The Man Who Wanted to Know Too Much

Why does Walter Mack keep getting fired?

Mack's days at the department were clearly numbered once his old boss Giuliani succeeded Dinkins at City Hall and named Bratton as police commissioner. In January 1995, Bratton fired Mack, saying the ex-prosecutor had become "isolated" and had made "excessive demands" for more resources. The firing disturbed other law enforcement officials. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, a venerable New York lawman, blasted the move, saying he had established "a solid relationship" with Mack and that the internal-affairs unit needed "more resources, not less."

After Mack's ouster, police brass claimed that the degree of integrity soared, with only a single patrolman snared in 360 random corruption stings—an astonishing pass rate for a department that had been mired in scandal in the prior year. Department critics noted, however, that the high scores came after Internal Affairs broke with Mack's secretive approach by sharing information about pending probes with precinct commanders.

photo: David Yellen

There was another reason for Mack's dismissal, one that wasn't publicly revealed until years later, and one that goes to the heart of why Walter Mack has often been viewed as a headache by his bosses, while earning the respect of his targets.

Soon after he was hired, Mack and Kelly met with a cop from the 30th Precinct in Harlem—soon to be known as the "Dirty Thirty" for the extent of its corruption. The cop had witnessed drug thefts and other police crimes. As a ground rule, he insisted that he would talk to Mack or Kelly, and no one else. The cop later testified—wearing a hood and code-named "Officer Otto"— before the Mollen Commission on police corruption. But when Bratton demanded to know his informant's name, Mack flat out refused to tell him.

"Basically, Ray and I had both agreed we would never reveal the person's identity without his permission," said Mack. "Later, there was an effort by Ray's successor to find out who was this guy and I said, 'Look, I cannot reveal his identity.' "

Not surprisingly, Bratton was outraged by Mack's refusal. Few bosses tolerate aides keeping secrets from them, let alone the leader of the nation's largest police force. But Mack wouldn't budge.

"I did the same thing with organized-crime people in the Witness Protection Program," Mack said recently of the incident. "I know it may be viewed as disloyal, but it is just part of my training."

Despite that unceremonious ouster, Mack's expertise landed him appointments as an independent investigator watchdogging organizations that had run afoul of the law. The business—referred to in legal jargon as "independent private sector inspectors general"—has enjoyed a recent growth spurt as more and more firms seek to reassure law enforcement agencies that their operations are legitimate by hiring tough inspectors like Mack.

The carpenters' union job is one of the biggest such plums. Since 1993, when it signed a consent decree to settle the federal government's anti-racketeering lawsuit against it, the New York City District Council of Carpenters—whose 23,000 members build the city's biggest projects—has been insisting it got a bad rap. In response to the government's complaints, the union has had several monitors and has adopted a series of reforms aimed at keeping it on the straight and narrow.

When Mack was hired in 2003 he was told by union officials that the big problems, the kind that sent people to prison, had long been resolved. "They said, 'Everything is on the up-and-up. We have the greatest anti-corruption program there ever was,' " Mack recalled. But he heard differently from members who called in complaints—mostly anonymously—via a telephone hotline. The union's prior investigator, a private-security operator, had simply tape-recorded the calls, and most members believed their gripes went nowhere. Mack hired staff to actually answer the phone and started getting on the calls himself. That's an experience that can try anyone's patience. New York's union carpenters are a feisty crew, rarely hesitant to sound off on grievances big and small.

But Mack took the time to separate the cranks from the true whistle-blowers. By the end of his first year on the job, he had detected multiple problems, some of them systemic to the way the union operated. An out-of-work list, a key tool intended to give unemployed members first crack at being hired, was routinely abused, he found, with employers able to choose whomever they wanted. Many shop stewards—the union's frontline representatives on the job, responsible for flagging wage and benefit abuses—were cronies of union higher-ups or contractors. Insiders managed to leapfrog over other candidates by gaming the selection system, often by listing bogus job skills.

In one alarming case, Mack found that a steward who was a close pal of union bigs had received several of the most sought- after assignments, including the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle and the new Seven World Trade Center building, by listing a safety-training skill that didn't even exist. Somehow, no one in union headquarters had noticed. Mack's key investigative tactic was to call his targets in for exhaustive depositions. Each witness received one of the long-winded and often meandering speeches to which Mack is prone, warning them not to lie to him, lest they suffer the consequences. Overall, Mack conducted almost 100 such depositions, grilling carpenters, contractors, and union officials under oath, often for hours on end. A court reporter, other lawyers, and Mack's own top investigative assistant, Don Sobocienski, were present. But despite the awkward formality of the proceedings, Mack did his best to reassure the men with calloused hands who sat before him.

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