New York

Saving Captain Gatto


THE AFRICAN AMERICAN WIFE of Captain Ronald Gatto—the city’s top watershed cop who blew the whistle on the vulnerability of New York’s reservoirs to terrorist attacks, and who is suing the Giuliani administration for demoting him—has rallied to her husband’s defense, insisting that allegations that he is a racist and an anti-Semite are part of a conspiracy to discredit his acclaimed activism.”That’s outrageous!” says Faye Gatto, 37, who has four children with the 17-year veteran of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “He is married to a woman who is of African descent. My oldest daughter dates African Americans, and the charge of anti-Semitism is absolutely absurd.” (Gatto declined several Voice requests for an interview, saying he had authorized his wife to speak on his behalf.)

The allegations are the latest in a series of political mishaps involving the 41-year-old co-commander of the Environmental Enforcement Division (EED), who has been highly praised by environmental watchdog Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The EED is the police arm of the DEP, which patrols the watershed that provides drinking water to New York City and parts of Westchester County. Previously strained relations between Gatto and some officers deteriorated with the alleged discovery recently of an offensive photograph some claim was put up by Gatto at the station house in upstate Croton.

A law enforcement source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Voice that a female officer “came across a photograph which disturbed her tremendously.” It was an altered picture of the Three Stooges wearing Nazi uniforms. According to the source, the Stooges had been renamed Lee Siegel, Robert Chicola, and Stephen King. Siegel is a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney whom the Giuliani administration appointed to a top DEP post, bypassing Gatto; Chicola is the former DEP deputy director; and King is the former director and Gatto arch nemesis who died of a heart attack on October 31. The three officials and Mayor Rudy Giuliani are named in a lawsuit—currently in the deposition stage—in which Gatto demands that he be given his job back and that the DEP be prohibited from initiating future harassment or retaliation against his whistle-blowing.

Mrs. Gatto maintains that the charges against her husband were fabricated by DEP informants in Croton “to counteract [the agency’s] own racism; the whole department is racist.” She recounts an ordeal she says she and her husband were put through by officers in the now-defunct Bureau of Water Supply Police (BWSP) who objected to their interracial marriage. “My husband was first discriminated against because he was married to a black woman,” she claims. “They called him ‘nigger lover’ and often asked him, ‘How do you find your wife in the dark?’ ”

Gatto, she adds, spoke up for blacks and Jews and blew the whistle on a group of watershed cops who were implicated in a covert investigation of a black Muslim community. In 1992, the city’s Department of Investigation released a report that charged the BWSP with carrying out the unauthorized investigation of the Muslim community, which owns homes on 55 acres in Delaware County about two miles from the city’s Cannonsville Reservoir in upstate Tompkins. The unit also had “conducted investigations of the Weathermen and the JDL (Jewish Defense League) but intentionally kept no records of those investigations,” a DOI official said at the time.

The BWSP probe of the Muslims, initiated in 1988, included “warrantless search, aerial photography, and record checks on persons and vehicles believed to be associated with the Muslim community,” the report said. Community members were subjected to interviews and criminal history checks. One Muslim was detained, and officers entered the community compound on two instances for searches, the report added. The DOI concluded that the BWSP unit began the investigation “without benefit of a single allegation or complaint of criminal activity.” After the scandal, the BWSP was renamed the Environmental Enforcement Division.

Croton station house insiders say that over the years Gatto has grown increasingly callous toward fellow officers and superiors. On the morning of November 1, when Gatto was informed of the sudden death of Director King, he “started dancing at the front door of the Croton Precinct and singing about how happy he was that King had died,” one officer recalls. The source adds that later Gatto told a lieutenant, “One down, two to go”—which he believes was an ominous reference to Siegel and Chicola.

Gatto’s lawyer, Charles King, denies Gatto gloated. “It’s patently false,” the attorney says. “Even though they were not close colleagues, Captain Gatto was saddened upon hearing the news. He wouldn’t wish ill on anyone.”

If Gatto’s alleged remark did not further dampen the somber mood at the station house, a statement attributed to a high-ranking cop with ties to Gatto put another nail in King’s coffin. According to the source, after walking into the station house, the officer looked at wall portraits of King, Giuliani, and DEP commissioner Joel Miele, and declared, “Take this shit off the wall—he’s not here any longer,” and then went into Gatto’s office. The next day, after someone handed the same officer information about a wake for King, he “wrinkled it up and threw it in the garbage and said, ‘To hell with him. I’m not going. And he can go to hell.’ ”

Mrs. Gatto remains stoic about King’s passing. “Stephen gave us a lot of grief,” she says. “I’m the one who said I wasn’t going to cry over it. He was a hand-tying puppet that DEP put in the position to eliminate any type of enforcement.”

** The Ronald Gatto that his wife admires busted rogue cops. While Mrs. Gatto condemns her husband’s critics for ignoring his heroism, some maintain that Gatto encouraged subordinates to retaliate against his enemies.

Two months ago, the Voice first reported that state police and the DEP’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel had launched an investigation into charges that Gatto illegally removed a parking plaque and an EZ-Pass from a vehicle that had been reassigned to Lee Siegel, a rival who had been brought in to oversee him. In sworn statements, two officers charged that Gatto hid the items and ordered them to keep quiet if questioned about them.

Since that story, Officer Joseph Carpenter, a cop who admitted lying to a state police investigator about the missing plaque, has been fired. Officer Joyce Jenter, whose statement helped initiate the investigation of Gatto, has resigned. (The DEP confirmed Carpenter’s firing and Jenter’s resignation; the former officers could not be contacted.) Now the DEP has gone after Detective Christian Clinch, a Gatto loyalist, who allegedly tried to cover up for his commander. Last week, Clinch was hit with a 30-day suspension, which Mrs. Gatto, who is close to her husband’s protégé, insists has nothing to do with the EZ-Pass and plaque controversy.

“A month ago, he took a bag of household garbage and tossed it in the bin at the Croton Precinct,” Mrs. Gatto explains. “He was suspended without pay for 30 days, and on Thursday, they asked him to resign over a bag of garbage? Ron is sick over it,” she adds. “You’re gonna fire someone two weeks before Christmas, who has a wife and two small kids who still believe in Santa Claus? They have no heart.” (Clinch could not be reached for comment.)

It is no secret that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. considers Captain Gatto a hero. In one of Kennedy’s reports alleging that a lack of support for the watershed police has heightened dangers of terrorism and pollution, he contends that “outside of Gatto’s personal commitment,” DEP officials don’t seem to care, and if Gatto “disappeared, it is doubtful that any meaningful watershed enforcement would continue.”

Croton insiders say they know why Kennedy—counsel for the Riverkeeper organization, a powerful public-interest research group that has tormented the Giuliani administration over its watershed politics—has been so effusive in his praise of Gatto. Kennedy, they claim, relies heavily on information from the eco cop to buttress his scathing reports about DEP mismanagement. One source says that from May to October of this year, Gatto repeatedly used agency telephones to leak information to Kennedy and make arrangements to provide him with files of controversial enforcement cases.

“At various times, Captain Gatto would fax the information over to Robert Kennedy’s office; that is a violation,” says the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “On other occasions, Captain Gatto would take the information and hand-deliver it to Kennedy.”

Kennedy told the Voice he never encouraged Gatto to violate DEP guidelines. “Of course it would be improper for him to share confidential information in a criminal case,” he reiterates. “But there is nothing wrong with him sharing [other] information with me.”

The focus on Gatto’s relationship with Kennedy comes on the heels of Kennedy’s most recent attempt to overhaul the agency. In a report released last month, Kennedy charges that the Giuliani administration has weakened controls on development in the watershed, endangering the city’s drinking water, to curry favor with upstate political leaders.

The report claims that the DEP loosened rules prohibiting septic systems on steep slopes near city reservoirs and has created legal loopholes that allow developers to use untested sewage-treatment systems. It adds that the city has helped weaken a 1997 agreement that protected wetlands from development. Since Giuliani has indicated he may run for the U.S. Senate, Kennedy wrote, “city agencies are responding to that interest instead of aggressively overseeing” the watershed. “At least one quarter of the new developments are taking advantage of loopholes recently created by the Giuliani administration to pander to the powerful real estate industry.”

When asked about the report, Giuliani scoffed, “Isn’t that the same report they did a few years ago? What did they do, dust it off? We are doing everything we can to protect the watershed, and I think we’ve done a very good job.”

Croton watershed cops who have been at odds with Gatto question the timing of Kennedy’s report, asserting that it was designed as an attempt to salvage the commander’s soiled reputation. Some say that his suit is the only major obstacle to Gatto’s firing.

Gatto was commander of 15 officers responsible for enforcing environmental rules throughout 2000 square miles east and west of the Hudson River. Charles King told the Associated Press that on June 11 Gatto was relieved of command of 80 percent of the territory he had been responsible for, and his staff was cut to seven or eight officers. The DEP called it a reorganization rather than a demotion, King said.

The force was expanded from 50 to 120 officers and Gatto was put in command of an East of Hudson unit. But King charges the DEP’s numbers don’t add up. “The facts are that when he was head of the entire enforcement division there were 15 people, seven of whom were east of the Hudson. Ask how many people are currently patrolling east of the Hudson, because [the force] has been cut down to one person.”

Gatto, claims King, is the only officer patrolling the district today. “There are no officers under his command,” King declares. “If those detractors could give a justification for this from a law enforcement perspective as to why [the DEP] would decimate the numbers, I would welcome that. But if they can’t, and their only reason for doing it is to isolate Captain Gatto and force him to resign from the job he loves, he will never do that.”

Mrs. Gatto bristles at the portrayal of her husband as a washed-up maverick who is resistant to change. “It’s a farce,” she asserts, adding that the DEP is “one big empty agency. It is supposed to protect the watershed so that your children aren’t born with three eyes and brain cancer. As long as the Giuliani administration continues to hire puppets to run the DEP and harass my husband, who has dedicated his life to protecting the city’s water supply, New Yorkers should drink bottled water.”

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas and wire services

Archive Highlights