Authorities Investigate a Watchdog of the Docks
The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, an agency created more than 50 years ago to root out corruption on the docks that was immortalized by Marlon Brando, is itself now at the center of a wide-ranging investigation.Law enforcement officials in New York and New Jersey have spent the past month looking into whether the commission, which oversees the docks and certifies waterfront workers, hired unqualified police officers, inappropriately spent agency money and improperly issued licenses to operate, a government official briefed on the investigation said yesterday.
Investigators from the offices of the New York State inspector general and the New Jersey attorney general have been examining the commission’s records, though it is unclear whether they have issued any subpoenas or interviewed executives there.
Gov. Eliot Spitzer touched off the investigation when he issued an executive order on Oct. 15 ordering Kristine Hamann, the state inspector general, to look at “allegations of misfeasance and nonfeasance by personnel of the Waterfront Commission, including allegations of misconduct, conflicts of interest, abuse, and waste.”
Thomas De Maria, the executive director of the Waterfront Commission, said in an interview yesterday that his agency had cooperated with state investigators, although he maintained that he was unaware of the accusations, who had made them and whom investigators might be focusing on.
Investigators visited the commission’s office in Lower Manhattan in mid-October to obtain copies of documents, but have not interviewed any employees, Mr. De Maria said. “It came out of the blue,” Mr. De Maria said. “We don’t really know anything.”
The commission has 102 employees and an annual budget of more than $8 million.
The investigation was reported yesterday in The Star-Ledger of Newark, but did not include details on the scope and nature of the inquiry.
However, a person with knowledge of how the commission operates said that patronage was well established at the agency and that candidates were routinely hired as police officers even if they were unqualified or failed examinations several times.
“They referred people who were barely qualified to the point where they were pushing their own people,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Mr. De Maria said that police recruits were brought to the attention of the commission in a variety of ways, and that their résumés were forwarded to the police chief.
“As a rule, you have to pass a police exam to be processed further,” he said.
In addition, a commissioner of the agency, Michael J. Madonna, was president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association at the same time, in a potential conflict of interest, according to the person with knowledge of the commission’s operations.
But Mr. De Maria said that Mr. Madonna’s term as head of the benevolent association ended in September, and that holding those roles simultaneously did not pose a conflict.
“These allegations have never been communicated by the New York inspector general in connection with the investigation,” said Angelo J. Genova, a lawyer representing Mr. Madonna. “Commissioner Madonna welcomes any inquiry into the Waterfront Commission because he has the highest confidence in the procedures of the agency.”
The government official, who also insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation, said the authorities were also looking into accusations that the commission “inappropriately” spent agency money.
Mr. De Maria said he could not comment on the allegations because he did not know the specifics.
The commission was created in 1953 to battle deeply rooted corruption at the Port of New York and New Jersey, publicized during hearings held by the New York State Crime Commission. Corruption on the docks provided the backdrop for the 1954 movie “On the Waterfront,” starring Brando as a dockworker.
With the advent of container ships several years later, business was quickly mechanized and, in time, moved out of Manhattan and Brooklyn, where there was limited room for the large corrugated containers, to New Jersey and other ports along the East Coast.
The number of union stevedores who loaded and unloaded freight also declined, although the commission still overseas 7,000 dockworkers in the area.
The commission says cargo theft, along with attempts at hiring workers with criminal records, remains a problem on the docks.