The Man Who Wanted to Know Too Much

Why does Walter Mack keep getting fired?

Walter Mack is one of the best investigators of high-level wrongdoing in New York City. The lanky former federal prosecutor's trophies include mob bosses, corrupt cops, thieving contractors, and crooked union bigs. Mack also has a knack for getting fired. To the surprise of few who know Mack, that was the denouement of the 63-year-old ex-Marine's most recent endeavor, as an independent investigator working under court supervision to root out wrongdoing in New York City's perennially corrupt carpenters' union. Over two and a half years, Mack uncovered a previously hidden crime wave in which dishonest union officials, construction managers, and their organized-crime accomplices had collaborated to cheat members of millions of dollars in wages and benefits to which they were entitled.

As a result of Mack's intrepid digging, this spring one of the city's largest carpentry contractors, a builder named James Murray, fled to Ireland just ahead of a huge federal indictment compiled with criminal information uncovered by Mack.

Owners of another firm admitted, after exhaustive Mack interrogations, that they'd been paying bribes to shop stewards for almost a decade to let them get away with paying low wages in cash on projects ranging from hospitals to the new stadium at Randalls Island. Mack's probe also revealed that the builders had paid off a mob-tied worker inside the union to make records there disappear. And Mack learned that yet another company had been able to avoid union scrutiny of its jobs after a carpenters' business agent was warned that he'd be "thrown off the building" if he came snooping around.

photo: David Yellen

But instead of being thanked for his efforts, Walter Mack got terminated.

Carpenters' union officials called Mack a "runaway train" that had to be stopped, and dropped him moments after a federal judge approved his dismissal. "Walter Mack is very thorough," said Pete Thomassen, president of the New York City District Council of Carpenters during a court hearing last year on the matter. "In some cases, he was too thorough."

Several past employers have shared that odd assessment of Walter Mack—the man who asks too many questions.

Hired in 1997 to sniff out corruption in the laborers' union—another construction outfit with a history of mob ties—Mack got canned after the union objected to his painstaking methods. The same thing happened to him in 1995 at the New York City Police Department, when then police commissioner William Bratton summarily sacked Mack, grumbling that the anti-corruption division he headed had become too expensive and freewheeling. Mack's steady string of dismissals stretches back as far as the late 1980s, when his boss at the U.S. Attorney's office, Rudolph Giuliani, dumped Mack as head of his powerful organized-crime unit. That move came after Mack told the rising prosecutorial star that he was going too far with his pre-trial publicity on mob cases, advice that was like trying to tell Donald Trump to stay out of tabloid gossip columns.

"My wife keeps saying, 'How many times do you need to get fired to figure out there is a better way of doing this?' " Mack said recently as he sat in a conference room at his downtown law firm. "In many ways, it is like what happened to me at the police department: I try to keep my trap shut; I try to go about my business; I try to do what I think is of value and useful with a minimum of self-aggrandizement. And I hope that I will just pass under the radar. If I do the job, and do it well, I figure I should be able to survive. And that has generally been wrong."

Walter Mack has always had a flair for finding the hardest path to travel. In a life that could have been smooth and lucrative, Mack chose to make things difficult—not only for others, but for himself as well.

He is the product of a silver-spooned Upper East Side upbringing, with degrees from Harvard and Columbia Law School. His father, Walter Mack Sr., the former president of Pepsi-Cola, is credited with being the first to put soda in cans and advertising jingles on national radio. But Mack showed no interest in the family business. Instead, shortly after his graduation in 1965 from Harvard, Mack signed up for officer candidates school in the Marine Corps. His parents were aghast.

"I can't tell you exactly why at the time I did it, but I am sure it was the right thing to do," Mack recalled recently. As Mack was being shipped out to Vietnam, his fervently anti-war mother sent him a package containing a book by Bernard Fall, an early and prophetic writer about the conflict, along with a huge .357-caliber Magnum Colt Python pistol. "I am sure she had gone to Abercrombie & Fitch to pick it out," Mack said.

In typical fashion, Mack found his way to one of the toughest assignments in Vietnam, as a captain leading a rifle company through the treacherous highlands of the former demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam, an area filled with North Vietnamese regular troops. It was there, he said, that he learned the rudimentary lessons that were to serve him well in his later career: to be exhaustively, even overly, prepared.

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