NYC jails commissioner Molina ran campaign to undermine outside oversight: court papers

NYC jails commissioner Molina ran campaign to undermine outside oversight: court papers

Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina conducted a campaign to undermine mandated outside oversight of city jails in violation of federal court orders and city law, a court filing by a high-ranking DOC investigator obtained by the Daily News alleges.

The notice of intent to sue filed by Ruben Benitez, who was DOC’s associate deputy commissioner of investigations until September, alleges Molina and top aides gave orders to withhold information from federal monitor Steve Martin, who is empowered by a 2015 consent decree and a federal judge to track violence and use of force in the jails.

The allegations come after months of calls for a judge to take away control of the troubled jails from the city.

One of Benitez’s most stunning allegations is that Molina and his former Deputy Commissioner of Investigations Manuel Hernandez ordered staff not to cooperate with the city Department of Investigation and even barred access to the DOC’s Investigations Division offices.

At one point, Molina also directed top executives to try to find a way to oust Martin as monitor, alleges the claim filed Monday afternoon with the city comptroller’s office.

Such directives could constitute violations of the foundational 1978 Mayoral Executive Order No. 16 requiring city employees including commissioners to cooperate fully with DOI.

In September, Molina retaliated against Benitez by demoting him from a senior position overseeing use of force probes to a lowly post checking job applicants and slashed his salary by $40,000, the claim alleges.

Sarena Townsend, who is representing Benitez with lawyer David Erlich, called for a criminal investigation into Benitez’s allegations.

“For years, the highest levels of DOC chiefs and commissioners relied on Mr. Benitez for his wisdom and insight, and for the federal monitor, he was an essential partner,” Townsend said.

“Mr. Benitez experienced first-hand the corruption of this administration, and was ordered to take part in it. As mandated by law, Mr. Benitez reported the illegal activity; shamefully, to no avail,” she added. “Instead, Commissioner Molina and his associates subjected Mr. Benitez to a relentless campaign of intimidation [and] coercion.”

Benitez worked for Townsend when she was DOC’s deputy commissioner for trials and investigations. Molina fired Townsend in January 2022 as one of his first acts because, she has alleged, she refused his demand to dump 2,000 pending disciplinary cases.

Kayla Mamelak, a spokeswoman for Mayor Adams, did not respond to Benitez’s allegations. Instead, she described Molina as having “dedicated himself to reversing decades of mismanagement in the jails.”

“His record of service throughout his career speaks for itself,” she said.

Benitez, a 19-year veteran of the division, kept a “running memo” documenting his interactions with Molina and his aides, Townsend said.

Hours after Molina fired Townsend on Jan. 3, 2022, he met with Benitez and made him acting deputy commissioner of investigations.

In the meeting, Molina stripped the division of the power to suspend correction officers accused of misconduct and those who had been arrested for alleged crimes without Molina’s direct approval, the claim alleges.

Who's at the wheel: Rikers needs real leadership, from outside

Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News

New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina at the City Hall rotunda on July 31. (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)

Those orders went against more than two decades of policy meant to keep the division free of political influence, Townsend said.

A week later, Molina allegedly questioned Benitez about why DOI had to “police” the Correction Department.

In a third meeting during the week of Jan. 17, 2022, Molina railed to Benitez about being “sabotaged” by staffers in investigations who were “leaking” to outsiders, the claim alleges.

Benitez tried to assure Molina that the division was only trying to comply with court orders and cooperate with the monitor.

The commissioner replied he was upset about the extent of information being given to the monitor and said the monitor should be an ally.

Benitez, concerned about Molina’s comments, conveyed them to the monitoring team, the claim states.

On Jan. 24, 2022, Molina took away Benitez’s “acting” title and returned him to associate deputy commissioner citing unspecified “concerns,” the claim alleges. In his place, Molina tapped Yvonne Pritchett, an agency attorney with three years’ experience at DOC. Her salary jumped from $97,200 in 2022 to $185,000 in 2023, records show.

In mid-February 2022, Marshall Volk, DOC’s point man for dealing with the monitor, called Benitez and told him Molina had directed his legal and executive staff to try to get Steve Martin ousted as federal monitor, the claim alleges.

On May 9, 2022, Molina made his former NYPD squad commander Manuel Hernandez the deputy commissioner for investigations. The two closely worked together when Molina was a NYPD detective and Hernandez was his commander. Molina would go on to tap several former police colleagues for key roles in the DOC.

The claim alleges Hernandez began attacking the division’s cooperation with the monitor, telling Benitez he was giving the monitor “too much information,” the monitor was “not on our side” and people who assist the monitor were “not looking out” for Molina.

He allegedly ordered Benitez not to contact the monitor or answer questions from Deputy Monitor Anna Friedberg. “Remember who signs your paychecks,” Hernandez warned.

Behind the scenes, Hernandez started manipulating the operations of the intake squad, which acts like a gatekeeper in assessing cases.

An April 3, 2023, monitor report detailed that as many as 400 cases stopped in intake had to be reopened and reinvestigated.

In January 2023, Hernandez ordered staff to stop cooperating with DOI and directed them to cut off DOI’s access to the secure Investigations Division offices in DOC headquarters in Astoria, the claim alleges.

Hernandez also boasted he had a “friend” at DOI, Deputy Commissioner Dominick Zarrella, another former NYPD lieutenant, the claim states.

Benitez reported Hernandez’s order to DOI’s then-Deputy Inspector General Richard Askin and also told the monitor.

DOI spokeswoman Diane Struzzi said Monday it was “absurd” to suggest any DOI employee acted improperly.

In March of this year, the monitor’s concerns about Hernandez came to a head. On March 29, Molina conveyed his anger at the monitor to Hernandez and blamed Benitez, the new claim alleges.

Two days later, Hernandez resigned under pressure.

On April 24, the monitor followed up with another report highlighting the dysfunctional relationship with Molina. The report described Benitez as “a well-respected and seasoned investigator and supervisor.”

The city filed a letter in the Nunez case touting Benitez’s presence to try to allay the monitor’s concerns.

But on July 3, Molina began a series of moves that ended with Benitez’s demotion. It started with a routine visit by Correction Capt. Lawrence Bond, a DOI investigator, to the Correction Academy.

DOI staff do not have to sign in. But Robert Gonzalez, the head of training and another former NYPD lieutenant hired by Molina, insisted.

The men argued. Molina and DOC’s Special Investigations Unit Director Lawrence McGugins then suspended Bond.

As he left DOC headquarters, Bond ran into Benitez. Benitez expressed surprise at the suspension and suggested Bond get a lawyer.

Two months later, on Sept. 1, Benitez was summoned to DOI headquarters in lower Manhattan and interrogated about the encounter with Bond by McGugins and Zarrella.

Four days later, Molina ordered Benitez to his office with Pritchett and Wilfredo Perez, a former union official for state prison guards whom Molina had hired to a top spot in investigations in August.

Benitez was then demoted, serving “to gag Benitez to allow Molina to continue his illegal behavior under a cloak of secrecy,” the claim alleges.

Benitez previously worked for Florence Finkle, who was DOC deputy commissioner of investigations from 2010 to 2014. “He is incredibly knowledgeable regarding correctional and internal investigative procedures, was completely devoted to the job and possesses a lot of integrity,” she said.

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