Watershed Fallout

'Hide it in the filing cabinet and bury it in the file of monthly vehicle reports. Fuck him! He's not getting it; it's my plaque, and it belongs to me. . . . I'm not giving it up.' That outburst, attributed to a whistleblowing top cop in the troubled police agency that protects New York City's watershed, is the focus of separate state and city law enforcement investigations into charges that he illegally removed a parking plaque and an EZ Pass from a vehicle that had been reassigned to a rival brought in to oversee him.

Both the state police and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel in the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) are involved.

In July, Captain Ronald A. Gatto, a commanding officer in the DEP's Environmental Enforcement Division (EED), lost his bid to bar the Giuliani administration from hiring someone to fill the top spot in the division, in effect demoting him.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jane S. Solomon ruled that Gatto was not demoted because he had criticized the agency at a public hearing in 1991, or because he allegedly provided information for a negative report about the DEP issued in February by environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Kennedy, the lead attorney for the Hudson Valley­based watchdog group, Riverkeeper, declared in a report titled "Cops in Cuffs" that the DEP's police force— which guards the 18 reservoirs that supply water to New York City, as well as Westchester and Putnam counties— was understaffed and underequipped, and that threats of terrorism and pollution amount to a security emergency.)

After a massive reorganization of the agency, the force was expanded from 50 officers to 120. The EED, which had been entirely under Gatto's command, was split up. Gatto now commands the East of Hudson Unit, and another officer runs the West Hudson Unit. Both report to a new overall manager. Gatto was one of three candidates interviewed for the top post, but the job went to Lee Siegel, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. The city argued that Gatto, who had led the EED since 1993, was not hired because he did not have a law degree. Gatto appealed the judge's ruling, and that also was denied.

The restructuring of his job responsibilities reportedly upset Gatto and, according to one EED insider, the 17-year veteran grew sullen and disenchanted after Siegel was appointed. Several months of internal squabbles escalated with the disappearance of the parking plaque and toll permit in August. In sworn statements obtained by the Voice, two officers charged that Gatto hid the items and ordered them to keep quiet if questioned about them. Gatto's attorney, Charlie King, denies Gatto did "anything improper," adding, "I have not seen any evidence from any of the officers stating that he had intentionally hidden the placard from his superiors." Siegel, who could not be reached, eventually filed a complaint with the state police in Hawthorne, who launched the initial investigation.

Gatto's future on the force remains uncertain as supporters and critics alike try to make sense of what some say was an infantile prank gone awry. Gatto wasn't always the power-thirsty reservoir dog his detractors portray him as today. Eight years ago, he was a crusading eco cop who testified before city lawmakers that his DEP superiors urged him to go easy on polluters. In a 1994 New York Times interview, Kennedy praised Gatto, saying he "has arrested more polluters than any other police officer in the world." Gatto, he added, "can smell a leaking septic tank from a moving car. He arrests everyone; he's arrested his friends." If charges are proffered against Gatto and he is convicted, it would be a rapid fall from grace. "He was investigated five times," an admirer told the Voice.

In another indication of how influential Gatto has become, one EED source speculated that he might be used as a bargaining chip in the U.S. Senate race. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a likely candidate— who passed over Gatto for the prestigious job, and was the chief defendant in Gatto's original suit— allegedly is reluctant to fire him. The source argues that Kennedy might consider scaling back attacks on Giuliani's environmental record upstate in exchange for job protection for Gatto. Kennedy was unavailable for comment, and King, scoffing, contends that Giuliani would not "sacrifice the best law enforcement cop for his political gain."

The power struggle inside the environmental enforcement unit intensified on August 10 during a gathering of officers under Captain Gatto's command at the EED station house in Croton. Among those present, according to the statement of Officer Ashford Joe Leon, were, in addition to Gatto, Detective Christian Clinch, and officers Joseph Carpenter, Kirk Budnick, and Joyce Jenter. None of the officers could be contacted.

The following account is based on the statement Leon gave to the DEP's Office of Disciplinary Counsel: At about 2:15 p.m., Gatto received a phone call from Deputy Chief Lee Siegel. After a brief conversation, Gatto turned to his officers and announced, "They're taking my vehicle." He then ordered Jenter and Clinch to fetch the keys to an unmarked vehicle that Siegel reportedly had requested. But the cops hesitated.  

"They're no fucking good!" asserted Gatto. "They always do this to me. I don't believe this." When the phone rang again, Gatto complained to an unidentified caller, "They took my car. I am documenting this for my lawsuit. This is fucking wrong. . . . I'm going to the papers. I got them." He again directed Jenter and Clinch to get the keys and bring them to him.

"Fuck it!" Gatto declared. "I'm not giving them my car." While the officers were gone, Siegel called back and inquired about a specific vehicle— one with a parking plaque and an EZ Pass. Leon stated that he, Budnick, and Carpenter heard Gatto reply, "I have no knowledge of the placard. I believe it was misplaced, lost, or I threw it in the garbage."

Upon returning to the station house, Gatto informed Jenter and Clinch that Siegel wanted a different vehicle. "I don't fucking believe this, they're always doing this," said Clinch, mimicking Gatto's initial response to Siegel's request.

"I know, I know," Gatto said.

"Don't give them the plaque," Clinch suggested, urging Gatto to remove it from the car.

"You're right, bring it upstairs, we'll keep it here, we've got to hide it," Gatto said.

While handing over the items to Gatto, Clinch hinted that, since the EZ Pass was registered to Gatto, that too should be withheld. Gatto took the pass and the plaque and told Clinch to hide them in a filing cabinet that contained monthly vehicle reports.

"No one saw this plaque here, right?" said Gatto, who then conducted a poll among his subordinates to determine whether anyone objected to what had transpired. Gatto appeared confident that his secret was secure.

At the station house the following day, as Gatto was holding court with Leon, Carpenter, Budnick, and Jenter, Sergeant James Flanigan entered the room. Flanigan waved a printout of a report from the state police in Hawthorne, who he said were conducting an investigation into a missing parking plaque. The sergeant asked Gatto to check the identification numbers of all parking plaques in his possession. Gatto retrieved some documents from the cabinet and told Flanigan that one matched the missing plaque described in the state police report.

The sergeant then asked Gatto if he had reported an EZ Pass or a parking plaque as stolen or missing. "No, no, I have it here," Gatto insisted, "unless there is a second one." Leon said Gatto then directed him and Jenter to clear up any confusion surrounding the plaque and pass. Later, Officer Carpenter approached Leon and Budnick in the locker room and told them "the captain will take care of anyone who sticks by him once he wins the lawsuit" against the DEP. Carpenter also told his colleagues that Gatto wanted him to remind Flanigan that "he never saw that plaque up here, it didn't exist."

Leon also claimed that early the next morning, Carpenter raised Gatto's concerns about not linking him to the missing items with Flanigan. Six hours later, Leon accompanied Carpenter to the state police barracks in Hawthorne, where Carpenter was questioned by a state trooper.

"Upon entering the vehicle, after he was questioned . . . Carpenter patted me down, stating that someone 'is a rat and I don't know who to trust,' " Leon said in his statement. Back at the EED station house, Leon said Carpenter reiterated loudly, "If I find out who's the rat, I'll beat the shit out of him."

Carpenter's version is consistent with Leon's. "On the morning of August 12, I was in the locker room with Officer Leon and Sergeant Flanigan," Carpenter said in his August 23 notarized statement. "I stated to Sergeant Flanigan, 'Remember that placard you saw in the filing cabinet . . . well you didn't see it.' I stated this on my own initiative because Flanigan was not in the office when Captain Gatto originally instructed us to forget about the placard. . . . I thought I was following Captain Gatto's orders."

In the statement, Carpenter said that when the trooper asked whether he had any knowledge about the missing plaque, "I responded that I didn't know anything." He said that shortly after he was questioned, he called Detective Clinch to tell him what had happened. "He was very upset that I was questioned," Carpenter said.

In Officer Jenter's statement, she recalled that on the morning of August 13, "it was apparent that something was going on. I later found out that there was a confidential investigation regarding the placard." She added that "someone— I am not sure who— instructed me not to say anything" about the investigation.  

Jenter said the next day she was summoned to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Before departing, she recalled, "I informed Detective Clinch that I would tell the truth. Detective Clinch then told me that when questioned, he would admit that he took the placard out of the vehicle."

Detective Christian Clinch kept his word. But his story sharply contradicts the version officers Leon and Carpenter gave.

In his sworn statement, Clinch concluded that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. He claimed that after Gatto asked him to transport the vehicle to Lee Siegel, he removed several items from it, including the parking placard and the EZ Pass. "Captain Gatto never told me to remove the placard or the EZ Pass," Clinch insisted. "It is understood that any time a vehicle is being reassigned, all Division contents are removed. Subsequently, I went to the office and placed the placard and the EZ Pass in Captain Gatto's inbox."

He said that he, Jenter, and another officer, Kirk Maddox, delivered the car to the deputy chief. "Had anyone called me at home, as the person in charge of the Division when Captain Gatto is not on duty, I could have informed him that the placard was in the precinct and all of this could have been avoided."

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas and The New York Law Journal

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