Whistleblowers On the Waterfront

Exposing patronage at a watchdog agency

It may be just as well that the wonderful novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg died when he did. He was 95 years old when he passed away on August 5 at his home in Quogue, Long Island. Had he lived another week, Schulberg would have suffered a small heartbreak at the news of how the agency created to bring justice to the brutal and lawless docks he so vividly portrayed in On the Waterfront had itself turned lawless and brutal.

The Waterfront Commission for New York Harbor was born in 1953, just as Schulberg and director Elia Kazan were on the Hoboken piers filming Marlon Brando. Jointly overseen by appointees of the governors of New York and New Jersey, the agency was given wide-ranging licensing and police powers. Its charge was to clear the docks of hoodlums like Johnny Friendly, the vicious mob potentate in a camel's-hair coat played by Lee J. Cobb in the movie.

This proved easier said than done. Despite the commission's presence, mob influence has lingered for decades. More than 50 years later, the agency's detectives can still spot furtive meetings where bona fide wiseguys whisper instructions to union officials and others. Little wonder that waterfront cops like Kevin McGowan, a former chief of the agency's police force who helped lead the last big round-up of organized crime figures still preying on the docks, turned to the aging Schulberg for wisdom and guidance.

McGowan, 56, would drive out to Quogue to talk with the writer. He asked him to sign a collection of his stories about the bad old days on the piers. "To a good man, doing a noble job," the screenwriter wrote.

Which is one more reason why Schulberg would have winced at the withering 60-page report on the Waterfront Commission by the New York State Inspector General released a week after his death.

The report told how the commissioners used the agency as a hiring hall for cronies and politically connected incompetents, much the way Johnny Friendly decided who worked and who didn't on the piers. In early 2007, for instance, Michael Madonna, a union official who served as New Jersey's commissioner, handed agency police officials the résumé of a young friend and asked that he be hired.

The applicant, James Sutera, flunked the written test. At Madonna's insistence, he was allowed a do-over. He flunked again. McGowan recalls that Madonna barged into the agency's offices on lower Broadway. "Where is this fucking test?" asked the commissioner. Provided a copy, Madonna demanded that his pal get one more crack at the exam. Sutera retook it a week later. Bingo! His new score was 97.8 percent—the highest ever tallied.

According to the Inspector General's report, Sutera later bragged that the "big guy"—as he called Madonna—had given him the questions. Madonna, who was fired from his post just before the IG's report was issued last month, denied it. His lawyer refused comment.

Then there was the commissioners' derailing of efforts by McGowan and the then police chief, a former federal agent named Brian Smith, to try to diversify the force. Two African-American candidates—a female with a masters in criminal justice, and a male with a bachelor's degree and glowing recommendations—were rejected by the commission despite having passed all oral and written examinations.

Instead, a pair of Madonna's New Jersey neighbors—both white men—were hired. Both fell woefully short of requirements: One falsely claimed to have graduated from West Point; former employers described the other as hot-headed and unreliable. The background reports were so embarrassing that Smith refused to provide a standard memo recommending them. It didn't matter. They were hired anyway. One of the two was booted from a training academy after repeatedly falling asleep—while standing. He was quietly allowed to resign.

Madonna meddled in disciplinary matters as well. When Smith sought to place a letter of warning in the personnel file of a detective with close ties to Madonna who had lied during an investigation, the commissioner ordered the letter removed.

McGowan and Smith said they pleaded with the commission's then executive director, Thomas De Maria, to alert outside authorities to the brewing scandal. De Maria, who served at the pleasure of Madonna and New York's commissioner, Michael Axelrod, declined. He had "a mortgage to pay," he said.

The two cops then took a step that is tough for any loyal employee, but doubly so for police officers: They blew the whistle. In May 2007, they sat with federal and state officials in New Jersey, who expressed little interest. They then sought out aides to then Governor Eliot Spitzer, who authorized a special probe by the state's Inspector General.

Soon after, Smith was abruptly fired, with no reasons given. "All I was told was that the commissioners wanted to go in a different direction," said Smith, 54.

McGowan was named acting chief, but the head-butting with the commissioners continued. One memorable moment came when McGowan announced at a commission meeting that a joint investigation had led to the arrest of a top mob-tied official of the International Longshoremen's Association. Madonna appeared stunned and upset. "We know him," explained Axelrod, the New York commissioner, as he calmed Madonna down.

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.

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.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
New York Concert Tickets
Loading...