Council Questions Promotion—and Absence—of Top Rikers Staffer

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito repeatedly questioned the judgement of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte today for promoting two high-level staffers who failed to accurately report incidents of violence at a Rikers Island jail for teenagers.

New Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, with Mayor Bill de Blasio in March. (Photo: Ed Reed/Office of the Mayor)
New Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, with Mayor Bill de Blasio in March. (Photo: Ed Reed/Office of the Mayor)

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito repeatedly questioned the judgement of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte today for promoting two high-level staffers who failed to accurately report incidents of violence at a Rikers Island jail for teenagers.

“In the attempts to really turn this agency around and make changes … do you think it was an appropriate decision to not only keep these individuals on board but to promote them?” Ms. Mark-Viverito asked the commissioner during a lengthy oversight hearing in the City Council chambers.

“Yes,” Mr. Ponte responded.

“And what would that reason be?” she asked.

“These are competent individuals,” Mr. Ponte said.

The individuals at issue are newly promoted Chief of Department William Clemons and Warden Turhan Gumusdere—who, when Mr. Clemons was a warden and Mr. Gumusdere a deputy warden, oversaw Rikers’ jail for adolescents. The facility was plagued by violence, but when the two took over, incidents of violence plummeted—until a tipster told the department that the incidents hadn’t decreased, they’d simply stopped being reported, according to The New York Times.

An internal review found the two men had “abdicated all responsibility” and should be demoted—but the former commissioner Dora B. Schriro instead ordered all criticisms of the men removed from the draft report, the Times reported. They were promoted; Mr. Ponte tapped Mr. Clemons for the high-level chief of department gig earlier this year.

“That is pretty scathing,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said of the determination the men had abdicated their duty. “I think that, again it’s one thing to keep individuals on board for whatever reason. Another thing is the message that is sent when promoting individuals that not only internally were asked to be demoted but the Department of Investigation said should not be promoted. I don’t know if that sends, really, a positive, affirming message to us that serious changes will continue if we have people that are abdicating responsibility. You don’t think that sends a mixed message?”

Mr. Ponte responded that all those criticisms were only contained in the draft report—not the final one.

“You’re reading from a draft report that was never published. The published report does not say that,” Mr. Ponte said.

But Ms. Mark-Viverito pointed out that those criticisms were ordered to be removed from the final report, rendering it an incomplete document. “If you’re saying that’s report the that you’re basing your decisions on, that raises additional questions.”

“The report that I reviewed when I promoted them is not the report you’re reading,” Mr. Ponte responded, even as Ms. Mark-Viverito continued to point out that he could have changed his mind after reading the draft report when it emerged last month.

Later in the hearing, the two tangled again as Mr. Ponte referred to a decrease in violence under Mr. Clemons.

“Commissioner, I’m sorry, you keep saying that—but it’s clearly indicated that information was omitted in this report that you keep referencing,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said. “If that was the report that you’re basing it on, in light of this new information, I don’t understand how you stand by that decision—it’s clear, it’s known that information was omitted, both on the personnel side and on the incident side.”

Relying on the scrubbed report, Ms. Mark-Viverito said, is “not logical. It doesn’t make sense.”

The Council members might have liked to quiz Mr. Clemons himself on the issue—and many others—but he was not in attendance at the hearing, with an acting chief of department in his place.

“Why is your chief of department not here today? Why is Mr. Clemons not here?” Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the criminal justice committee, asked.

“He’s on leave,” Mr. Ponte said shortly. “A planned vacation.”

Ms. Crowley, too, questioned his fitness for the job: “So this committee and the council, should the council feel assured that he is capable of handling the duties of chief of department? Although we’ve seen a new report that wasn’t washed, you still feel assured that he is capable of being chief of department?”

Ms. Crowley said the department was notified of the hearing in August, and pointed out it is the first since the Department of Justice issued a scathing report decrying a “culture of violence” against adolescents on Rikers Island.

“How could you let the chief of department not be here to answer questions?” she asked.

Mr. Ponte was silent for seven seconds. “No answer?” Ms. Crowley prompted.

“It is, at this point, it is what it is,” Mr. Ponte responded.

After the hearing, Mr. Ponte told reporters that Mr. Clemons’ 30 years of experience goes beyond a “one-time event.”

And he said when he did read the draft report—complete with its criticisms of Mr. Clemons for not fully reading violent incident reports and having staff he deemed “incompetent” do it instead—it did not change his mind.

“I never saw the draft report until it came up recently, and it doesn’t change my mind. Because the factual ending of the report was there was no nexus to them doing something—other than in some cases they should have noticed things they didn’t notice,” Mr. Ponte told the Observer.

The hearing also focused on Ms. Crowley’s push to move 16- and 17-year-olds off Rikers Island. Mr. Ponte said he was willing to do so, in addition to a pledge he’s made to stop putting juveniles in solitary confinement by the end of the year.

“We’re looking at suitable sites, so we would be in favor of that if we we found suitable sites that met the needs,” he said.

Ms. Crowley and Councilman Daniel Dromm have also introduced a resolution urging Albany to raise the age of criminal responsibility—New York is one of just two states that always considers a 16-year-old an adult in court.

“My personal position is yes, I would be in favor of that,” Mr. Ponte said of increasing the age.

This story has been updated to note the resolution on the age of criminal responsibility was co-introduced by Ms. Crowley. Council Questions Promotion—and Absence—of Top Rikers Staffer