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Full Episode: New York's Historic Moment, Inspector General Lucy Lang
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New York's Historic Moment, Inspector General Lucy Lang

Read the Interview: Inspector General Lucy Lang

Inspector General Lucy Lang is essentially the state's watchdog over state government. Her office investigates claims of misconduct at state agencies, ranging from minor complaints to full-blown corruption and this week marked her first year in that office. We sat down this week to talk about her work, New York's massive unemployment fraud and more. 

DAN CLARK: It's been about four 13 months since we've talked. It is your one-year anniversary on the job, congratulations. I'd like to kind of see how people think about their own work. I'm wondering over the course of the year, what do you see as your biggest accomplishment so far? 

LUCY LANG: We have put out some really important reports that have shown a light on some of the challenges that state government faces. But what I'm proudest of has been the way the office has come together and started functioning more effectively, more efficiently, more happily than it did prior to my arrival. So when I look back on the past year, I feel most proud of getting to know my incredible staff throughout the state, of hiring additional staff where we needed it, and of building a really robust internal culture that is deeply committed to doing the right thing in every case. 

DC: You're having your staff undergo trauma-informed response training now moving forward. for those who aren't familiar, what is that? 

LL: Well, it's something that was important to me prior to my arrival here based on my work in the criminal justice system on understanding the traumas that everyone brings to their day-to-day but particularly to incidents or allegations of wrongdoing, misconduct and crimes, And I think that's a critical component that's evolving in criminal justice, but that is equally important in all areas of government. so my staff has all been trained by social workers and how to identify traumas and the people who they're interviewing and approaching things in a culturally humble way. Understanding that the diversity of New York State requires that we be mindful of cultural differences and approach interviews, investigations and everything we do as an agency. 

DC: It's really interesting. When I saw that you were doing that, I was immediately struck by that, because in my personal life, I am doing a lot of work around trauma right now, in my mental health, some things like that. To see you apply that to a government function was really interesting to me. How do you see it playing out in real-time? 

LL: Well, there is this substantive piece of it that's, of course, so important. We serve the public so when someone comes to us with a complaint about something that they have seen in government that's wrong or a way that they have been mistreated, we want to step back and understand where they're coming from, what leads them to the point that they are in raising that allegation, et cetera, but from a macro level, this mental health question is so urgent in American culture, in world culture presumably as well, as we've emerged from the pandemic and so many people have experienced devastating loss, people have experienced learning loss and alienation and isolation and that has been true of my workforce as any other workforce. so helping to bring people back together to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, to rebuild trust with our partner agencies has been mission critical to enabling us to get to the bottom of all the allegations that we investigate while also finding joy in our jobs and connecting with each other in being reminded of why we choose to serve the public.

DC: You're also now releasing breakdowns of the case types that you get all these complaints that go to your office. I had no idea how many complaints you got over time. So between September and October, there were more than a thousand complaints to your office. Are you able to get through all of those as they come in? Do you see a backlog building up?

LL: Well, we have a case management unit that I think of in many ways as the engine room of the inspector general's office. This is a team of folks who field our phones, who respond to our email and online complaints and it is particularly important that those folks have training in how to elicit accurate information, understanding where people are coming from and so many ever our allegations, as you know, come in from or related to the department of corrections and particularly for vulnerable populations, it is critical that even in an initial interview to understand a complaint, that we try to bring a trauma-informed lens. 

DC: I'm not sure what information you are allowed to share legally to protect complainants; do we see any larger trends there with docs? You've worked on this issue for the whole year basically. I mean it. Do we see any larger systemic issues that you might be willing to look at, I guess? What I'm looking at is: I'm curious if more people are complaining about one thing than the other, and that might be an issue? 

LL: Like in any part of public life, things ebb and flow. Of course, we got a tremendous number of complaints related to covid protocols and that has subsided. You're familiar, I think, with the investigation we did into the misuse of drug testing and in DATCS facilities and we had a tremendous impact in changing the vendor and the policies that were resulting in a tremendous number of incarcerated people being wrongly penalized. We are looking carefully at issues of prison discipline. I expect that there will be more information coming out about some of those investigations shortly. But overall, the work that we do with DATCS is to make sure that every complainant is treated with dignity, receives a response and that where there are big trends, we're conducting the system-level investigations that are required to identify solutions. 

DC: Speaking of system level, there's this huge news story a few weeks ago about unemployment insurance fraud in New York, a report from the state comptroller's office found that New York paid out about $11 billion in fraudulent unemployment claims at the height of the pandemic.I think we're talking about the first year of the pandemic primarily, you weren't in office then, to 18 be clear, but I know that the claims are handled by the Department of Labor, but does your office have any-- do you investigate the fraud side, I guess? I was looking at this morning as I was preparing for this and I didn't really understand who looked at the fraud and who was doing the claims.

LL: I'm glad that you asked. it's an area we're really passionate about as an office. What we have done is assemble an interdisciplinary team of experts internally and with some of our external partners to really tackle these investigations. So we do receive a lot of complaints of identity theft, for example, associated with unemployment, insurance fraud, and so what will happen, for example, is that someone who is rightly entitled to unemployment insurance puts in a claim and has their claim denied on the grounds that they have already been paid out for it and upon digging, it is determined that someone has stolen their identity and received their benefits wrongfully. Now interestingly, when we investigate these matters, we often find that it is not just a single identity that's been stolen, but that the wrongdoer is actually part of a larger web or network of people who are committing these kinds of crimes. So in partnership with the Department of Labor, with our local law enforcement partners and with other agencies, we have been able to begin to tackle some of these pressing issues in unemployment insurance fraud and we really call upon all of our partner agencies and fellow law enforcement agencies to work together and to take this kind of approach that prioritizes quick investigations, quick responses to these complaints and communication because it's the sort of thing where if law enforcement agency is to subpoena records from another agency and there's a significant gap in response, we can completely lose those materials if, say, surveillance footage is delete or email correspondence disappears. So time and communication are critically important and I look forward to continuing to work with other agencies in really prioritizing cracking down on unemployment insurance fraud, which has cost the state so much and has come at a tremendous cost to vulnerable new yorkers who are entitled to these benefits. 

DC: It's scary, you know, when you think about something like that with your identity being stolen like that. It's unsettling for a New Yorker, I would imagine. The comptroller had blamed the situation on the department of labor's unemployment insurance system not being up to date. He said that they have been warned repeatedly that it needed to be upgraded to avoid a situation like this. Is that a situation that your office might get involved with, or would you not have jurisdiction there to look at why the department of labor didn't upgrade the system? 

LL: We're looking at this problem from all angles and the comptroller's report is a call for all hands on deck, as I see it. Both to identify individual instances of wrongdoing to seek to make people entitled to benefits whole and to address the structural failures that have contributed to such massive amounts of fraud. 

DC: All right. Before I let you go, not to put you on the spot, but it is the end of your first year. Do you have anything you want to do in your second year? Any big goals that you want to accomplish? 

LL: I'm really excited over the course of the next year to think about how we can use the increased transparency that we have worked on over the course of the past year to identify areas where we may not have been receiving complaints in the past. We've talked before about how we have sort of repeat players and different agencies and I think that there is a real lack of knowledge amongst most of the public that we're here to serve. I think because of the efforts we have made address developing a social media presence, that publishing all of our reports and letters online and looking back and putting out all of our previous work and speaking to reporters and developing relationships with the press that we are going to reach people who have concerns, complaints, knowledge about wrongdoing in government, who might not otherwise have known where to turn and that we are going to increasingly become the avenue that people turn to to identify those areas so that we can serve the public better and help elevate the integrity of state government overall. 

DC: Really exciting stuff and really important stuff. Inspector General Lucy Lang, thank you so much.

LL: Thank you, Dan. 

 

The preceding is a transcript of a broadcast interview and has been condensed for clarity.

On This Week's Edition

Catch this week's show on your local PBS station, or watch on YouTube, Facebook, or using the free PBS app anytime after Friday.

On this week's edition of New York NOW:

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-NY, is picked as the next Democratic leader in the House, and Albany heads to the Supreme Court. We'll discuss.
  • Michael Gormley from Newsday and Zach Williams from the New York Post join us for this week's panel.
  • Inspector General Lucy Lang joins us to discuss her first year in office, New York's massive unemployment fraud, and more.