NYC Dept. of Investigation report finds former official downplayed violations in shelter coverup – NBC New York

The NYC Department of Investigation has concluded that in the early days of the migrant influx, former Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins displayed “a lack of full transparency” and delayed the disclosure of serious legal violations in the shelter system.

Investigators looked into whether Jenkins had tried to conceal violations, first reported by the News 4 I-Team on July 20, 2022, involving migrant families with children left overnight at the City’s homeless intake office instead of being placed in proper shelter. 

But former Commissioner Gary Jenkins declared he had been “cleared of any wrongdoing” and that he “communicated transparently to City Hall.”

DOI’s Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber disputed this in an interview Wednesday with the the News 4 I-Team.

“The facts that we found were that he was not fully transparent. So to the extent that his statement suggested that we found him to be fully transparent? That’s not accurate,” Strauber said.

Family after family told the I-Team they had been left to sleep for days on benches and floors of the Bronx building known as PATH, without enough food, after completing traumatic and arduous journeys through the jungle. Some described 60-80 families at a time living on the waiting room floor “like dogs.”

City officials, including Mayor Eric Adams, have insisted the violations impacted only four or five families and that no families ever spent multiple days there. 

According to the DOI report released Tuesday, Commissioner Jenkins “appeared to minimize, if not misrepresent the circumstances” at the intake office, leaving senior officials at City Hall without an understanding of the violations and their implications until they were reported publicly by the I-Team.  

The DOI opened its investigation in August 2022, after the I-Team reported Jenkins fired his chief spokeswoman Julia Savel. Savel had informed City Hall about the violations and claimed Jenkins was trying to cover them up. 

Text message exchange between Savel (blue) and Kate Smart, deputy press secretary for the mayor.

Text message exchange between Savel (blue) and Kate Smart, deputy press secretary for the mayor.

Text messages obtained by the I-Team showed Savel telling one of Mayor Adams’ press aides, “Gary was trying to not tell City Hall we broke the law. I got yelled at for telling you.” The City Hall aide wrote back “Oy.”

Jenkins has insisted that Savel’s complaints about him were not why he fired her, though he declined to elaborate.

After her termination, Savel told the I-Team that before the migrant influx had become public, she had urged Jenkins and other officials to come clean about the violations due to an overwhelmed system, but was met with what she described as “an intentional cover up.” Savel said that in response to our questions, she was ordered to draft an untrue statement saying the city was “meeting its legal mandate.”

In retrospect, City insiders agree with the sudden surge of 2,700 migrants into the shelter system in the summer of 2022, some New Yorkers might have been willing to forgive violations of this sort. But homeless advocates and past city officials agree leaving children and families overnight at this intake office has long been considered a no-no. 

The city’s Dept. of Investigation is opening an investigation after an alleged coverup of illegal conditions in the homeless shelter system — and the termination of a staffer who tried to expose it. NBC New York’s Melissa Russo reports.

In decades past, after notorious pile-ups of families here, the court has held city officials in contempt.

Families who arrive at PATH by 10 p.m. are supposed to be placed in shelter by 4 a.m., under Section 21-313 of the City’s administrative code, a longstanding policy known as the 10-4 rule designed to protect children in shelter. 

DOI concluded that City officials underreported the number of 10-4 violations and that the full scope cannot be known, because of the poor quality of available evidence. In its report, the DOI says it was able to verify at least 11 violations.

The report recommends changes to the city’s recordkeeping at PATH, citing software systems taken out of service, false data reports and even surveillance tape that was inexplicably missing for key dates and times.

“That kind of insufficient recordkeeping raises a significant risk that the information that’s made public and that’s disclosed will be inaccurate,” Strauber said. “There was a period of time when there was inaccurate information in the public about how many people had spent the night at PATH.”

DOI investigators say they requested security video from the PATH intake center, which would have helped assess the conditions, the number of families, and the times when families arrived and departed.

According to the report, DOI was told that a failed backup server had resulted in missing video. The report says both City shelter officials and vendors were unable to provide any proof that their server failed, adding that “the vendors told DOI they could not definitively rule out tampering.”

In 2022, when the arrival of migrants started impacting operations at the shelter system entrypoint, no violation of this rule had been alleged for at least a decade prior, and the practice of leaving families in this office had previously been the subject of contentious, protracted litigation brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of the homeless.

According to the report, “Jenkins decided to delay notifying the Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless, the court-appointed monitor for the City’s shelter system,” a decision DOI describes as “a departure from longstanding practice.” The report says that while the delay was brief, roughly 24 hours, “Jenkins could not provide DOI with a sufficient explanation for it.”

On July 21, 2022, one day after the I-Team’s first report, Mayor Adams announced the City had violated the 10-4 policy just four times (he later amended the number to five.) Adams said he had just learned of the violations, and defended Commissioner Jenkins, who claimed he was unaware the City’s actions had violated the law.

According to the DOI report, Jenkins had been informed about the violations three days earlier, on July 18. That morning, he sent a text message to Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom in City Hall, saying “It’s getting rough. I just learned we had some families past the 4am assignment at Path this morning.”

DOI concludes that Jenkins’ text message did not convey the full factual or legal context and left the deputy mayor with the sense that this was “a small operational issue.”

“Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom informed DOI that in retrospect she was frustrated that Jenkins did not provide additional context before July 20, when the City found itself ill-prepared to respond to public allegations concerning families’ experiences at PATH,” according to DOI.

As for Jenkins’ termination of Savel, DOI says it conducted only a limited inquiry into the reasons for Savel’s firing and was unable to reach a conclusion on this issue. 

According to the report, investigators “found some evidence supporting Julia Savel’s claim that her termination resulted principally from her conversations with City Hall.”

But the report says investigators also saw evidence suggesting Jenkins’ claim that Savel’s termination was due to “documented instances where she was reportedly unprofessional.” In its report, however, DOI does not list any examples of the behavior Jenkins allegedly found unprofessional.

In 2022, Savel told the I-Team, “My performance was never in question.”

In a statement Tuesday, Jenkins said, “I’m pleased to be cleared of any wrongdoing. I communicated transparently to City Hall and proudly stand by my tenure, especially given the unprecedented, unpredictable nature of the migrant crisis.”

Jenkins stepped down as commissioner of the NYC Department of Social Services in February 2023, after just one year in the job. He has since joined Oaktree Solutions, a firm founded by Mayor Adams’ chief campaign fundraiser and former Chief of Staff Frank Carone.

Savel, meanwhile, is ineligible for whistleblower protection, according to the report, because she took her complaints about Jenkins’ alleged cover up to City Hall instead of to DOI. 

“Obviously her claims did bring certain issues to light that we followed up on,” Commissioner Strauber said.

The DOI is an independent investigative agency whose commissioner is appointed by the mayor. Strauber says City Hall did not interfere in this investigation and that she does not know why Jenkins left his position.

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