The Magician's Nephew

The goods on Gargano: A seamy tale of nepotism on the Brooklyn waterfront

In the spring of 2003, Charles Gargano, who served as George Pataki's economic development czar, made a visit to the embattled operator of the marine container port that sprawls for 80 acres along the docks in Brooklyn's Red Hook. Much of the region's cocoa, coffee, and lumber is handled here, along with tens of thousands of huge shipping containers from around the world loaded with everything from beer to appliances. All told, an estimated $4.5 billion in goods move through the port every year, and some $36 million in wages are generated there. As Sal Catucci, president of American Stevedoring Inc., which operates the container terminal, recalls it, Gargano had phoned—seemingly out of the blue—to say he wanted to come by to see his operation.

Catucci was elated. He had been trying for years to get the Port Authority, where Gargano still serves as vice chairman, to agree to a long-term lease deal. Such a lease would let Catucci bring in additional shipping customers, expand his business, and add to the 600 workers already employed on the docks. That's what the local community board and politicians such as Congressman Jerrold Nadler and City Councilman David Yassky have been pushing to happen, arguing that Brooklyn's deepwater container port is a vital economic engine that cuts environmental woes by using waterborne cargo transport instead of air-fouling trucks.

In recent years, however, there's been little official interest in that plan. Under the Pataki administration, the bi-state Port Authority gave it the cold shoulder, saying it wanted to limit shipping to Staten Island's container port at Howland Hook on the narrow Arthur Kill waterway and the huge freight hubs on the New Jersey side of the harbor. Even stiffer opposition has come from the Bloomberg administration, which has been pressing to replace the gritty containers with cruise ships and a Sausalito-like waterfront offering glittering views of the Statue of Liberty and the towers of lower Manhattan.

Charles Gargano
photo: Richard B. Levine
Charles Gargano

The container port's current lease runs out at the end of March, and the Port Authority has moved to transfer the land to the city for what would be a "mixed-use development"—likely to include market-rate housing. Those who want to see Brooklyn hold on to a marine freight terminal capable of handling ocean-going vessels are frantically trying to win the attention of the incoming Spitzer administration.

The dispute over its fate has become one of those basic "Which Way for New York?" debates, one that pits a handful of blue-collar job advocates against a seemingly invincible army marching under the flag of Condos With River View.

Which is why Gargano's sudden interest in the terminal back in 2003 was received as such good news. "When Charlie Gargano's call came in, I thought, 'Wow. They're finally paying attention. Now he's showing interest,' " Catucci recalled.

Indeed he was. Within a few weeks, a newly optimistic Sal Catucci had a new attorney under retainer: Charlie Gargano's nephew. And not long after that, the waterfront executive was finally getting the attention from state decision-makers that he'd long sought. But when those meetings produced little more than kind words, and when he was back again fighting just to stay in business, Catucci wondered exactly what had prompted that unexpected phone call. Whatever made him pick up the phone, Charles Gargano wasn't saying, refusing to respond to requests for comment. His nephew, Frank Gargano, also didn't want to talk about his involvement, acknowledging only that he had represented Catucci's company. Exactly how that came to pass is one more disturbing tale from New York's waterfront.

At 72, Charles Gargano still cuts a suave figure. He wears expensively tailored suits and French cuffs and prefers to be addressed as "ambassador" in deference to his service in the Reagan administration as envoy to Trinidad and Tobago. A successful Long Island construction contractor, he won his economic development post after serving as a key fundraiser for Pataki and his ally, former senator Alfonse D'Amato. The position has allowed him to hobnob with the glitterati, and he's appeared in five movies since taking office, including the Robert De Niro mob comedy Analyze That and, most recently, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, in which he plays himself. The job takes him to ordinary places as well, and he arrived on the Red Hook docks that spring in a dark, chauffeured limousine with official plates and a radio antenna jutting from the trunk. Catucci greeted Gargano effusively, packed him into his "pier car," and proceeded to give him the full tour of his operations. But he said the ambassador didn't seem very interested.

"He didn't say much until we got back to my office," said Catucci. "Then he sat on the couch and asked some questions about what contractors we worked with, what lawyers we used." Sitting there, one of the things that struck Catucci was that while city and Port Authority bureaucrats had been burying him for months in extensive policy objections to the Red Hook port, the state's top economic development official didn't seem fazed by them. Instead, Gargano gave the impression that those were minor obstacles that could be overcome. The bigger problem, Catucci said the ambassador suggested, was the expense of the fight. "He said, 'You're fighting the city; you're fighting the state. This is going to cost you many hundreds of thousands of dollars for consultants and lawyers and all.' " Catucci said Gargano then added, "Maybe there's another way," and suggested that Catucci could cut his costs to "about $300,000" if he used the right approach. Shortly afterward, Gargano got back in his limo and drove away. Catucci watched him go, wondering what the hell that was all about.

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