City’s Top Watchdog Hounded by Budget Cuts and Staffing Shortages
The Department of Investigation has seen a 10% decrease in staffing that has slowed down investigations and reports, the commissioner told the City Council — and is now facing further funding reductions.
New York City’s main oversight agency has seen its budget cut by a projected 10% and is making do with double-digit vacancies, a situation already resulting in slowed-down investigations and fewer arrests for malfeasance and referrals for prosecution, data revealed at a City Council hearing on Tuesday suggests.
Department of Investigation Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber told Council members at a budget hearing Tuesday that recent belt-tightening orders from Mayor Eric Adams had slashed the department’s funding by millions of dollars — even though the watchdog agency accounted for less than 1% of the city’s total $102.7 billion projected budget.
DOI’s projected budget for the coming fiscal year is $45.27 million — an $11.61 million cut from the current budget, according to Council analysis, a cut deeper than the city’s overall budget retrenchment.
Already, cuts have meant a severe decline in staffing, said Strauber.
In the fiscal year that ended in June 2020, the agency counted 546 employees, she said. Now there are just 412 staffers after multiple reductions of vacant positions through the next fiscal year.
DOI currently has an active docket of more than 1,500 cases, the commissioner said. Additionally, she noted, the agency has whittled its backlog of background cases down from a high of 6,500 in 2019 to 795 now.
Investigations by the agency have so far this year resulted in indictments including people involved in a large construction kickback scheme, and Department of Correction employees accused of covering-up an assault on an inmate on Rikers Island.
Last week, a construction company operator was convicted of homicide in connection with the death of a laborer on a site in Brooklyn, in a case that was investigated in part by DOI.
The DOI includes about a dozen units headed by inspectors general who oversee investigations of the city’s vast array of agencies, including teams dedicated to NYCHA, public hospitals, the School Construction Authority and the NYPD.
“These positions include investigators, auditors and attorneys – critical staff for the job that we do,” Strauber told the committee.
The headcount reduction alarmed City Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), chair of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, who said during the hearing that her colleagues are “concerned that after multiple years of reductions the department is not adequately funded.”
Investigations Up, Arrests Down
Despite the budget and staffing cuts, the number of completed DOI probes went up 18% compared to the same time period in the previous fiscal year, according to data in the preliminary Mayor’s Management Report from January.
But referrals for civil and administrative action, criminal prosecutions and arrests all went down, the data shows.
The agency’s investigations have resulted in 32% fewer criminal referrals and 61% fewer arrests, which the agency attributed partially to “DOI’s own reduced investigative resources across the agency,” compared with the same time period last year.
Strauber told the committee that the agency’s “staffing and budgetary realities are complex and challenging,” and that they’d shifted resources to continue doing their job with fewer employees.
This includes relying more on interns and the mayor’s new Legal Fellows program, she said.
Last year, DOI recovered $2 million for the city through its investigations, but Strauber said the “deterring effect” of her agency’s presence against fraud and corruption is incalculable.
“That’s the kind of deterrent effect that works on an individual level,” she told the Council committee.
Brewer said she planned to hold more budget hearings on other oversight agencies, including the Conflict of Interest Board and the Civilian Complaint Review Board, to ensure there are investigations within city government — but was particularly disturbed by the cuts to DOI.
“It’s not [Department of Housing Preservation and Development]. it’s not Health [Department], it’s not Parks, so people don’t know it, so you can sweep stuff under the rug,” Brewer told THE CITY after the hearing.
The major cuts “doesn’t send a good message to those of us who care about good government.”
DOI is one of the country’s oldest law enforcement entities, launched in response to the 19th century scams from the infamous Boss Tweed.
Since then, the department has investigated agencies and employees with the goal of protecting “the city’s funding and services, and the city’s dedicated workforce, from those corrupt actors who would deplete city resources and unfairly undermine the reputation of all city workers,” Strauber said Tuesday.
One other aspect of DOI’s oversight are integrity monitoring agreements that allow the city to enter into contracts with companies that have known issues and violations, so long as the firm pays for a monitor.
Strauber and DOI have asked the city’s Office of Management and Budget for an additional 30 positions, which would bring the number of staff up to 442. This staffing plan includes hiring more administrative employees to free up investigators, she said.
“We really are doing as much as we can do with the staffing that we have,” the commissioner told THE CITY after the hearing.
“My sense is that things are moving a little bit slower,” she added. “I think that obviously there are things I would imagine we would move faster and we would do more if we had more staffing.”