By Jon Schuppe
MANHATTAN — One Thursday last August, just before the release of a report detailing corruption at the agency he was trying to reform, Walter Arsenault bought a copy of “On the Irish Waterfront,” a new book chronicling the 1950s rise of organized crime on the piers of New York and New Jersey.
He finished it over the weekend, then returned to the headquarters of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, emboldened in his mission to finally drive the mob from the docks.
The harbor has been synonymous with organized crime for decades. The loan sharking and extortion there inspired the film “On The Waterfront,” and led to the creation of the Waterfront Commission. But the agency became as corrupt as the mobsters it was supposed to be investigating.
A New York State Inspector General’s report published in August detailed how the agency protected cronies, overlooked crimes, hired friends, neglected background checks and wasted federal grants on needless equipment. Knowing the report was coming, state officials had tapped Arsenault to clean house.
Arsenault, the grandson of a longshoreman and former head of the Manhattan district attorney’s homicide unit, saw the appointment as the culmination of a career busting drug gangs, killers and corrupt public officials.
Since his arrival, the agency has a new team of directors and commissioners and a revamped police force. It also has a renewed focus on fighting the mob and enforcing fair employment practices among the companies that hire the more than 3,500 longshoremen who work the harbor.
“We’re trying to change the culture of this place from ‘don’t get involved, don’t make waves’ to ‘lets shake this up,’” Arsenault said in a recent interview with DNAinfo in his office near Wall Street. The walls were covered with photos celebrating his past busts of narcotics traffickers and street gangs. He’d brought in his copy “On the Irish Waterfront” to donate to the office lending library.
The harbor, which includes ports in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Manhattan, remains “a target-rich environment,” Arsenault said.
The Italian mob still runs bookmaking and loan sharking on the piers, still exerts influence on companies’ hiring decisions, still controls some unions, still takes kickbacks from longshoremen, and still arranges no-show jobs, according to commission officials. A downturn in port traffic has left a glut of workers — prime conditions for racketeering and corruption.
“We know who the villains are and we’re working our way toward them,” Arsenault said.
Arsenault’s mob-busting plan is to go after “low-hanging fruit”— easy cases against low-level crimes that will re-establish the agency’s credibility. From there, he said, they will work up the mafia’s food chain.
The man running those investigations is John Hennelly, who spent 20 years in the commission’s 40-member police department. Over that time, he grew so disillusioned that he submitted his retirement papers, along with a memo on how the commission ought to be reformed. Arsenault convinced him to stay, and promoted him to police chief.
Hennelly hired a group of experienced organized-crime investigators who’d retired from other police agencies.
“Now’s the hard part,” Hennelly said. “The harbor may be [the Italian mob’s] last stronghold.”
Commission officials say they are already seeing an increase in tips from informants. Some have sparked investigations that should start to bear arrests next year.
“There was no confidence in this agency before,” said commission General Counsel Michele Meyer-Shipp. “Now we’re turning that around.”