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The Man Who Wanted to Know Too Much

photo: David Yellen

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.

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.

"If you made mistakes there, people died," he said.

Mack spent hours planning details of each patrol. Some rules were simple: Telltale scents, such as smoking and aftershave lotion, were prohibited. The same route was never followed to or from the base camp. His troops learned how to bring in supporting fire from helicopters or artillery in seconds rather than minutes. "It is a profession, and you look to do it well by learning your trade, learning what it takes to survive."

Mack was proudest when he realized that the North Vietnamese were actually avoiding his company and opting for other targets of opportunity. "To me that was the highest praise."

He was almost a year into his tour when he was ordered to take two weeks of R&R in Hong Kong. Such breaks are mandatory, but Mack argued that he should be allowed to skip this one since he was due to be shipped back to the States in a few weeks anyway. He lost that argument, but he was assured by his colonel that his troops would be kept safely behind front lines in his absence. When Mack returned, however, he learned that more than 60 of his 200 men had been killed after they had been dispatched under a young lieutenant to relieve another patrol that had come under enemy fire.

The North Vietnamese had ambushed the first company and then waited for relief to arrive. "It was absolutely traditional tactics. You ambush a convoy, wait for the reaction people to come in, and then blow the crap out of them," said Mack. The lieutenant in command "was a bright young guy, a good guy, and I may have made the same mistakes," said Mack. But he has spent a lot of time since thinking about what he could have done differently. "All you know is, it couldn't have been done worse than it was. I had many friends killed in Vietnam, and we mourned that person's death and wrote to their family and did all the things that show love and respect, but you also dug very, very deeply into what that person was doing at the time, and what would you do under those circumstances."



Ex-Marine Mack: "If I do the job, and do it well, I figure I should be able to survive. And that has generally been wrong."
photo: David Yellen

While in the Marines, Mack was handed a few mimeographed sheets titled "Lessons Learned," containing combat tips the Corps had gleaned in Vietnam. The phrase has stuck with him ever since. "It is all lessons learned," he says of his military as well as his frustrating postwar battles. One lesson learned was the war itself: For all of his emphasis on tactics and precaution, Mack never understood the war's wider mission, and he left Vietnam as one more disillusioned soldier.

"We didn't understand what the hell was going on," Mack said. "We didn't know the culture. We clearly weren't winning hearts and minds."

Back in the U.S., he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the group embraced by another ex–Ivy League combatant, John Kerry. Mack attended protests in Washington, then took himself to law school, and after that to a white-shoe law firm in New York. Three years later, bored and in search of the adrenaline rush he had felt leading a rifle company in the DMZ, he signed on as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. The nation's leading prosecutorial office was then poised to launch a huge offensive against the Mafia, and Mack joined a team of fellow prosecutors that included future FBI director Louis Freeh and Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff.

In 1979, Mack got picked to oversee the organized-crime unit by U.S. Attorney and former federal judge John Martin. One probe, which took Mack seven years to complete, involved a ghoulish band of Gambino family auto thieves who left some 200 bodies, often brutally dismembered, buried around Brooklyn, a grisly tale first reported in the mob epic Murder Machine by journalists Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci.

 

When Giuliani took over the office in 1983 the two men clashed over what Mack saw as his new boss's improper hyping of his cases in the press. Mack said it hobbled investigations, while Giuliani recognized a priceless opportunity for good PR—one that ultimately helped pave his way to City Hall. "Rudy had a very different view of the use of the press than the one I had known," said Mack. "My idea was, the jury listens and that's who is important. Maybe I was wrong, but I still believe that is the way prosecutors should act."

There were more lessons learned when Mack took on one of law enforcement's most thankless tasks: policing the police. Hired in 1993 by Commissioner Ray Kelly, then in his first term at One Police Plaza under mayor David Dinkins, Mack was the first civilian to head the Internal Affairs Bureau. The hope was that Mack would be a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners outsider able to shake things up.

His tactics certainly did. The ex- prosecutor's unorthodox integrity tests included cops posing as drug dealers and street hoods looking to buy or sell weapons from corrupt police officers. "I thought there was no reason not to use some of the same tools we used to catch organized-crime suspects to find corrupt cops," he said. His office even operated a brothel for a few days (after clearing it with the local district attorney) to try and catch cops alleged to be shaking down hookers for protection money. "That may have been the last straw for people in the department, that I would even think of doing that," Mack said.

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.


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.

"I am just a lawyer. I am not a carpenter," Mack told them. His mission, he said, was "as a truth seeker."

And disturbing truths emerged. Mack's follow-the-money approach soon led him to real crimes, including corrupt stewards who took bribes in exchange for letting contractors cheat. In a city where real estate development is the biggest cash crop, such wink-and-nod arrangements are worth big money. Under the union contract, the total pay package for a journeyman carpenter currently comes to $75 an hour, including benefits. A builder who persuades a steward to look the other way by leaving carpenters off his job reports can save millions, while the union and its members are the losers.

But almost as soon as Mack started pursuing those leads, union officials began criticizing his practices, arguing that he was wasting funds. His tab, they complained, had climbed to $80,000 a month, far more than they had budgeted. Instead of doing the probes himself, they urged him to turn over whatever he came up with to government investigators to let them deal with it. Why should the union have to pay when the probes could be funded with "taxpayers' money," testified Thomassen, the District Council's president, during the court hearings on Mack's removal.

Most independent investigators interested in protecting their employment options might well have taken that advice. The business of serving as an investigative hired gun calls for a delicate balance. The main objective is to make sure no wrongdoing takes place, that John Gotti Jr. doesn't show up on the payroll as a six-figure salaried executive. On the other hand, a satisfied customer can lead to more jobs in the future. And it's hard to argue with someone who, after finding evidence of a possible crime, simply walks his findings over to the district attorney.

But that wasn't good enough for Walter Mack. "I've been a prosecutor," he testified. "Prosecutors have their own agenda. They are extremely busy individuals. To rely upon them to focus on the integrity of the District Council is a very poor policy decision."

Mack pulled another maneuver that union officials said went even further beyond the pale, when he coaxed the owners of a company called Tri-Built Construction to detail their bribes in exchange for Mack's pledge that he would recommend they not be prosecuted for it. The contractors had plenty to tell: On development projects at Kings County Hospital, Fordham University, and on Randalls Island, the builders admitted to having paid off numerous stewards. They had reduced their labor costs even further by paying about $150,000 to a crooked benefit funds employee to wipe out records so they wouldn't be billed for what they owed. According to Mack's estimate, the move saved them a whopping $15 million.

 

Mack lacked the power to decide on potential criminal charges—he could only recommend. But he said that his offer to go easy on the contractors was an effort to get a head start on what he saw as an alarming and potentially massive corruption scheme, one that likely involved numerous other companies. But union officials, who had responded lethargically to initial warnings about Tri-Built, announced themselves "shocked" at his immunity offer.

"I would venture to say that if Walter hadn't taken the position vis-à-vis Tri-Built that he did, he would still be here," said union attorney Gary Rothman. "By agreeing to not recommend to make criminal allegations against them, well, there was a great deal of angst about that."

Rothman said employers failing to pay correct wages and benefits is not unlike taxpayers cheating the IRS. "There will always be some percentage of contractors who will try and get away with this stuff," he said.

Even though, by the union's own calculation, Mack's probes identified some $40 million that may be owed to its benefit funds by corrupt companies (the actual number may be much higher), that's still a negligible figure compared to the $1 billion the union collects annually from firms that play by the rules, Rothman maintained. And regardless of what Mack, the government, or anyone else says, the union remains committed to rooting out wrongdoers, he insisted. "There is no other union in this city that does what the District Council does," said Rothman.

Still, it's hard not to suspect that, even if Mack had been a bargain, the union wasn't too happy about his uncovering misdeed after misdeed in its ranks.

"Walter was phenomenal-—don't let them tell you different," said Eugene Clarke, a veteran dissident carpenter, who has long been his own thorn in the union's side. "He was thrown out because he was starting to catch tons of people who owed money. No matter what he got paid, he brought in lots more in uncollected benefit funds that was robbed from the place."


After Mack's termination by the union, he compiled a half-dozen memos on probes he had been forced to abandon and gave the memos to the new investigator hired to replace him, another ex–federal prosecutor named William Callahan. Mack said the memos were intended to be a road map to the corruption he'd unearthed, much of it with the help of the rank-and-file sources who had called into the hotline.

Judge Charles Haight, who oversees the carpenters' case in federal court, ordered most of the documents kept secret, but a letter in the case file indicates that Mack was exam- ining allegations of rigged job referrals at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the secret use of cash payments to workers by some of the industry's largest contractors, questions surrounding a maintenance company at big midtown office buildings that has close ties to top union officials, and other topics.

After reading the memos, Callahan, the new investigator, asked Mack to divulge the names of the sources he cited, saying he needed to be able to debrief them. Mack, in an echo of the "Officer Otto" episode, has refused to do so. The standoff has resulted in a series of letters between the two men, and Callahan has said he is prepared to press the matter in court if necessary. But Mack is adamant. The tipsters, he said, were promised confidentiality. "I don't see how I can go back on that now," he said.

In the meantime, Mack's road map has been helpful. In late September, federal labor-racketeering agents arrested a shop steward and union organizer named Michael "Mickey" Annucci and charged him with taking bribes during a years-long renovation project on the massive art deco buildings on lower Madison Avenue that now house the financial firm Credit Suisse. According to the complaint against him, the shop steward allegedly saved the contractor millions of dollars by leaving workers off his union reports, while Annucci went to play golf during the day.

The company Annucci worked for, L&D Installers, has not been charged, but it had been a prime target of Mack's inquiries before he was forced out. Despite Annucci's long association with the firm, the union's top officials, Thomassen and Michael Forde (who is awaiting retrial on his own long-standing mob bribery charges) promoted him in January to a $120,000-a-year organizer position, one of the union's prize jobs.

 

Shortly before Annucci's arrest, Callahan sought to question him about his on-the-job performance. When the organizer refused to cooperate, he was immediately suspended without pay, said Audra Donohue, a union spokeswoman. But when Annucci was told he was off the payroll, he reportedly pointed toward the office of Forde, the union's top officer, who was never suspended despite his own indictment back in 2000. "How come that guy gets to stay and I got to go?" he asked, according to union sources.

Mack said he still gets called by the rank-and-file members who became his informants, but he said he has largely chalked up the carpenters' union experience as more lessons learned. "I am not saying I got it all right," he said. "If I give people opportunities to convince me I am wrong, and I still come out of it thinking I am right, that's the way it should be." He paused.

"And if the result of all of that is, I get fired on occasion," Mack added with the self-awareness that has defined his dogged career, "I will just have to deal with it."


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