State Watch

New York, New Jersey battle over mob-fighting panel

AP-Seth Wenig

The governors of New York and New Jersey are headed to the U.S. Supreme Court in an increasingly bitter dispute over a 70-year old commission originally intended to combat the mafia’s control over jobs and operations at some of America’s largest ports.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in December moved to withdraw his state from the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, a congressionally authorized joint task force meant to combat corruption. New Jersey’s exit would effectively end the commission’s work.

But last week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Attorney General Letitia James (D) filed suit seeking to stop New Jersey’s exit, a move they said would cause “immediate and irreparable harm” to their state.

Because the lawsuit pits one state against another, it will bypass lower courts and head straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The commission, founded in 1953, was aimed at fighting corruption and kickbacks at ports across New York Harbor. Longshoremen’s unions were notoriously corrupt, and cargo theft was rampant.

“The original intention was to prevent organized crime influence literally on the docks,” said New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Cryan (D), a former Union County sheriff who now represents some of his state’s biggest ports.

Nearly seven decades later, New Jersey officials say the balance of power has changed. Crime is far less of a problem, and the vast majority of cargo activity now takes place in New Jersey ports in Elizabeth, Newark and Bayonne. New Jersey wants its own state police to handle law enforcement on the docks.

“We’re in a completely different world. Does it mean that crime has gone to zero? Absolutely not, but we’re not meeting the moment with the Waterfront Commission,” Murphy said in a February interview with a New Jersey reporter. “We think there’s a better way to deal with this.”

Murphy and Hochul, ordinarily allies, met to discuss the commission in early February. They did not reach agreement, and New York went ahead with its lawsuit.

“In light of current geopolitical uncertainty, the termination of the Waterfront Commission would cause immediate and irreparable harm to New York State, from increased crime to higher prices to employment inequalities,” Hochul said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “It is our responsibility to New Yorkers to stop New Jersey’s unlawful actions and preserve the ongoing work of this law enforcement agency.”

A major factor in the dispute is the Waterfront Commission’s authority to regulate hiring, registration and licensing of waterfront employees. The commission conducts background checks of potential employees.

The lawsuit filed by New York says corruption, racketeering and unfair employment practices remain rampant at the ports.

But to New York officials, that power means the ability to weed out those with ties to organized crime. To those in New Jersey, it has meant a backlog in hiring that has delayed economic development.

“It’s continued delays on great paying jobs, it’s impacted the ability of folks to work and it’s slowed down the process at the ports,” Cryan said in an interview. “I believe the state police are about as ready as they can be right now” to take over the commission’s duties.

Cryan said opening up the hiring process would help diversify the port’s workforce. A report Monday in the New York Daily News found just 8 percent of the highest-paid longshoremen working at the Port are Black, and another 5 percent are Latino.

Lawsuits between states are hardly rare; the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the authority to decide cases in which one state sues another, though many such suits in recent years have related to water rights. A 1931 case between New York and New Jersey involved the division of water flowing into the Hudson River.

The two states also battled in the late 1990s over tax revenues collected on Ellis Island, most of which belongs to New Jersey.

New Jersey has been trying to back out of the bistate commission for years. The state legislature approved a bill to turn over police powers to New Jersey authorities in 2017, a bill signed by Murphy’s predecessor, Chris Christie (R).

In a filing Monday, New Jersey’s acting attorney general, Matt Platkin (D), said New York’s request for an injunction blocking New Jersey’s exit would force New Jersey to violate that 2017 state law.

“New Jersey followed the law when it decided to withdraw from the Waterfront Commission,” Platkin said in a statement. “And consistent with our statute, the State Police, the best in the nation, has spent months preparing to undertake oversight at the port, including to protect public safety and safeguard the port.”

New Jersey officials said they were confident in their ability to beat back New York’s challenge, but they are privately concerned that the main focus of the suit is to delay the end of the commission.

“They can delay economic progress longer and longer,” Cryan said. “I hope that’s not the case.” 

Tags Chris Christie Kathy Hochul New Jersey New York Phil Murphy

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