Investigation Commissioner Pledges to Eliminate 'Shameful' Background Check Backlog https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9158-department-of-investigation-commissioner-pledges-to-eliminate-shameful-background-check-backlog https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9158-department-of-investigation-commissioner-pledges-to-eliminate-shameful-background-check-backlog city oversight hearing

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The Department of Investigation, an independent city agency that monitors and investigates government corruption, waste, and mismanagement, has yet to complete thousands of background checks on workers currently employed in city government. At a hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations on Monday, DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett sought to explain why the agency had fallen behind and assured Council members that the problem would not carry on into the future.

As of Friday, February 21, DOI had 5,122 backlogged background check applications from city agencies, down from about 6,479 on July 1, 2019, Garnett testified. She pledged that DOI “is successfully shrinking the massive backlog that had been growing for years and remains committed to eliminating it within four years, if not sooner. This issue is among my top priorities.” By that timeline, Garnett apparently meant from the time of her appointment last year.

Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the committee, said the backlog “is not only an embarrassment but it’s a threat to the integrity of city government.” He noted that backlog came under scrutiny in recent months after David Hay, a high-ranking official at the Department of Education whose file was included in that backlog, was arrested in Wisconsin in December on charges of seeking sex with a minor. Hay did undergo two checks by the DOE and Garnett has insisted that, even if her agency were to have conducted a background check, it would not have necessarily surfaced the red flags that were found in Hay’s past (he misrepresented certain facts in his file, only found through a subsequent investigation by the Special Commissioner of Investigation at the DOE).

Torres also cited the example of Kevin O’Brien, a former aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio who was fired after facing allegations of sexual harassment. O’Brien had previously been fired for the same reason from a job at the Democratic Governors Association, a fact that he lied about in a background check questionnaire. Garnett said it would have been hard to identify O’Brien’s red flags because the case involved a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and he committed “perjury” by not disclosing it on his questionnaire.

“What I want to hear from DOI is a diagnosis of what went wrong,” Torres said in his opening statement. “Why was the Background Investigations Unit allowed to atrophy from neglect?”

Garnett made it clear that the backlog she inherited was a “shock” and that it seemed to stem largely from the department being woefully understaffed to handle the massive uptick in city hiring after de Blasio took office. She said she has been attempting to cut down that backlog since she took over as commissioner early last year, making it her priority to hire new investigators and restructure the Backgrounds Investigation Unit, she said.

The backlog increased from about 2,000 in the summer of 2014, de Blasio’s first year in office, to about 6,400 by April 2019, while DOI’s background investigation staff only saw moderate increases. “The current circumstance is shameful. It is a dereliction of DOI’s responsibility to the hiring agencies and to the city as a whole,” Garnett said.

The department also added 13 new positions with additional funding last year to create a team dedicated solely to resolving the backlog, while ensuring that a separate 28-person team completes all new background checks within six months of receiving an application from a city agency. Since July 1, the latter team has completed 766 new background investigations in an average of 71 days, Garnett said.

Garnett said she is taking additional steps to further reduce the backlog while maintaining a balance between the “objective” and “subjective” triggers for an investigation. One “objective” trigger is a salary of $100,000, which Garnett said she is considering increasing to $125,000. She said she would also tweak the categories of managerial employees that are currently subject to background investigations to narrow it somewhat. She also said the department is updating how the “subjective” criteria are defined, which cover employees such as those who have access to sensitive information-technology infrastructure and those who have the authority to negotiate and approve contracts, permits, and zoning applications.

She also seemed open to legislative fixes to the background investigation process. City agencies only send background check applications after making a hiring decision, and then help applicants fill out their forms before sending them to DOI. That means an agency employee could be on the job for months before DOI unearths any information that could mean they should not have been hired or are fired or disciplined.

Torres suggested that perhaps some aspects of the background check process could be preconditions for hiring. Garnett said fingerprinting and a criminal history check would be feasible. “We could accommodate it logistically if the agencies were willing to partner with us in doing that,” she said, emphasizing that “the agencies really control the pipeline.”

She also said she didn’t have “any inherent objection” to creating statutory timelines for background checks going forward, though she said that doesn’t apply to the backlog. “I would resist a legislative mandate regarding the backlog...Legislation’s kind of a blunt instrument,” she said.

“We think it’s surgical,” Torres replied.

Garnett also pushed back against the Council member suggestion that DOI inquire specifically about sexual misconduct in its background investigations, discussing both the Hay and O’Brien cases. “Given the national zeitgeist, the #MeToo movement, why not ask specifically about sexual misconduct?” he wondered.

Garnett cautioned against the approach, pointing out that DOI seeks any and all adverse information about a city employee, and that narrower questions could lead to limited answers. “I don’t think that privileging sexual harassment allegations over the range of other corruption vulnerabilities that are our primary focus, is the way to go.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Department of Investigation Commissioner Pledges to Eliminate 'Shameful' Background Check Backlog Mon, 24 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Department of Investigation to Publicly Track City Agency Compliance with Recommended Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8922-department-of-investigation-to-publicly-track-city-agency-compliance-with-recommended-reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8922-department-of-investigation-to-publicly-track-city-agency-compliance-with-recommended-reforms cm ritchie oversight

DOI Commissioner Margaret Garnett (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The Department of Investigation, a watchdog agency tasked with rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in city government, issues hundreds of recommendations each year, urging other city agencies to reform their procedures and enhance the services they provide. It’s not always apparent to the general public, or even elected officials, whether agencies comply with those suggestions, which are typically based on extensive investigations.

But the department has now promised a new database next year that will provide a window into the agencies that are willing and able to improve and those that are resistant or incapable to do so. At the same time, the City Council may codify that database into law.    

Council Member Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, is pursuing legislation that would mandate that DOI create an online, public-facing database to track the various Policy and Procedure Recommendations (PPRs) that it makes every year and how agencies are or aren’t implementing them. The legislation has three other sponsors and was the subject of a Council committee hearing on Wednesday chaired by Torres. 

DOI’s recommendations are just that, recommendations, and agencies are not beholden to them. An agency can choose to “accept” or “reject” recommendations and, even when they are accepted, there is no guarantee they will be implemented.

“Without systematic tracking by DOI, agencies have no incentive to implement reforms, and the public has no means of knowing whether agencies are implementing reforms as promised,” Torres said in his opening remarks at the hearing. “An investigation is only as good as the real-world result it produces. It is only as good as the follow-up and the follow-through. As a city, we cannot afford a hit-and-run approach to investigations. We cannot content ourselves to issue reports and then move on to the next order of business.”

Torres has a willing partner in DOI. At the hearing, Commissioner Margaret Garnett said the department has been working for the last year to create a database along the lines of Torres’ bill. It will report on recommendations made, those that are accepted, rejected, and implemented (all of which is required by the bill) and would record agency explanations on implementation, if provided. 

“The idea is significant,” she said, “providing a window for the public into DOI’s compelling work in a way that goes beyond our press releases on arrests or our public reports, and reflects the wide-reaching impact our investigations have on the city.” 

Garnett noted that DOI already publishes some information about PPRs in the annual Mayor’s Management Report. Between the 2015 and 2019 fiscal years, the department issued a total of 4,669 recommendations to agencies. Currently, DOI only reports on the percentage of recommendations accepted by agencies in sum, and that does not get at how many have been implemented. For instance, in fiscal year 2018, DOI issued 2,538 recommendations, 56% of which were accepted. In previous years, there were far fewer recommendations but they were accepted at a much higher rate. (The report does not show how many of the 549 recommendations from fiscal year 2019 were accepted.)

Garnett said DOI will provide that new information, about the percentage of reforms accepted and implemented, in the MMR for the 2020 Fiscal Year. The larger database will be made public by the summer of 2020 or potentially earlier, she said. 

Garnett acknowledged that DOI has not had an effective centralized method so far to track how its recommendations have been implemented. “In the past, that had been a process that had been located more with individual [Inspectors General] for the agencies, and different inspectors general at DOI had different methods for keeping track and for following up with agencies,” she said. The new database will provide both the public and the department internally with a tool that “would show all of the PPRs and an accurate and up-to-date assessment of where the agencies are in both agreement and implementation,” she added.

Garnett did caution the committee against mandating a ranking of the reform recommendations in any public database or using it to grade individual agencies for compliance. “All PPRs are not created alike,” she said in her opening statement. “Some address relatively minor issues while some address significant systemic changes. Some are more costly or difficult to implement while others may require the approval or cooperation of other entities.”

As Garnett pointed out, PPRs span across city agencies. For instance, a 2015 report on the NYPD’s use-of-force policies included 15 recommendations on policy, training, discipline and documentation procedures. A 2016 investigation of the Administration for Children’s Services yielded five recommendations on case management and employee discipline. A 2017 report on the New York City Housing Authority’s failure to conduct mandatory lead paint safety inspections made five broad recommendations on compliance and reporting. 

One notable exception from the database will be the Department of Education, which falls under the purview of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District. Garnett’s predecessor, Mark Peters, infamously tried to wrest control of SCI and was fired by the mayor for overstepping his authority (though Peters and others have also claimed that de Blasio was unhappy with how aggressively Peters had approached his work holding city agencies accountable, and a possible investigation into the mayor’s office over a stalled DOE examination of yeshiva education that some believe de Blasio himself has slow-walked). SCI is independent of DOI but must report certain information to it. 

“A dashboard that fails to include one-third of city government is deeply deficient,” Torres said, referring to the massive DOE. “And that might be a major point of disagreement between DOI and the Council. And this is a point on which I'm going to push very hard. But it feels like it would be odd not to include the largest city agency, or city entity, in the dashboard.”

Garnett was open to the idea. “I think that's certainly something that we can explore,” she said.

Garnett did reject an idea put forward by Torres that the online dashboard allow comments from the public. 

“Is there going to be some mechanism by which the opinions of external stakeholders are going to be included in the dashboard as DOI envisions it?,” Torres asked. “Is that something you're open to?”

“That, for a variety of reasons, is a challenge that I think is beyond our ability to implement,” Garnett responded. “The information that is currently going to be in this PPR tracking database is all information that is sort of in the possession and control of DOI.” She noted that simply making the information available to the public would allow individuals, elected officials, community groups and advocates to hold agencies to account. 

“Personally, I don't know how much time you spend on the internet, Chairman Torres, but I'm not sure that a publicly open comment field is useful,” she joked.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Department of Investigation to Publicly Track City Agency Compliance with Recommended Reforms Wed, 13 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Considers De Blasio Nominee for Department of Investigation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8102-city-council-considers-de-blasio-nominee-for-department-of-investigation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8102-city-council-considers-de-blasio-nominee-for-department-of-investigation mg headshot

Margaret Garnett (photo via City Hall)


Margaret Garnett, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pick to replace recently fired Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters, received praise from City Council Members and the support of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at a Monday hearing on her nomination. Currently serving as the Executive Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice in the New York State Attorney General’s office, Garnett’s nomination hearing came amid significant controversy over de Blasio’s firing of Peters, who claimed on his way out that de Blasio’s behavior and motives in taking the unprecedented step of letting him go were highly questionable.

The DOI commissioner, charged with running the agency that independently investigates corruption and wrongdoing in city government, is the only mayoral department-head appointee that requires approval by the City Council. Peters, the treasurer for de Blasio’s first mayoral campaign, used his position to examine systemic failings in the mayor’s administration and issued several scathing reports on the public housing authority, the police department, and the children’s services department, among other agencies. But Peters’ work drew the ire of the mayor, who reportedly considered removing the commissioner for months.

The mayor was presented with a justifiable opportunity after an independent investigator, prosecutor James McGovern, issued a report that said Peters had exceeded his legal authority in attempting to take over an independent office that conducts oversight of the Department of Education, among other transgressions.

In responding to the report and his termination, Peters questioned the mayor’s motives in a letter to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations. Peters pointed to instances where the mayor and his aides had sought to suppress critical reports by DOI and speculated that de Blasio was attempting to bring an end to potential ongoing investigations into the mayor’s office. Those actions, he said, could chill the independence of the next DOI commissioner.

De Blasio responded that Peters was fired for cause and alluded to other troubling behavior not in the McGovern report, while adding that he regretted nominating Peters in the first place and saying the former prosecutor had delusions of grandeur. A BuzzFeed News report on Monday appeared to poke holes in Peters’ critique of the mayor, citing unnamed former and current DOI employees who said that Peters himself quashed a report about NYPD officers who lied in official statements and were not disciplined.

Naturally, Peters’ conduct and the saga around his dismissal by de Blasio formed the basis of Monday’s City Council hearing, held by the Council’s Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges, chaired by City Council Member Karen Koslowitz. Council Members questioned Garnett on the approach she would take if she was confirmed to replace Peters in leading an office with dozens of investigators and the power to make arrests, and pressed her on how she would withstand influence from the administration and handle investigations, if any, that are already underway related to the mayor’s office.

“To do its job, It is imperative that DOI remain independent from the entities it is obligated to monitor, including and especially the mayor,” Speaker Johnson said in his opening statement. “The DOI commissioner must not be beholden to any political figure and she must be capable of withstanding political pressure that would affect the integrity of DOI’s work.”

Garnett emphasized her prosecutorial experience and her apolitical beliefs in her testimony. She also said that the findings of the McGovern Report, based on which Peters was fired, were “very shocking” and said she herself would expect to be terminated under those circumstances.

The Council members and Garnett seemed reconciled to a degree of professional tension between the legislative body and the independent agency. The McGovern report, Johnson said, raised the question of whether there needs to be structural changes to prevent the types of actions for which Peters was removed. “Who watches the watchman?,” Johnson asked.

But Garnett seemed to reject that idea, emphasizing rather that DOI remain independent and create an internal culture of integrity to prevent even the commissioner from abusing their power. “It’s very important...that prosecutors and law enforcement investigators be independent from political influence or political control, partisan concerns,” Garnett said, “and in order for that independence to be effective, that often means limited oversight by elected officials and other bodies.”

Garnett said she could cite “dozens of examples” from her career of withstanding political pressure into investigations, and said bluntly that if she was ever asked to end a particular inquiry or affect its outcome, “The first thing I’d do is hang up the phone.”

“I’m not a political person, I have no political ambitions...I would much sooner risk being fired than risk damaging my professional reputation,” she later said. Garnett is a veteran prosecutor and previously served as Assistant United States Attorney for the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. She has prosecuted tax fraud, embezzlement, narcotics cases and violent crimes, supervising the Violent and Organized Crime Unit for four years. She was later appointed Chief of Appeals for the Criminal Division. In the Attorney General’s office, besides heading the criminal division, Garnett oversees investigations of deaths of unarmed civilians in police interactions through the Special Investigations and Prosecution Unit.

Council members also used the hearing as an opportunity to delve further into Peters’ actions as commissioner, seeking assurances from Garnett that she would not make the same missteps. Among Peters abuses of power was the firing of a whistleblower in his own department, which Johnson said, and Garnett agreed, might necessitate strengthening whistleblower protections through legislative action.

Garnett shared the Council members’ apprehensions about Peters’ disclosure, in his letter to the Council, of the possible existence of investigations into the mayor’s office. But she also promised to look into any such investigations and said she would follow the facts and evidence without backing down as Peters’ letter suggested.

“I can assure you that I will not be chilled,” she said, “and to the extent that anyone, Mr. Peters or in the administration or otherwise, thinks that I will be intimidated or chilled, I think they’ll be sorely disappointed.”

Peters’ actions also prompted Council members to seek clarity on DOI’s role and authority over the NYPD inspector general, which is housed at DOI, and the Special Commissioner for Investigation at DOE, which Peters had tried to bring under his control. Garnett shared their concerns and was asked repeatedly about SCI’s structure in relation to DOI, even though she said she could not adequately address the question since she had yet to examine it. Council Member Mark Treyger in particular questioned whether that structural relationship should be reimagined considering that SCI has not conducted any systematic review of DOE for years despite the agency accounting for the largest share of the city budget.

Council Member Torres, who was critical of the mayor’s decision to fire Peters, said Garnett was “exceptionally qualified” to replace him. He said his “greatest frustration” with DOI was the lack of acknowledgement of the Council’s requests for probes of city agencies or particular issues. Garnett made no promises about instituting a formal reporting structure, as Torres proposed, but she agreed to have conversations with members about their concerns.

Members praised Garnett’s testimony and lengthy resume and, in the end, her confirmation to the post seemed assured (a vote is likely to be taken in committee then the full Council in the coming days). Shortly before departing the hearing, Johnson said he was impressed with Garnett’s testimony and qualifications and would support her nomination. “I feel confident in your ability to lead this agency,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Considers De Blasio Nominee for Department of Investigation Mon, 26 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000