ILA case starts in furor, ends in whimper


NEW YORK -- On the dreary west side of town known as "Hell's Kitchen," two tour ships and several large old Navy vessels bobbing in the polluted Hudson are the sole nautical remnants of what once was the core of the largest port in the world.

It is here that the government has centered its most recent case against the International Longshoremen's Association. It is here, the government asserted, that ILA President John Bowers' uncle and father had once run rackets that Mr. Bowers himself had inherited and continued.

And it is here that a settlement last week produced results suggesting the government's sound and fury has come to little, if anything at all.

As has been the result after innumerable other cases launched against the longshoremen, the head of the union has survived scathing accusations of malfeasance, and, as has been the result before, expiation is limited to lesser officials and lesser areas of the ILA.

Mr. Bowers will remain head of the parent international and, despite the imposition of supervised elections, will likely remain head of two of the three locals serving the West Side. He will resign leadership of the third local, not because of corruption but because he directly employs its members, including one as his secretary, and therefore agreed that a conflict existed between his role as a representative and a manager.

"There are a lot of smiles around here," said Ernest Mathews, an ILA attorney. A union spokesman, James McNamara, added, "The government was trying to get rid of John Bowers. It's what they said from the beginning -- they'd take Bowers down and they'd take the international down with him, and they didn't."

The now largely deserted West Side piers of New York were a curious focus for a case against the ILA. The docks had little economic relevance when the case was launched in early 1990 and remain largely economically irrelevant today.

But they have strong historic and political ties that made them pertinent to a case that drew heavily from both union history and union politics to allege that the vast New York and New Jersey waterfront was caught in a half-century-old "stranglehold" of organized crime.

Until the end of the 1950s, the docks crowding the southwestern end of Manhattan served as the primary transfer point for people and goods between the United States and Europe. The critical longshoremen's local was 824, whose president, according to government documents, was Mickey Bowers, a convicted bank robber and parole violator, and whose business agent was his cousin Harold Bowers, a four-time felon and father of John Bowers.

During the past four decades, the importance of the piers, and the ILA local, was undermined by the emergence of intercontinental air travel and the evolution of the shipping industry from bulk cargo to containers.

The last of the major freight operations closed in the 1970s. Now a single pier with six berths handles the remnants of the cruise ship business. Whereas decades ago thousands of ILA members worked in the area, today, the union says, total membership on the West Side is less than 300.

Local 824 has just 60 to 70 members, whose primary job is to handle baggage from the occasional, and very seasonal, ocean cruiser that calls in New York. The other ILA members, in locals 1809 and 1909, work as ticket-takers at the Intrepid Aircraft Carrier Museum, or as office clerks.

Still, the West Side locals provided an interesting target for prosecutors for one major reason. They were all headed by John Bowers, in addition to his role as head of the international.

This was made clear in February 1990 when U.S. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh made a rare appearance before the New York press to announce the filing of a comprehensive racketeering suit alleging "a pattern of murder, extortion and payoffs to union officials of West Side ILA locals, including the current international president of the ILA, John Bowers."

The local U.S. attorney, Otto Obermaier, asserted the case was "a precise, carefully drawn legal effort to end La Cosa Nostra's corruption of the ILA locals and the waterfront." The suit demanded that the current leadership of the three Manhattan locals (and three others in New Jersey and Brooklyn) be expunged from all union activity. Had that been achieved, Mr. Bowers would have been banished and the leadership of the ILA profoundly altered.

The case attracted widespread interest and intensive efforts by defense attorneys and government agencies, including numerous prosecutors, the FBI, the Waterfront Commission and the Labor Department.

During the past year, lawyers for both sides met almost weekly before Judge Leonard Sand in U.S. District Court to thrash out legal issues. Depositions were taken from more than 200 people, and, the union contends, every piece of paper at its locals in New York and New Jersey was examined. Thousands of hours were spent by both sides preparing cases, and ILA attorneys said they were prepared to launch a full defense beginning last week.

Conversations on a settlement between the two sides began in December under a special court-appointed officer, but negotiations did not heat up until March 21, said Mr. Mathews, the ILA attorney. They continued throughout the weekend, and after a one-day postponement of the trial date, were concluded Tuesday.

That pre-empted testimony by the government's announced first witness, Francis "Mickey" Featherstone.

Mr. Featherstone, a former member of a violent New York gang known as the Westies, told prosecutors earlier that he had been indirectly asked by John Bowers to murder another ILA official. Moreover, he said, he had received extortion payments during ++ the 1970s and 1980s provided by Mr. Bowers, and, when they briefly ceased, had met with John Potter, one of the ILA officials who resigned as part of the settlement, "to tell Bowers that if he thinks the checks stopped he will get whacked." The checks, Mr. Featherstone added, resumed.

Nothing about murder, racketeering, payoffs or any other similarly serious crimes appeared in the final settlement. And unlike the announcement of the charges, Mr. Thornburgh didn't come to New York to read the final agreement.

Indeed, the settlement was decidedly low-key. While the indictment received front-page treatment in the New York papers, the resolution was relegated to the back pages.

The case has not been a total failure for prosecutors. Mr. Obermaier, through a news release, went so far as to assert it provided "extensive relief, including substantial institutional reform."

Two officers of the ILA have agreed to resign, and new elections at the West Side locals will be supervised by the Labor Department. But the two officers, the union said, were both in their late 60s and seriously ill. And the elections may just confirm the current leadership.

The employees of one of the three locals, involving the Intrepid, ,, will be supervised. According to government documents, workers had submitted false names and Social Security numbers and at a one time ran a scam where ticket-sellers pocketed extra cash by reselling the same ticket many times.

A related settlement reached a week ago Friday in New Jersey concerning an ILA local is more extensive. It placed a trustee over the local's operations and required the officers of the local to repay $100,000 to its general treasury.

No senior ILA officials were involved in the case.

Still to come is a trial scheduled for April 15 concerning two HTC Brooklyn locals. One of the two, Local 1814, is accused of having tight ties with the Mafia, including a particularly close relationship with John Gotti, the reputed current don of the city's organized crime. A member of the local who is included in the indictment is Anthony Pimpinella, the ILA's general organizer, the third-most senior employee of the ILA.

The government has been more successful in its prosecution of ILA general organizers than presidents. Both of Mr. Pimpinella's past two predecessors have been found guilty of racketeering.

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