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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

NY Waterfront Tales Hearken to Bad Old Days

MANHATTAN (CN) - A detective for the New York Waterfront Commission was indicted on allegations he lied about cheating on a police entrance exam - by getting a copy of it from a former New Jersey Waterfront Commissioner. A 2-year state investigation culminated in a scathing 60-page report that found the two-state commission "plagued by abuse and corruption." The commission was created in the 1950s to root out mob influence on the waterfront.

District Attorney Robert Morgenthau claims James Sutera failed the exam twice before posting the highest score ever recorded on his third attempt. Sutera, 28, twice scored in the 50s, then followed it up with a 98. The passing grade is 70.

He faces multiple perjury charges of making false statements to investigators after denying he got the answers from the former New Jersey Waterfront Commissioner, bragging about it, and passing the test along to another applicant, state prosecutors said. If convicted, he faces up to 7 years in prison.

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and current Gov. David Paterson both instructed the New York State inspector general to investigate claims of corruption made by numerous whistleblowers.

The 2-year investigation culminated in the scathing report released in August. The inspector general cited cronyism in hiring, targeting of whistleblowers, misuse of Homeland Security money, and the failure to issue a single permanent license to waterfront businesses - one of the commission's main functions - in more than a decade.

"This was a total agency breakdown," Inspector General Joseph Fisch said. "Instead of ridding the waterfront of corruption, this agency itself was corrupt."

A large portion of the commission's executive staff was fired after the report was released.

The two-state Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor was created in 1953 to deter criminal activity and ensure fair hiring at the Port of New York and New Jersey. Organized crime families once controlled the docks, the unions and the longshoremen.

Now, two commissioners oversee the agency, with each state's governor making one appointment.

Waterfront Commission detectives, who are not required to be police officers, are vested with police powers in both states.

Though they're tasked with leading investigations into waterfront-related crimes, the inspector general discovered the detectives had no written policy or procedures to guide them. They were provided only a 25-page employee manual that hadn't been updated in a decade.

The probe proved to be the demise of former New Jersey Commissioner Michael Madonna. He was accused of forcing unqualified applicants into the police department. He recommended Sutera and allegedly provided him with the answers to the entrance exam.

Another one of Madonna's "finds" was booted from the training academy for repeatedly falling asleep - while standing up.

A third candidate the New Jersey commissioner recommended landed the job even after it was discovered that he lied about attending West Point.

Former New York Commissioner Michael Axelrod was also found to have abused his position. And the corruption was not limited to the police division.

An accountant for the commission let his audits lapse by more than a decade while he secretly ran a private tax preparation business out of his office, and looked at pornography on his work computer, according to the report.

The report claimed the commission's general counsel, Jon Deutsch, got his post through political influence and was "plagued by conflicts of interest." Deutsch leaked confidential information to a friend, whose family member was being investigated on weapons charges, the report said.

The investigation raised serious concerns about security at the Ports. The commission failed to properly oversee and license companies operating in the harbor, which was one of its "mandated core responsibilities."

The investigation revealed that companies in the harbor had been operating on temporary licenses for 10 years, and the commission was about 14 years behind in its auditing and licensing responsibilities.

A patrol boat bought with Homeland Security money was supposed to be "capable of early detection of waterborne attack" and used to "deploy officers ... at high risk target locations," the report states. But the investigation found it was used to escort VIP guests to events around New York City, including during Fleet Week.

The report was attributed in large part to two whistleblowers, former Police Chief Brian Smith and former acting chief Kevin McGowan. Both were dismissed and both have filed discrimination complaints against the agency.

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