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The Mob, Marlon Brando and the New Battle Over the Waterfront

In 2004, federal prosecutors went after the current president of the ILA, Harold Daggett, accusing him of benefiting from a mob conspiracy to elect him head of the ILA, which he was not at the time. The case fell apart, in part because the star witness — a hit man who co-founded the gang the Jets and was clinically deaf so he could only read lips — was not considered credible by the jury. One of the co-defendants in the case was missing during the trial and later found decomposing in the trunk of a car — acquired but dead.

Over a decade later, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, chose one of the lead prosecutors in that case, Paul Weinstein, to be New York’s waterfront commissioner.

During the trial, Daggett denied wrongdoing and said he had risen through the union ranks because of worker support, not the mob. Daggett testified that the hit man who was cooperating with the government in the case had put a gun to his head years earlier. why? Because Daggett was attempting to move the union from Manhattan to New Jersey, where most of the workers now are.

Daggett declined to comment for this story, but the ILA attorney said he was completely cleared of wrongdoing.

“Weinstein produced no evidence that Harold Daggett did anything, knew anything,” Sheridan said. “There was no evidence, so that’s why the jury rightly found him not guilty of anything he was accused of, any crime at all.”

The effort to pursue Daggett put the issue of ongoing corruption front and center in the battle over the commission.

New Jersey official after New Jersey official, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak candidly, will say there isn’t much crime on the waterfront so the commission isn’t needed. But then when they are asked about the crime on the waterfront, they say, well, that’s proof the commission isn’t doing its job well.

Senior officials in the Murphy administration, speaking on behalf of the governor but declining to be quoted by name, suggested that the fight against corruption could be better maintained without the commission. Asked if they knew of other police agencies that had gotten the ax after not stopping crime — Was the Newark police department going to be eliminated because there’s still crime in Newark? Should the FBI be shut down because they still have mob cases, even though they have long been tasked with reining in the mob? — they insisted the commission was outdated.

The officials argued the commission isn’t uniquely able to go after organized crime, but instead it’s uniquely structured in a way that holds up commerce at the port.

Among commission allies — including Hochul, whose official declined to comment beyond already public statements and court filings — it’s a given that organized crime is happening.

In 2010, the head of one local ILA came to a New Jersey legislative hearing with an old baling hook that longshoremen used to unload cargo in the 1950s — a hook that has been made useless in the era of shipping containers — and said the commission was as outdated as the hook because it was “still living in 1953.”

A few months later, the same union official, Thomas Leonardis, then head of ILA Local 1235, was arrested on federal charges and eventually admitted that he conspired to extort union members to make Christmastime “tribute” payments. The Waterfront Commission helped with the investigation. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison.

That official isn’t the only other ILA leader to get in trouble. In a sworn statement submitted to the Supreme Court in support of New York’s side, the Waterfront Commission’s executive director, Walter Arsenault, said in the 13 years since he took over following the damning inspector general’s report, there have been major mob and union-related cases. Arsenault said two dozen members and officials of the ILA and mob pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort millions from dockworkers, then funneling the money to the Genovese crime family, and another ILA official pleaded guilty to embezzling union funds. Likewise, the commission said over 300 people “associated with organized crime” were either removed or prevented from working on the waterfront.

Sheridan, the ILA attorney, said that the union is focused on representing its members in collective bargaining with the shipping industry and anything different than that is not something the union wants to be a part of.

“They are happy to have any of that element away from the union,” he said.

Arsenault portrays the commission as a pillar of institutional knowledge about a special corner of the mob scene. He rattles off intricate layers of association among criminals and suspects that, despite the commission’s work, still exist.

(The New Jersey State Police, of course, might hire people like Arsenault. In fact, they tried to hire away members of the commission’s 40 or so member police force earlier this year. In the weeks before New York sued, the state police urged Waterfront Commission staffers to apply for jobs with the state. But none did.)

When it comes to the attacks on the commission, Arsenault said he sensed the ILA led the charge, until people like the guy with the hook were in trouble, rendering them ineffective messengers.

“In the early days, the ILA always testified, then when the indictments were coming down, the shipping association started carrying the water for the ILA against the commission,” he said.

The New York Shipping Association, which represents the shipping industry and is now based in New Jersey, views the commission as an “outdated and unhelpful entity” that intervenes unnecessarily in hiring “seemingly to justify the agency’s own existence.”

“Commission staff have imposed ever-changing bureaucratic regulations and hurdles to hiring efficiency,” the association’s president, John Nardi, said in a sworn statement to the Supreme Court in support of New Jersey’s side.

What counts as a mob tie has become one of the main problems that the union and the industry have with the commission. They say Arsenault and his team go after workers and potential hires because of who they might know rather than an individual’s actual wrongdoing.

“It’s a damn tragedy for the Waterfront Commission to enjoy free reign and target Italian Americans as part of their historic anti-worker campaign. Let’s be real here. The Waterfront Commission has, for decades, claimed good jobs went to only those with so-called ‘mob ties,’ ” Harold Daggett said in a recent statement aimed at Hochul. “They tried to back up their false claims by listing names and displaying photographs of Italian American ILA longshore workers, most who have distinguished themselves with helping to make this Port one of the greatest, most productive ones in America.”

Union Vice President Dennis Daggett — Harold’s oldest son — has gone further in the past. After Murphy spoke at the 2017 campaign event, Dennis took the stage and compared the commission to the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany in the Obama administration, stood beside Daggett as he spoke.

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