Gotham Gazette Mon, 21 Oct 2019 00:18:20 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Proposal Would Mandate Media Blitz 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.

Proposal Would Mandate Media Blitz for City's Anti-Corruption Efforts Mon, 19 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Government Investigator Explains 43% Budget Bump peters doi

DOI Commissioner Mark Peters (photo: @DOInews)

The New York City Department of Investigation has become a more proactive body focusing on systemic problems at city agencies, said Commissioner Mark Peters at a City Council budget hearing on Monday afternoon. Peters explained his office's increased productivity and impact in attempting to justify a nearly 43 percent increase in the department's budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1.

The City Council's evaluation of Mayor Bill de Blasio's $82 billion preliminary budget is now in its second week and administration officials continue to testify before committees on their agency expenses and programs. On Monday, the Committee on Investigations, chaired by City Council Member Vincent Gentile, heard testimony from Peters on how DOI has changed its procedures and added responsibility, and why it requires a significant increase in funding.

De Blasio's preliminary budget allocates $44.2 million to DOI, a $13.2 million, or 42.7 percent, increase over last year's adopted budget. The increase is largely due to a major agency expansion, adding 59 new staff members, for $4.5 million, bringing the total staffing to 361. Much of the workforce addition, at least 25 employees, will go to the Inspector General unit for the Department of Buildings. (DOI also oversees another 261 employees in oversight roles at city agencies, but those are not budgeted under DOI).

Of the 59 new personnel, 38 positions were baselined in the November financial plan for a total of $1.5 million, which will grow to $2.9 million in fiscal 2017.

"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 in response to Council Member Gentile inquiries about the increased budget and shift in approach. Concerns were raised in prior hearings that DOI was not arresting as many city employees as the agency had under prior commissioners.

Peters reiterated that he had moved the department to focus more on macro issues to prevent the type of misconduct that can often result in an arrest, but he also pointed out that DOI has been making more arrests. In the 2015 calendar year, DOI made 569 arrests, an 83 percent increase from 2014, based on more than 1500 investigations, and received over 700 criminal prosecution referrals, nearly double from the prior year. Peters did again caution against using arrests as an efficient metric, a point he repeated when questioned by Council Member Rory Lancman later in the hearing, saying that his office has become fairly prolific in writing insightful investigative reports.

Peters and the Council members seemed to agree that there is a good balance for DOI to strike in making arrests for theft and graft and issuing more sweeping reports. Council members indicated that with DOI's increase in arrests, it appeared to be finding the sweet spot of rooting out corruption and, through its reports, influencing preventative change.

Reports that Peters cited include a comprehensive examination of the Department of Homeless Services, which necessitated an overhaul of the city's homeless shelter policies; a report on the failure of the NYPD and NYCHA to share information about the arrest and removal of criminal offenders from NYCHA housing, which resulted in changes in both departments; and an analysis of the use of force by NYPD officers, which led the department to announce that it would track all uses of force.

"In total we have issued 25 reports of this type," Peters said, "that collectively mean that children will not live in homeless shelters with decaying rats on the floor, that we are less likely to have bricks fall off buildings and kill two-year-olds, that police are less likely to use improper force." In comparison, DOI only issued 10 reports in the four years before Peters' leadership, he said.

DOI's jurisdiction has also expanded in recent years. In 2013, the NYPD came under its ambit and in December 2015, NYC Health + Hospitals was also included.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of agency savings, which has underscored the entire budget process, came up when Gentile noted that the preliminary budget didn't mention any savings for DOI. Peters responded with a proposal, which he said he had presented to the city's Office of Management and Budget as well. Accordingly, overtime for DOI employees is paid through federal forfeiture funds and if the city were to formally transfer the payroll of 261 investigators in other city agencies to DOI, it would keep the city from spending some of its own money, replaced by federal funds.

"We run a remarkably lean shop," added Peters.

Peters did note in his opening testimony that DOI had indefinitely lost an important stream of funding. In accordance with a recent change in federal law, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in December 2015 that equitable sharing payments that are made to state and local law enforcement from federal asset forfeiture programs will come to an end. These payments, separate from overtime payments, facilitated funding for equipment, renovations, vehicles, and training, to name a few. In fiscal 2015, DOI received about $27 million in these funds. Peters estimated the fiscal 2016 amount at $12,000. (DOI has roughly three years to spend this money). But he also reassured Council Member Helen Rosenthal that this would not affect the current budget under consideration.

Council Member Lancman and Commissioner Peters did "quibble" back and forth, albeit congenially, about DOI's lack of focus on the "nuts and bolts" that led to lower arrests two years ago and then a substantial increase in arrests last year. Peters said many cases only "paid dividends" in 2015 after being carried over from the previous year.

"Let me quibble with your quibble, a little bit," Lancman said in response to Peters at one point. His concerns were that run-of-the-mill corruption cases may be getting overlooked compared to larger investigations that the department was conducting. "Something must be different at the department if the only reason that you're back to a pre-de Blasio era arrest level is significant investigations that you've started that have reached fruition," Lancman said, asking Peters if DOI recognized this issue.

Peters, cognizant of the issue, called it a "philosophical question" about the best use of finite resources. He stressed that he had heeded the Council's feedback from last year and tried to stick to a "middle course" of ensuring that systemic investigations as well as low-level corruption were handled adequately and that the agency portrayed a message of zero tolerance.

"That is a valid, legitimate conversation," Peters said, "and it's one I have with myself and with my staff almost daily."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Government Investigator Explains 43% Budget Bump Tue, 08 Mar 2016 05:01:59 +0000