News & Politics

Can the comptroller really block the city's DocGo contract? (No.)

Former New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer saw the authority to register contracts as a first line of defense against financial impropriety and corruption.

The power of the comptroller to reject city contracts is one without much teeth.

The power of the comptroller to reject city contracts is one without much teeth. Office of the New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, Flickr

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander brandished a relatively rarely used authority of his office on Wednesday, declining to approve a massive city contract to provide shelter and other services to asylum-seekers. 

In a letter explaining his rejection, Lander wrote that the $432 million emergency contract to medical services provider DocGo raised a number of fiscal and other concerns. He raised questions about whether DocGo actually has the expertise to provide the services it’s contracted for and about the for-profit company’s “integrity and responsibility,” in light of concerning reports about the company’s work with asylum-seekers. An audit by the New York Department of State recently found that DocGo had hired unlicensed security guards to work at upstate hotels sheltering migrants.

“Please note, my office does not make such a decision lightly,” Lander wrote in the letter. It’s the first emergency contract that his office has declined to approve, and since he took office in 2022, he’s rejected fewer than 75 contracts submitted by city agencies and approved more than 30,000.

The power of the comptroller to reject city contracts is one without much teeth, however. While the comptroller may decline to register a contract, the mayor has the authority to override that decision and approve the contract regardless of any objections that the comptroller raises.

City Hall confirmed that they plan to proceed with the contract, despite Lander’s letter. “We’re going to move forward with it,” Mayor Eric Adams said at an unrelated press conference on Wednesday. “We can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.” Adolfo Carrión Jr., commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development – which holds the contract – wrote in a letter to DocGo on Wednesday that payment under the contract will begin promptly: “HPD intends to inform the Comptroller that he is required to take the necessary steps for HPD to make payments under the Contract.”

“We have thousands of asylum seekers currently in our care who rely on funding from the city for this program to receive case management, social work, food and housing,” a spokesperson for DocGo wrote in an emailed statement. “DocGo’s quick action to step up in the face of this crisis has been critical in helping the city meet the needs of the asylum seekers in our care.”

The comptroller’s power to decline to register contracts is not entirely without value, even though it can be overridden by the mayor. In some instances, declining to register a contract will lead an agency to revise it and address the problems identified by the comptroller. At the very least, it puts those concerns on the record.

“The (city) charter does not give the comptroller the right to stop a contract,” former city Comptroller Scott Stringer told City & State. “But the comptroller damn well has the authority and the bully pulpit to raise significant issues.”

Stringer, who served as comptroller from 2014 to 2021, challenged contracts from the de Blasio administration on many occasions, including emergency contracts. During his final months in office, Stringer sued the de Blasio administration for repeatedly extending a COVID-19 emergency executive order that enabled lax procurement without the comptroller’s oversight. Stringer declined to register a contract for police body cameras, an emergency contract for a homeless shelter provider and a contract for the controversial East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, among others.

Those rejections sometimes resulted in an agency pulling a contract or addressing the concerns raised and submitting it, Stringer said. Other times, City Hall overrode the decision and registered the contract anyway. “But that was at their own risk because then they were taking on the validity of that contract and not listening to our concerns,” Stringer said.

Lander’s use of his office’s authority to decline to approve the DocGo contract was appropriate, Stringer said. “I think that he was 100% right to reject the contract,” he said, noting that the company is facing multiple investigations. “I think what Brad Lander is saying to the administration is, ‘Look, I want to work with you, I want to resolve issues with you. But don’t send me something that should not be registered.’ And I think he’s throwing his marker down.”

Adams has frequently accused Lander, a progressive Democrat, of criticizing the city’s handling of the asylum crisis without doing enough to call for federal support. Earlier this year, Adams mocked Lander, calling him the “loudest person in the city.” 

But this is also not the first time that Lander has declined to approve a contract related to a major City Hall issue.

Among the roughly 70 other contracts that he has declined to approve – a tiny fraction of the more than 30,000 contracts that Lander’s office said it had registered since 2022 – is a rejection of the city’s contract with Aetna to provide a Medicare Advantage plan to city retirees over concerns about the legality of the plan.

In that case, the city also planned to move forward with the contract, though a state Supreme Court judge blocked the city from switching retirees’ health care plans last month.