Questions on the waterfront

The investigators have be-come the investigated. State authorities in New York and New Jersey are looking into the operations of the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor.

The inquiry began after New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer issued an Oct. 15 executive order directing his inspector general to "study, examine, investigate and review the management and affairs" of the commission. Spitzer's order cited "allegations of misfeasance and nonfeasance by personnel . . . including allegations of misconduct, conflicts of interest, abuse, and waste." New Jersey officials have joined in the investigation.

Where this will lead is anyone's guess. Spitzer, who got the ball rolling, is no stranger to investigations. Before being elected governor, he was New York state attorney general and oversaw several high-profile cases - some solid, others half-baked.

Thomas De Maria, the Waterfront Commission's executive director, said the agency was surprised by the investigation but is cooperating and has nothing to hide. He emphasized that the inquiry is not a criminal investigation, but deals with the commission's administration practices. He said he doesn't know the source or basis of the allegations Spitzer cited, or what or who is being targeted.

The Waterfront Commission is a unique agency. Created in 1953 to combat organized-crime influence on the docks, the commission maintains a police force and conducts background checks and issues licenses for all workers at piers and terminals. To curtail job-selling and other rackets that were common when the port had an oversupply of longshore labor, the commission also is empowered to regulate the size of the waterfront work force and oversee day-to-day-hiring.

For years, the International Longshoremen's Association chafed under the watchdog agency's oversight. However, the ILA's attitude has gradually softened as union officials realized that the Waterfront Commission's licensing created a barrier to entry by potential non-ILA employers, and provided the union with what amounts to a closed shop.

In recent years, the commission has been criticized by employers who want freedom to add workers without the need to seek commission approval. The New York Shipping Association has been lobbying to strip the commission of its authority to regulate the size of the port work force.

Legislation to provide employers with hiring flexibility has been approved in New Jersey, but a companion measure is stalled in New York. The Waterfront Commission and some others, including ILA Local 1588 in Bayonne, N.J., warn that the proposed change would invite renewed mob influence on the docks.

De Maria said the investigation and legislation have "absolutely nothing" to do with each other. Strictly speaking, that's true, but political reality suggests that the investigation could jump-start the stalled New York bill. As with the investigation, we'll have to wait and see.

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