Whistleblowers On the Waterfront

Exposing patronage at a watchdog agency

Thanks to the whistleblowers' heads-up, state officials eased Axelrod out, replacing him with Ron Goldstock, a veteran law enforcement expert. This was only half the battle, however. Madonna still held veto power over all appointments. In a trade to get his own man named as the new executive director, a respected homicide and corruption prosecutor named Walter Arsenault, Goldstock agreed to Madonna's demand that the new police chief be selected from the ranks. The candidate ultimately picked was a longtime Madonna crony, John Hennelly, a lieutenant on the force who had had numerous run-ins with Smith, McGowan, and a prior police chief.

McGowan resigned in protest. He'd put in 29 years at the agency. Just five years earlier, he'd helped lead a massive investigation that convicted leaders of John Gotti's Gambino crime family and their longshoremen's union allies.

No one disputes that the Waterfront Commission might still be a festering patronage swamp if McGowan and Smith hadn't stepped forward. Instead of a thank-you, however, McGowan's reward was a handful of paragraphs in the IG's report accusing him of abusing his office by having detectives pick him up at the airport and hold parking spots downtown. It is a good thing that this is not the standard yardstick for misbehavior. If so, we'd have to lock up half of the D.A.s, detectives, and court officers in the city.

Waterfront cop who blew the whistle: Kevin McGowan
Caleb Ferguson
Waterfront cop who blew the whistle: Kevin McGowan

McGowan, Smith, and a group of other ex–Waterfront Commission officers have since filed a discrimination complaint against the agency. As a result, officials there tread carefully in their statements. "He took a retirement incentive package and left," said Arsenault, the agency's new director, of McGowan. He added that the IG's report had found that the ex-cop had been "part of the problem."

This is a little like dismissing Terry Malloy—the washed-up ex-boxer played by Brando whose testimony finally brings down Johnny Friendly in Schulberg's movie—as just another gang member leeching off the waterfront. Actually, that might have made a good plot had Schulberg ever written a sequel: After Friendly gets locked away, the bureaucrats dole out their own punishments for the waterfront whistleblowers' good deed.


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