Rikers Island Guards Probed for Alleged Time Card Scam
A Department of Correction captain and three officers are implicated in one scheme, which allegedly involved ID card check-ins when employees weren’t actually at the jail.
City jail officials are investigating a “pattern” of timecard abuses by officers pretending to be on duty, THE CITY has learned — just as the Department of Correction slowly rolls out a new digital timekeeping system.
A jail captain is accused of using the ID cards of three correction officers who either repeatedly showed up late or not at all for their shifts inside the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
In another case, a correction officer is alleged to have similarly simply used a coworker’s card to sign him in for a shift before he showed up, the jail insiders said.
“I’ve been told there’s a pattern,” said Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association.
Representatives for both the DOC and the city Department of Investigation declined comment.
The multiple probes come as the department has struggled to get officers to show up to work, particularly during the pandemic.
A total of 670 correction officers and supervisors were out sick on Thursday, according to department records obtained by THE CITY. That’s down from the approximately 1,000 out sick on an average day last year.
Because of the potential for getting assaulted while on the job, correction officers and their bosses have unlimited sick leave written into their union contracts, allowing them to take off as much time as necessary to recover from injuries.
The department is meanwhile probing alleged sick time abuses among staff members who had been tasked with cracking down on the problem, the New York Times reported last month.
After years of using physical sign-in sheets, the Correction Department earlier this year began to convert to a more digital timekeeping system in two jails on Rikers. Officers at those locations have been given ID cards that they use to sign in and out each day.
Many city workers have for years been using a more secure fingerprint system designed to make it much harder for staff to cheat on their timesheets and lie about overtime. The Bloomberg administration made that switch to the so-called CityTime system — which in 2013 was tainted by a different type of overbilling scandal.
The Department of Correction was one of the few, if not only, departments that never adopted the CityTime system, according to Martin Horn, who was Correction commissioner during the Bloomberg administration.
His top deputies at the time felt the new system wouldn’t work with the department’s unique around-the clock shift structure, involving three platoons.
Jail brass put some officers on what’s known as the “wheel” where they work day shifts one week and night shifts another. That setup has made it hard for jail supervisors to maintain the same team officers in each housing unit — and to keep track of who was showing up and when.
“My deputy commissioner for administration at the time was not enthusiastic,” Horn recalled. “Our concerns were all of the technology and how it would relate to the shifts. We needed something keeping track of the crazy rotating wheel.”
He noted there “was always an issue but it wasn’t as widespread as it became. It’s bewildering to me how it got away from the department.”
Sarena Townsend, a former top investigator for the DOC who was pushed out days after Commissioner Louis Molina took over in 2022, said that time card abuses have long plagued the department.
“DOC employees — both civilian and uniform — have long taken advantage of the department’s practice of reporting time via self-reporting timesheets,” Townsend told THE CITY. “This ‘honor system’ simply asks the employee to submit a true accounting of their time worked.”
During the pandemic, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, and other municipal unions, argued that the hand scanners were unsafe because they could lead to the spread of COVID. In early 2020, the MTA stopped the use of its Kronos hand scanning system as a precaution.
MTA staffers now swipe in with ID cards similar to the ones being rolled out for correction officers.
Before the pandemic, Townsend said, it was difficult to keep up with all the potential timesheet abuses.
“The volume of DOC employees makes it impossible to effectively audit those sheets and prevent time theft,” she said.
DOC and DOI investigators are currently combing through video surveillance at the jails to check if the officers actually showed up, according to the sources familiar with the probes. The process is time consuming and involves checking multiple feeds, the insiders said.
Separately, three city correction officers were charged in Brooklyn federal court last November with filing bogus sick leave requests that had allowed them to take off for more than a year. The case is still pending.
But officers who lie about their timesheets are rarely criminally prosecuted and it frequently takes internal investigators months, if not years, to discipline them, department records show.
Department Vs. Board
Meanwhile, the Correction Department last month abruptly yanked real-time video surveillance access for the Board of Correction, the department’s oversight body.
The sudden change in policy came days after NY1 reported on the suicide of 28-year-old Rikers Island detainee Erick Tavira in October.
The report included video of Tavira being pepper sprayed by officers as he refused to be transferred to a mental observation unit on Rikers. The footage was obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request submitted to the Board of Correction by the cable station.
Board officials have slammed the new policy and are looking into possibly challenging it in court, according to a source on the panel.
The executive director of the Board of Correction, Amanda Masters, is leaving in protest by March, City & State reported Thursday.
The Board is set to have a meeting on Feb. 14.