A March 26 budget hearing for the Department of Investigation was used by City Council Members to quiz Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett about any internal fallout from Mayor de Blasio’s unprecedented termination of her predecessor, Mark Peters, last Nov. 16.
It also provided Ms. Garnett, a career Federal and state prosecutor, her first opportunity to publicly discuss the results of her assessment of the anti-corruption agency’s operations, her plans for improving its performance, and initiatives of her predecessor that she scrapped as excessive or “impeding the professional development of DOI staff.”
Friendship Went Sour
The dismissal of Mr. Peters, who had been Mr. de Blasio’s campaign treasurer in 2013, was the culmination of a long-simmering feud between the two men as the Commissioner pressed ahead with several high-profile probes that produced unfavorable headlines for the administration.
The falling-out came to a head after an outside counsel ruled Mr. Peters had improperly retaliated against a colleague who resisted his push to totally absorb the office of the Department of Education’s Special Commissioner for Investigation.
After he was fired, Mr. Peters wrote a scathing letter to the City Council alleging that the Mayor and his top aides tried to pressure him to back off and not issue reports on probes into major problems at the Administration for Children’s Services, the Department of Correction, and the New York City Housing Authority.
He asserted that his termination would produce a “chilling effect” on his successor, who would be responsible for carrying on probes into NYCHA, the DOE’s scrutinizing of private yeshivas’ academic performance, and the NYPD.
Presses on Yeshiva Probe
At the budget hearing, Council Member Ritchie Torres, chair of the Oversight Committee, followed up on some of the former DOI Commissioner’s allegations.
“Your predecessor made reference to a number of investigations that [pre-date] your tenure,” said Mr. Torres. “He publicly indicated that one of those investigations…..the yeshiva investigation, was close to completion….and since former Commissioner Peters made serious allegations about political interference on the part of City Hall, how do we find out as an oversight body whether that investigation has merit or resulted in a finding?”
“Although we typically don’t comment at all on investigations, I think given the public statements that have been already made about the investigation, I feel comfortable saying it is ongoing,” Ms. Garnett said. “I don’t know why Commissioner Peters would say the things he said. What I can say is that I have not been on the receiving end of any interference on the Yeshiva investigation.”
Ms. Garnett inherited an agency with a long list of successful prosecutions but a massive backlog of some 6,300 pending background checks for city employees and an overtime budget that went from $402,000 in FY 2015 to $1.14 million in FY18.
Big Guns, Night Goggles
She told Council members that she had found ways to make the agency more effective in how it deploys its Peace Officer unit of armed law-enforcement officers empowered to make arrests and execute search warrants. (There are also NYPD officers detailed to DOI.)
On Mr. Peters’s watch, the New York Times reported, that unit’s headcount spiked from 75 to over 160. The agency also purchased 140 Glock 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistols while spending $155,000 on ammunition, $140,000 on body armor, $800,000 on two-way radios and $54,000 for night-vision goggles. According to the Times, there “were discussions about buying assault rifles and even acquiring a decommissioned police boat.”
“But certain aspects of the program had expanded beyond what I believe is appropriate or necessary to support DOI’s investigative work,” Ms. Garnett testified. “We have addressed this concern by scaling back both the program and the costs associated with it, including eliminating some of the training that, after an initial review, we deemed redundant or superfluous to DOI’s mission, and reducing tangible items associated with the program, such as the number of uniforms purchased for the peace officers.”
DOI has reduced its four-month Peace Officer training academy by a month and ended the requirement that all new Peace Officer hires take a four-day off-site tactical vehicle course to prepare them for any high-speed chases they might be involved in.
She also rescinded a directive by Mr. Peters that “reduced the number of investigative-staff who could perform any function in the field, delaying investigations’ progress and impeding the professional development of DOI staff,” she said. “Decisions about who goes out in the field are now governed by the needs of the investigation and an assessment of the relevant facts about the operation.”
Mr. Peters is now working for the WCBS-TV as an on-camera analyst on urban issues. An email to his office did not get a response.
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