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N.J. Legislators Push to Back Out of Waterfront Commission

New Jersey lawmakers are trying to pull out of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, a bistate agency designed to combat the organized crime and racketeering that have long plagued the port industry.


By

Kate King and

Paul Berger

New Jersey lawmakers are trying to pull out of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, a bistate agency designed to combat the organized crime and racketeering that have long plagued the port industry.

Legislators say the commission, established in 1953 by Congress in response to widespread corruption and mafia involvement at the ports in New Jersey and New York, is no longer necessary. The commission’s rules make it difficult for shipping companies to hire new workers, they say.

A bill to direct New Jersey’s governor to pull out of the compact unanimously passed the state Senate in early December and will be voted on in the legislature’s lower chamber Thursday. If it passes, the legislation will go to Republican Gov. Chris Christie before he leaves office in mid-January.

New Jersey Republican Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, a sponsor of the bill, said corruption isn’t nearly as prevalent as it was when the commission was formed 64 years ago. Bill backers say the ports are now a far cry from their portrayal as a mafia-dominated industry in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront.”

‘I think it’s an anachronism. It’s a waste of money.’

—Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, a sponsor of the bill

“I think it’s an anachronism. It’s a waste of money,” Mr. Bramnick said of the commission. “I don’t think it’s doing any work that couldn’t be done by the state police or by the FBI or by the U.S. attorney’s office at a lot lesser cost.”

The Waterfront Commission works with federal and local prosecutors in New York and New Jersey to bring criminal cases. The commission, which has an annual budget of about $13 million, is funded through fees levied on shipping and related commerce.

Commission officials say the port industry still needs special oversight, citing as an example their assistance in the recent prosecution of several former supervisors of the International Longshoremen’s Association, the union that represents dock workers. The former longshoremen, including associates of the Genovese crime family, pleaded guilty in 2014 and 2015 to extorting Christmastime tribute payments from dock workers.

The commission also helped investigate a former general foreman and member of the International Longshoremen’s Association, who was convicted in October for collecting a salary of almost $500,000 while working as little as eight hours a week.

James McNamara, a spokesman for the International Longshoremen’s Association, declined to comment on allegations of the union’s organized crime ties or on the New Jersey bill.

Robert Stewart, a former head of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Task Force in Newark, said he doubted the state police had the experience and skills to bring complex labor racketeering cases.

“The waterfront is one of the last places where organized crime is really very, very well entrenched,” Mr. Stewart said. “You have to build up an informant network. You have to understand as much about the industry as those people who are out on the pier.”

A spokesman for the New Jersey State Police declined to comment on Mr. Stewart’s remarks or the pending legislation.

The Waterfront Commission, whose jurisdiction spans a 25-mile radius from the Statue of Liberty, has a staff of 82 that includes lawyers, intelligence analysts, accountants and about 40 officers.

This isn’t the first time New Jersey lawmakers have tried to withdraw from the Waterfront Commission. Mr. Christie vetoed similar legislation in 2015, saying that he was “not unsympathetic to the merits of the bill,” but had been advised that federal law wouldn’t allow one state to unilaterally pull out of a bistate compact that had been approved by Congress.

Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat and sponsor of the current bill, said he believes Mr. Christie would sign the legislation this time around because new legal opinions have indicated that the state could withdraw from the compact without congressional approval. A spokesman for Mr. Christie declined to comment on pending legislation.

Mr. Sarlo said shipping companies and the dock workers’ union want to hire more minority employees but have complained that the Waterfront Commission, which approves new hires, is slowing the process. Hiring has been a point of contention for years at the ports, where a 2012 report by the Waterfront Commission found that “mob and union favorites” were filling the most desirable dock jobs.

The commission, which has an annual budget of about $13 million, is funded through fees levied on shipping and related commerce.Photo: Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

The commission says it has championed minority hiring at the port. Its officials point to a lawsuit brought a few years ago by the International Longshoremen’s Association and other port groups, in which the union and industry groups claimed that the agency’s attempts to apply antidiscrimination laws violated workers’ collective bargaining rights. The case was dismissed.

Last year, a federal appeals court panel upheld that decision, noting that the commission was created, in part, to eliminate corrupt hiring practices. “Can it seriously be argued that racial discrimination in hiring (or anywhere, for that matter), is not a corrupt practice?” the court wrote in its decision.

Phoebe Sorial, the Waterfront Commission’s general counsel, said the bill would be challenged in the courts if it passes and is signed by Mr. Christie. Michael Murphy, New Jersey’s representative on the commission’s two-person board of commissioners, said he believes the bill is unconstitutional.

Across the river, an official with the administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said that if the bill is signed into law, “we will review the issue.” Sen. Diane Savino, a Democrat who proposed legislation last year to give the governors of New York and New Jersey more control over the Waterfront Commission, didn’t comment directly on the New Jersey bill.

“It is always difficult making changes to a bistate entity,” Ms. Savino said in a written statement. “If New Jersey moves forward, we will revisit with all the necessary stakeholders.”

Write to Kate King at Kate.King@wsj.com and Paul Berger at Paul.Berger@wsj.com

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