Historic Tenure: NYC Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn

DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn.

DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn

For anyone considering sticking their hand in the colossal cookie jar that is New York City’s government, Rose Gill Hearn has a message for you: “we are watching.” With her usual stern glance, Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn tells me she demands a “standard of excellence.” In her 12 years at DOI, Gill Hearn has met that standard, amassing arrests and recovering taxpayer dollars in record numbers. When she assumed her office, the ashes were still smoldering up the block from DOI headquarters at Ground Zero. 12 years later, Rose Gill Hearn is the longest serving DOI commissioner in New York City’s history.

A native New Yorker. Born at St. Vincent’s Hospital, she was raised on Long Island, graduated from Marymount Manhattan College and Fordham’s Law School. After spending three years doing white collar defense work at a private firm, she left for the U.S. Attorney’s office, where she would spend ten years and become Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division. For Gill Hearn, being a lawyer was part of her family’s legacy. Her father served as an assistant district attorney for the City.

“People had no place to turn to.” The need for an independent “watchdog” to keep an eye on the City’s government wasn’t apparent to its earliest settlers. It took until the late 19th century for scandal to jolt the City into action. William “Boss” Tweed used his position as the head of Tammany Hall, the political machine of the Democratic Party in New York City, to corrupt the highest levels of the City’s government, including comptroller and mayor. Tweed skimmed millions of dollars (over a billion in today’s money) from the City. After being exposed by a whistleblower, Tweed was convicted and later died in jail. City residents however were outraged by the brazenness of the scandal and demanded action. The Department of Investigation, originally the Department of Accounts, was established.

If you look on Commissioner Gill Hearn’s desk you will find a copy of the organizational chart of the City’s government, with its tangled web of mayoral agencies. DOI is responsible for overseeing all of them, all at once. With over 300 staff members comprised of investigators, forensic specialists, accountants, and lawyers (mainly former prosecutors), DOI is the largest external anticorruption body in the country, and the oldest.

“I would rather do fewer cases well, that are impactful.” Commissioner Gill Hearn will perhaps be remembered most for the settlement she helped extract from an American defense company that was the main contractor in the project to modernize the City’s timekeeping and payroll operations. Known as CityTime, the project originally budgeted to cost the City $63 million had cost about $700 million by 2011. DOI, thanks in part to a new digital forensic unit created by Gill Hearn, uncovered shell corporations that were being used by the mother and wife of a CityTime consultant to shelter millions of dollars in kickbacks he received in exchange for dolling out lucrative contracts. Last March, DOI along with it was announced that SAIC would pay out an unprecedented $507 million to the City to resolve a criminal investigation into the company.

Gill Hearn said the explosion of information technology during her tenure at DOI has created a “new frontier for fraud” that requires the agency to be nimble, because in the evolving world of corruption in City government, “doing nothing is not an option.”

“Longevity has its benefits.” Commissioner Gill Hearn has taken advantage of her lengthy tenure to develop a holistic approach to reducing corruption in the City. While she says she spent her first year getting her arms around the department, since then she has put her shoulder to the wind. One of her primary goals was to raise the profile of DOI in the City. To that end, DOI’s website has been significantly upgraded and now features a splashy new video that has the feel of an episode of Law & Order. DOI also launched an anticorruption lecture series in 2003, conducting more than 5,000 corruption prevention lectures at various City agencies. The process for reporting corruption has been streamlined and can now be done online. Gill Hearn also established new procedures for what should happen after an investigation has concluded. Over 2,300 recommendations have been implemented as a result of DOI investigations during Gill Hearn’s tenure, thanks in part to a new formalized process that ensures City agencies take corrective actions after an investigation has concluded.

“I think that if DOI has either a flat arrest number or a decreasing arrest number something is wrong.” When asked whether the City is more or less corrupt than before she took office the Commissioner blanches. By and large, she says, most City employees are good people earning an honest day’s work. Only about a third of DOI arrests are of City employees. There are always bad apples though, and they can be hard to find.  The number of arrests DOI makes every year has gone up during Gill Hearn’s tenure, from 300 to 400 in 2002, to about 800 per year now. Unlike other arrest figures in the City like murders and robberies, Gill Hearn is glad to see the number of anticorruption arrests increase. She points out that DOI looks for surreptitious schemes that often take place in the shadows of a vast government, and if those schemes are not ferreted out and exposed, they will just keep happening.

“Always do what’s right.” That was Mayor Bloomberg’s advice to Commissioner Gill Hearn upon taking office. She says both are of the view that the relationship between DOI and the Mayor’s office should be arm’s length. “I have never been asked by the Mayor’s office to go after someone, or to refrain from going after someone.” That independence extends to the agencies DOI is charged with investigating, “we don’t have people’s agendas in our cases.”

Gill Hearn says she will be in Times Square with Mayor Bloomberg on New Year’s Eve as their tenures come to an end. As she looks toward the end of her term, Gill Hearn seems justifiably proud of what DOI has accomplished during the last 12 years. Her top concern for DOI moving forward is that “we keep the momentum going that we’ve built.”

– Drew Carroll

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