Watershed Fallout

Could the Probe of a Top Eco Cop Affect New York's Senate Race?

'Hide it in the filing cabinet and bury it in the file of monthly vehicle reports. Fuck him! He's not getting it; it's my plaque, and it belongs to me. . . . I'm not giving it up.' That outburst, attributed to a whistleblowing top cop in the troubled police agency that protects New York City's watershed, is the focus of separate state and city law enforcement investigations into charges that he illegally removed a parking plaque and an EZ Pass from a vehicle that had been reassigned to a rival brought in to oversee him.

Both the state police and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel in the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) are involved.

In July, Captain Ronald A. Gatto, a commanding officer in the DEP's Environmental Enforcement Division (EED), lost his bid to bar the Giuliani administration from hiring someone to fill the top spot in the division, in effect demoting him.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jane S. Solomon ruled that Gatto was not demoted because he had criticized the agency at a public hearing in 1991, or because he allegedly provided information for a negative report about the DEP issued in February by environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Kennedy, the lead attorney for the Hudson Valley­based watchdog group, Riverkeeper, declared in a report titled "Cops in Cuffs" that the DEP's police force— which guards the 18 reservoirs that supply water to New York City, as well as Westchester and Putnam counties— was understaffed and underequipped, and that threats of terrorism and pollution amount to a security emergency.)

After a massive reorganization of the agency, the force was expanded from 50 officers to 120. The EED, which had been entirely under Gatto's command, was split up. Gatto now commands the East of Hudson Unit, and another officer runs the West Hudson Unit. Both report to a new overall manager. Gatto was one of three candidates interviewed for the top post, but the job went to Lee Siegel, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. The city argued that Gatto, who had led the EED since 1993, was not hired because he did not have a law degree. Gatto appealed the judge's ruling, and that also was denied.

The restructuring of his job responsibilities reportedly upset Gatto and, according to one EED insider, the 17-year veteran grew sullen and disenchanted after Siegel was appointed. Several months of internal squabbles escalated with the disappearance of the parking plaque and toll permit in August. In sworn statements obtained by the Voice, two officers charged that Gatto hid the items and ordered them to keep quiet if questioned about them. Gatto's attorney, Charlie King, denies Gatto did "anything improper," adding, "I have not seen any evidence from any of the officers stating that he had intentionally hidden the placard from his superiors." Siegel, who could not be reached, eventually filed a complaint with the state police in Hawthorne, who launched the initial investigation.

Gatto's future on the force remains uncertain as supporters and critics alike try to make sense of what some say was an infantile prank gone awry. Gatto wasn't always the power-thirsty reservoir dog his detractors portray him as today. Eight years ago, he was a crusading eco cop who testified before city lawmakers that his DEP superiors urged him to go easy on polluters. In a 1994 New York Times interview, Kennedy praised Gatto, saying he "has arrested more polluters than any other police officer in the world." Gatto, he added, "can smell a leaking septic tank from a moving car. He arrests everyone; he's arrested his friends." If charges are proffered against Gatto and he is convicted, it would be a rapid fall from grace. "He was investigated five times," an admirer told the Voice.

In another indication of how influential Gatto has become, one EED source speculated that he might be used as a bargaining chip in the U.S. Senate race. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a likely candidate— who passed over Gatto for the prestigious job, and was the chief defendant in Gatto's original suit— allegedly is reluctant to fire him. The source argues that Kennedy might consider scaling back attacks on Giuliani's environmental record upstate in exchange for job protection for Gatto. Kennedy was unavailable for comment, and King, scoffing, contends that Giuliani would not "sacrifice the best law enforcement cop for his political gain."

The power struggle inside the environmental enforcement unit intensified on August 10 during a gathering of officers under Captain Gatto's command at the EED station house in Croton. Among those present, according to the statement of Officer Ashford Joe Leon, were, in addition to Gatto, Detective Christian Clinch, and officers Joseph Carpenter, Kirk Budnick, and Joyce Jenter. None of the officers could be contacted.

The following account is based on the statement Leon gave to the DEP's Office of Disciplinary Counsel: At about 2:15 p.m., Gatto received a phone call from Deputy Chief Lee Siegel. After a brief conversation, Gatto turned to his officers and announced, "They're taking my vehicle." He then ordered Jenter and Clinch to fetch the keys to an unmarked vehicle that Siegel reportedly had requested. But the cops hesitated.

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