It was the flies buzzing around the trunk of the silver Acura parked behind the Huck Finn Diner in Union, N.J., that first drew notice. On closer inspection, the diner’s owner detected a foul stench. He called the police.

Inside the trunk was the decaying body of a gangster, a reputed member of the Genovese crime family who managed the mob’s rackets on the New Jersey waterfront. Lawrence Ricci, 60, had gone missing two months earlier amid a corruption trial in Brooklyn. He had been accused of conspiring with officials of the International Longshoremen’s Association to win contracts from the union’s benefit plan for mob-tied firms — charges of which he was acquitted after he disappeared.

The mob had been overcautious, George Barone, an admitted Genovese gangster and former ILA vice president who testified as a government witness at the trial, later explained.  “They were afraid he was going to talk if he was convicted,” Barone said.

That was in 2005, and no other waterfront mobsters have turned up dead in any car trunks in the 18 years since Ricci met his fate. But in many ways, the nearly century-old legacy of organized crime is still felt along the sprawling New York–New Jersey port, even as the bistate agency established to clean up the docks — the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor — has been marked for extinction.

The move to eliminate the commission came last month after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously approved the right of the state of New Jersey to withdraw from the 70-year-old agency. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, who has long championed the effort, announced himself “thrilled” by the decision, while his fellow Democrat, New York governor Kathy Hochul, expressed dismay, and newspaper editorials in his own state warned him to be careful of what he wished for.  

Murphy said that New Jersey’s state police can easily handle the commission’s task of screening job applicants and monitoring waterfront businesses for any ties to organized crime. But he has yet to release a plan and his office did not respond to a request for particulars. “Those details are still being worked out right now,” said Lt. Lawrence Peele, a spokesman for the state police.

Former New Jersey state senator Raymond Lesniak was the original sponsor of the successful legislation calling for the Garden State to abandon the bi-state compact, a bill that was signed into law in 2018. Lesniak argued that the agency over-regulated waterfront businesses and had outlived its usefulness. “It is a relic of  the past,” he told THE CITY. But Lesniak said that he was puzzled by the delay in releasing the new strategy. “I don’t know why they are being so secretive about it,” Lesniak said. “But it’s the responsibility of the state police and I respect their operations.”   

A Vast Universe

The job of watchdogging the waterfront is vast in scope. The port stretches from a handful of docks in Brooklyn and Staten Island to the north Jersey shore where 90 percent of the commerce now takes place. There, thickets of tall cranes rising behind the Statue of Liberty hoist freight on and off of ships from around the world. Last year was the busiest ever for the port, which handled the highest amount of cargo in its history. Some 5,800 dock workers move that cargo, members of eight separate union locals of the ILA. 

Giant cranes await cargo ships at Port Elizabeth, 2015. Credit: JonathanCollins/Shutterstock

While there have been no glaring signs of violence since Ricci’s murder, a look at the waterfront universe reveals that the imprint of organized crime extends well beyond the issues of law and order to the lack of diversity among the best-paid dock workers and a high cost of doing business that is passed on to consumers. Solutions to those problems are complicated by the steady influence of the Genovese crime family which, veteran mob busters say, has maintained its influence on the docks. 

The mob, said Robert Stewart, the former chief of the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in New Jersey who also served as a court-appointed monitor of an ILA local, has settled most of its internal disputes. “They are good businessmen,” Stewart said. “When there are no dead bodies, no one is upset. Business goes on.”

Bruce Mouw, a former FBI supervisory special agent whose team sent John Gotti to prison, said the mob’s influence will grow once the commission’s watchdogs leave the scene. “The Genovese family still controls those New Jersey docks,” he said. “That hasn’t changed much in a long time. If the Waterfront Commission goes away they are just going to have total control.”

The story of that control is recorded in voluminous reports by the Waterfront Commission as well as the reflections of people deeply familiar with life on the docks. They include veteran lawmen, a mobster who turned on his own, and a one-time child actor who confronted Marlon Brando in a pivotal scene of the movie “On the Waterfront” and later became a longshoreman.

The loudest cheers for the Supreme Court’s decision come from one of Ricci’s co-defendants who also won acquittal in the 2005 extortion case. Harold Daggett was elected president of the ILA, which represents some 43,000 workers in ports from Maine to Texas, in 2011. He is currently seeking a fourth term in office. He voiced jubilation at the demise of an agency that has been his union’s steady local antagonist, which denied licenses to union-sponsored job applicants with alleged ties to organized crime and spotlighted the exorbitant six-figure salaries received by favored and overwhelmingly white dock workers who often spent minimal hours on the job. 

The Waterfront Commission, Daggett said in a statement after the decision, had “brought misery to generations of ILA longshore workers subjected to targeted harassment and loss of jobs.” The court’s decision was a “fitting retribution for an agency that dedicated itself for decades to acting more like a gestapo and little like a policing agency,” he said.

That anger is at least partly personal. In addition to the criminal case, the Waterfront Commission joined federal prosecutors in Brooklyn in a 2005 civil racketeering case in which Daggett was described as a Genovese crime family associate who owed his union position to the support of organized crime. Daggett, who earns $638,00 a year as union president and whose son, Dennis, is a $308,000 executive vice president, has long adamantly denied the charge. The racketeering suit, while technically still active, never achieved reforms the government had sought. 

Union vice president James McNamara provided copies of Daggett’s statements on the Waterfront Commission decision to THE CITY and said he would forward a request to talk to the union president or other officials. No further response was received.

Eye-popping Wages

The ILA’s hostility to the commission is shared by its management counterpart. The Shipping Association of New York and New Jersey, which represents the ocean-going carriers and terminal operators, paid the fees that financed the commission’s $14.2 million annual budget and 66-member staff under terms of the now-defunct compact. “If you need a poster boy for a rogue law enforcement agency, this is it,” association president John Nardi told THE CITY. “They were not accountable to anybody.” As far as any active presence of organized crime in the port, he said, “We don’t see it.”

Instead, he said that an ethnic bias underlies much of the commission’s work. “If you had a vowel at the end of your name, it took twice as long for the commission to approve you as if you didn’t,” he said. 

Yet records compiled by the Waterfront Commission show eye-popping salaries, startling inequities and a mob deeply entrenched on the docks.

According to the commission’s most recent annual report, issued in 2020, 850 workers on the waterfront earned more than $150,000 a year; some 318 workers earned more than $300,000 per year. The highest-paid jobs on the docks remained firmly in the hands of white workers. Local 1, a union representing the workers who check cargo, has 732 members, 85% of whom are white.

Employment in Harold Daggett’s home local, Local 1804-1 in Port Newark, is similarly skewed. Among the 103 members who handle the equipment that moves cargo on and off freight ships, only one was Black and 12 were Hispanic. The numbers in the local’s larger maintenance division were similar, with 86% of the 1,012 jobs held by white workers. Only one of the union’s maintenance posts was held by a woman.

Hearings held by the commission in 2010 highlighted no-show and semi-show blue collar jobs that paid spectacularly well. Among the lucky jobholders was union shop steward Ralph Gigante, a nephew of Vincent “Chin” Gigante, the late Genovese family boss. Ralph Gigante, commission records showed, was paid $400,000 a year while working less than 30 hours per week. Testifying at the hearing, Daggett countered that $400,000 is “not a lot of money today.”

Nardi, the shipping association executive, acknowledged the problems and the difficulty in addressing them. “You have some ridiculous salaries out there,” he said. “We put some provisions in the last contract to try and rein that in, but it is going to take some time. Those are people with a lot of seniority.” 

But commission investigations also revealed outright fraud and extensive shakedown rackets. In 2018, a foreman on the docks named Paul Moe, Sr. was sentenced to two years in prison following his conviction for fraudulently collecting wages of nearly $500,000 a year. Evidence at trial showed that Moe  showed up for work as little as eight hours a week while associates submitted false timesheets on his behalf, including up to 16 hours a day of overtime. According to the commission, shortly after Moe’s conviction, his wife, who had been unemployed for decades, was named to a newly created $70,000 position at a union benefit fund. 

Commission investigators also helped crack a decades-old extortion racket in which port workers were coerced into handing over a portion of their Christmastime bonuses, in amounts of up to $2,000 apiece, to mob-tied union officials. According to prosecutors, most of the money was kicked up to mobsters in the Genovese and Gambino crime families. The investigation led to the arrest of several leaders of ILA Local 1235 in Newark. Vincent Aulisi, a former president of the local, was convicted in federal court in New Jersey in 2014 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. During the investigation, Aulisi’s son Edward, who was also convicted in the case, was picked up on an FBI wiretap talking to a then fugitive Genovese crime family captain, Michael “Trigger Mike” Coppola, about the collections, according to prosecutors. 

Nabbed in the extortion case was a Genovese soldier named Stephen Depiro who pleaded guilty in 2015 to racketeering and was sentenced to 41 months in prison. The New Jersey U.S. attorney said at the time that Depiro had taken over the crime family’s operations on the New Jersey waterfront after Ricci’s murder. 

But the most embarrassing union conviction in the case was that of Thomas Leonardis, another former leader of Local 1235, who had testified four years earlier before a New Jersey legislative committee chaired by then-Senator Lesniak that the Waterfront Commission was unnecessary. 

As a dramatic prop, Leonardis brought along a large metal hook, the kind used by longshoremen in the 1950s when most cargo was carried manually. “This hook has outlived its usefulness,” Leonardis told the committee. “I think so has the Waterfront Commission.” In 2014, Leonardis pleaded guilty to extortion conspiracy and was sentenced to 22 months in prison.

“Yes, that was my hearing, my committee,” Lesniak said with a laugh when asked about the incident in an interview this week. Still, he maintained organized crime doesn’t exist on the waterfront “any more than it does anywhere else.”

A ‘Mob Tax’

A key source for the government’s allegations against Daggett and the union was George Barone, an aging and almost deaf waterfront pirate who acknowledged that he had carried out hits for Genovese chieftain Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno at the same time that he was rising in the ranks of the ILA. 

Schooled in a freelance gang called “the Jets’’ that engaged in loansharking and robbery along the lower Manhattan docks in the early 1950s (and whose name was later borrowed for the musical “West Side Story”), Barone was an ILA organizer in 1957. As his union profile rose, Barone came under fire from the Waterfront Commission, which accused him of being part of a “criminal element” trying to control the ILA. In 1967, Barone relocated to Florida, where he became the leader of a longshoremen’s local in the port of Miami. 

Dock workers unload cargo at the Port of New York in the mid-60s. Credit: Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor Annual Report

After a falling out with soldiers of Vincent Gigante, the then-Genovese boss, Barone became convinced he was next on the mob’s hit list. He agreed to become a cooperating witness for the feds in 2001. His testimony helped win convictions in 2003 against five mob racketeers including John Gotti’s brother Peter, whose Gambino family was alleged to control New York City’s few remaining waterfront operations in Brooklyn’s Red Hook and on Staten Island’s Howland Hook. A year later, Vincent Gigante, his son Andrew, and a half dozen other Genovese gangsters pleaded guilty rather than face trial where Barone would have been a key witness.  

“Between shooting guys for Fat Tony and being in the mob, my whole life was control of the waterfront,” Barone told a reporter a year before his death at age 87 in 2010. “And the ILA was the vehicle. That simple.” 

Backing up Barone’s claims were decades of carnage along the waterfront. Malcolm Johnson, the reporter whose series of articles about corruption on the docks for the New York Sun won a Pulitzer prize in 1949 and helped spur the commission’s creation, detailed 20 murders tied to mob racketeering. The port of New York, Johnson wrote, was “an outlaw frontier.” 

When the industry shifted in the 1970s from Manhattan and Brooklyn to the New Jersey side of the harbor to allow for huge new shipping containers, the killings followed. In the mob’s struggle over the spoils, at least nine men were murdered between 1973 and 2005, according to Robert Stewart, the former organized crime strike force chief.

“Those crimes got public attention,” Stewart said last week. “When the public’s upset, the politicians respond.” 

Down the line, the corruption imposes a “mob tax” on the public, Stewart said. “Organized crime is a for-profit organization, always has been. They wouldn’t be there for fifteen seconds if they weren’t making a ton of money.”

Marlon Brando’s Young Pal

Retired longshoreman Tom Hanley, 83, who worked on the New Jersey docks for 52 years, saw all sides of that business. 

Hanley was a teenager living with his mother in Hoboken in 1953 when film crews shooting the movie “On the Waterfront” showed up. Director Elia Kazan recruited Hanley to play the part of Tommy, Marlon Brando’s young pal who helped tend his pigeon coop on a tenement roof. Hanley got to utter his famous line, “A pigeon for a pigeon,” as he flung a dead bird at Brando whose character, the ex-boxer-turned longshoreman Terry Malloy, had agreed to testify against the mobsters ruling the piers.

A few years later, Hanley himself went to work on the Hoboken docks. At the time, gangsters of Irish descent ruled that stretch of waterfront. After two of them were shot to death in separate killings in 1973, the power shifted to a pair of much- feared Mafia members, Tino Fiumara and John DiGilio, who were alleged to be behind the murders. Hanley was working for an ILA local in 1988 in Bayonne, one long controlled by DiGilio, when the mobster’s body was found floating in the Hackensack River. Fiumara died of cancer in 2010.

Former New Jersey longshoreman and “On the Waterfront” actor Tom Hanley Credit: Courtesy of Mike Hanley

A few years before he retired, Hanley was elected a shop steward, thanks to court-ordered reforms in his union local. The Waterfront Commission never succeeded in getting the mob off the docks, he said in a recent interview with THE CITY, but the agency played a strong role in curbing some of the worst abuses.

“We had the mob and the union, and the Waterfront Commission was the buffer between them,” Hanley said. 

Stewart said the Waterfront Commission had been largely ineffective until it was rejuvenated by a change in leadership in 2008. That change came after a stinging report by New York’s state inspector general that found a raft of abuses at the agency, including favoritism by top executives toward individuals and companies seeking approvals from the commission. One of the agency’s two commissioners, who also served as president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, was alleged to have intervened to help unqualified applicants be hired as commission police officers. 

Under a new executive director, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney and New York City investigations deputy named Walter Arsenault, the commission began aggressively using its powers under the compact to press for more diversity among the workforce on the waterfront. 

The commission’s increased focus on hiring discrimination, however, met with growing opposition from the ILA. “Every time we tried to do something, they went to court,” said Ronald Goldstock, the former head of New York state’s organized crime task force, who served as New York’s commissioner for the agency from 2008 to 2018. The campaign to end the commission, Goldstock said, took on steam as the agency’s anti-corruption efforts increased.

Fueling the effort against the commission was a juggernaut of campaign giving to New Jersey pols by the ILA and the Shipping Association. New Jersey state campaign finance records show that between 2014 and 2022, the ILA and the shipping association donated a combined $1.2 million to state office-seekers. Last June, the ILA donated $100,000 to a federally registered nonprofit committee aligned with Gov. Murphy.  

For his part, Murphy has been a steady ally of the ILA since he first ran for governor in 2017. At an ILA rally shortly before he was elected, he stood beside Daggett to tell a cheering crowd of longshore union members, “We are going to figure out the damn Waterfront Commission once and for all.” 

After the Supreme Court decision last month, Murphy quickly declared victory. “My administration has steadfastly pursued the dissolution of the Waterfront Commission because it was the right thing to do,” he said in a statement.

The now-lame duck commission has kept mum since the court ruling. Its two commissioners, one from New York and one from New Jersey, have offered no public comment. At its most recent meeting on April 25, the agency went about its usual business, approving the suspension of a maintenance worker who had been arrested for punching three policemen while they were attempting to break up a fight; denying the application of a job candidate who had failed to disclose past drug convictions, and reinstating another worker who had had his license revoked several years earlier, but who had since obtained his high school diploma and joined AA — “a true success story,” according to the administrative law judge who recommended his relicensing. 

Asked about next steps for the agency, general counsel Phoebe Sorial said only that meetings are underway to arrange “a smooth and orderly transition.”

“What’s happened is really very tragic,” Stewart said. “It was the Waterfront Commission and only the Waterfront Commission that had the interest and capacity to do something about a problem that is not conspicuous but is costing consumers a ton of money.”