Unique law enforcement agency tackles NYC corruption
By Adam Goldman
NEW YORK — A little-known law enforcement agency - the only one of its kind in the country - has been behind some of the most sensational headlines to hit New York City over the last several years.
The city's Department of Investigation successfully investigated Bernard Kerik, former police commissioner and Homeland Security chief nominee. It exposed the largest tax fraud in municipal history, investigated corruption in the crane industry, and helped indict lawmakers, union bosses and numerous high-ranking city officials.
A relatively small outfit compared to its larger crime-fighting brethren like the FBI and the NYPD, the DOI's mission is daunting: keeping 300,000 city employees at scores of agencies honest as well as city-elected officials, boards, commissions, the school system and the housing authority.
It's the only municipal agency in the country designed to root out government graft.
The oft-overlooked agency was created more than a century ago in the wake of the Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall scandals that robbed taxpayers of millions of dollars and became synonymous with political corruption.
But the DOI, one of the nation's oldest law enforcement agencies, has been making a forceful case of late that it's not a relic of the past.
"We are now out there," said DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn, who took the department's top job in 2002.
Under the leadership of Hearn, 46, a blunt former federal prosecutor, the DOI has moved aggressively to counter any impressions that it wasn't willing to tackle serious cases - ones that could potentially embarrass a mayoral administration.
Under her watch, the number of arrests from its investigations has more than doubled - from 317 in 2001 to 676 in 2008 - despite a 28 percent reduction in the number of agency investigators and auditors during that period.
Many of DOI's cases have made international headlines, including the Kerik probe, the investigation of two deadly crane collapses this year, and the blaze at the former Deutsche Bank tower near ground zero that killed two firefighters. Others are more mundane, such as recent arrests for submitting fake doctor's notes to get sick pay to using a fraudulent city parking placard.
"It's real sea change," said Mary Jo White, former U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. "I think people now will take their problems, their issues, their concerns to DOI where in the past sometimes that would happen but not nearly to the degree that it does now."
When Hearn stepped into her role as commissioner, that was not always the case. There was a perception that the agency was too close to the mayor's office and it wouldn't follow up on leads that could implicate important officials.
The City Council had also gone after the agency, believing it lacked sufficient independence. Hearn's two predecessors had taken part in morning meetings with their boss, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, although former DOI officials say there was never any pressure to abandon an investigation that could implicate a Giuliani appointee.
Still, critics said city employees were afraid to go to the agency with tips - as evidenced when a corruption probe broke at the start of Hearn's term involving the president of the Housing Development Corporation. The Village Voice unearthed the graft - not DOI.
"There was a backlash against the DOI," Hearn said. "That hit me at all sides. Because it hit me so early, it molded how I began to operate."
Hearn moved quickly to change the culture, sending out mailers to city employees and letting them know DOI was ready to listen. She also intensified the DOI's effort to educate city employees about their obligations to report corruption. The DOI conducted 670 crime-prevention and whistleblower lectures in 2008, compared to only 110 in 2001.
Hearn also decided not to regularly meet with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but she says she has a good relationship with him.
"The mayor is tremendously supportive of me and the DOI," Hearn said. "He's not interested in sweeping things under the rug - ever."
Hearn has targeted plenty of city agencies including the fire and sanitation departments - but none got hit as hard or as publicly as the Administration for Children's Services.
In a report last year, Hearn's investigators revealed the inadequacies at the child welfare agency that led to the deaths of 11 children, including the shocking killing of a little girl named Nixzmary Brown.
In her report, Hearn said the agency should hire 100 investigative consultants to work with caseworkers. She didn't win any fans at ACS with the scathing report.
"There's about a gallon of my blood on the floor of City Hall," Hearn said. "That proposal wasn't well-received."
The report shamed the city and the agency's commissioner, who was appointed by the mayor. At the time, ACS head John B. Mattingly said the agency embraced recommendations to improve but called it a "very tough report."
As much as Hearn tries to publicize DOI's victories (for deterrent value as well as boosting morale), her efforts aren't always remembered.
Recently, a local newspaper detailed a successful initiative at ACS to hire former police investigators to help caseworkers. The pairings worked. Children were being helped, plucked from potentially dangerous environments.
The article failed to mention who pushed for the hiring of these new investigators: Hearn's DOI.
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