BY CELESTE KATZ
The new head of the city Department of Investigation testIfied Friday that his staff has encountered "outright hostility" at the highest levels of the Board of Elections while trying to get the embattled agency to clean up its act.
The Board has not been “anywhere near as cooperative” as necessary in responding to a 2013 DOI investigation that detailed nepotism, incompetence, inefficiency -- and even possible crimes, DOI Commissioner Mark Peters (pictured center) told a joint hearing of the City Council Government Operations and Oversight and Investigations Committees.
Peters said DOI has referred several issues for possible civil prosecution, and said criminal charges are still possible. In describing "illegal" activity at the Board, Peters told the lawmakers, “I use the word deliberately. This is an ongoing investigation, so there are aspects of it I am not prepared to discuss."
The scathing Dec. 30 DOI report, including 40 recommendations to improve the elections agency, said family favoritism, waste and ineptitude hobble the Board.
"The level of nepotism and the level of politics in hiring [at the BOE] is greater [than] anything reported in recent memory," he said.
The DOI inquest grabbed headlines in large part because of the 63 DOI agents posing as voters disqualified because of death, felony convictions or a move out of the city, nearly all were allowed by pollworkers to cast ballots.
However, the BOE provided data from its state counterpart showing that 39 of the cases where "dead" voters cast ballots, the Board never received a death notice from the Health Department so the names could be removed from the rolls.
A mismatch in middle names led to 10 more people not being flagged as deceased; in three cases where the city Board did get information that a voter had died, the names were removed.
Peters, who testified as Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan, state Board Co-Chairman Douglas Kellner and representatives of good-government groups looked on, insisted that the "dead" voters weren't the main point of the DOI's push for a "corrective-action" plan.
The investigation, he said, was not about "voter fraud," but about a broken system that needs a real overhaul.
To a degree, Peters said he accepted that the Board -- which requires bipartisan balance throughout its ranks -- is inherently at risk for problems because of the way it's set up by law.
"The proof is the system isn't working," he said, later adding that "there are things we can do even with this faulty structure to ameliorate the process."
Ryan, when his turn came up, insisted the agency has been entirely helpful to investigators -- to the point where he said much of the information in the DOI report came from the Board itself in an acknowledgement of its problems.
"You don’t get to say you 'found' my wallet or my cell phone if I hand it to you," Ryan insisted. "I have been and will continue to be extremely cooperative."
But Ryan (pictured center) -- as he has in the past -- argued that the Board is a "ministerial agency" that only carries out the policies set in election law. "I believe that that report does not accurately reflect the reality when it comes to come certain of the recommendations," he said.
As far as the bipartisan system, Ryan told the lawmakers it does matter even among the rank and file, as "down the rung" employees may be, even more so than their supervisors, in a position to cause "mischief" in elections.
Ryan also noted that the Board is in the process of getting paid access (costing under $10,000) to a Social Security database that should help weed the names of dead voters out of the record list.
He tangled -- protractedly -- with Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx about the definition of "nepotism," saying that just because members of the same family work at the same agency doesn't indicate de facto corruption.
Torres countered that the agency -- which gives limited notice of job openings when it gives them at all and hires many of its full- and part-time workers through a patronage system linked to the county parties -- has an inarguably high degree of family relationships in its ranks.
Other members of the council questioned whether agency and per-diem pollworkers are paid so poorly as to put the agency at a disadvantage in hiring the best candidates.
Ryan closed by reiterating his willingness to address the DOI's recommendations, including bringing some of them before the Board's 10 commissioners at their next meeting.
Asked about Peters' implication that there could be another shoe dropping, "I think what he said is his investigation is not complete and it could lead to criminal charges," said Ryan, an attorney by trade.
"Speculation about criminal charges often go nowhere. There is no way for us to tell whether it's going to happen or not happen. I would simply say let the DOI do its job... and at the conclusion of the process, those folks if it's found that engagement of wrongdoing occurred, then those folks will live with the consequences of that."
City Councilman Ben Kallos of Manhattan told the News after the hearing -- his first as chairman of Govermental Operations -- that his goal "was to get the Board of Elections to commit to a series of items from the Department of Investigation report that that they've been previously unresponsive on.
"To the extent they've agreed to nearly a dozen or more items from the report, where previously they'd responded to two, I believe that this was successful -- but the ultimate measure of success will be where we are in a month from now," he said.
The Council said it is now awaiting updates from the Board on issues including:
· Standardized hiring and screening process and providing this publicly and to community
· DOI's requested Corrective Action Plan to be provided within one month
· Commissioner consideration of Civil Service Exams for employees
· Report on Ballot Security in Manhattan and corrective actions
· Commitment to investigate and terminate within rules any employee found to be requiring or punishing political activity
· Regular updates to committee on progress
· Cost estimate on using DOI background checks for high-level staff