Behind the sights, sounds, and saltwater smells of many of the nation's bustling seaports, law enforcement agencies have uncovered a web of corruption that is prompting corrective action at several levels of government.
More than 30 officials of the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) at the international and local levels have been convicted as a result of a five-year US Justice Department investigation of waterfront racketeering.
The ILA's apparent aversion to cleaning house provided a dramatic centerpiece for recent hearings by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which contends that the ILA is controlled by organized crime.
It also has prompted the New York Waterfront Commission to prepare a suit to remove from office three top ILA officials. The three, William Boyle, Landon Williams, and James Vanderwyde, have been convicted on charges of racketeering.
The commission, which plans to file its suit within the next two weeks in the New York Supreme Court, is doing so because the union's leadership has not ousted the three.
This action comes at a time when the ILA has come under severe criticism in Washington for failing to set its house in order. In hearings before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Feb. 22-27, ILA president Thomas W. Gleason was taken to task by panel members because his organization has not removed convicted felons from their union posts.
During the final day of hearings, US Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Mr. Gleason: "What are you doing to clean your own house?"
Replied Gleason: "I want to clean up my union if there is anything wrong."
As part of the committee's formal recommendations, state and local governments were urged to look into establishing waterfront commissions similar to New York's as one way of keeping convicted felons and reputed associates of organized crime figures away from the docks. Currently, federal law permits convicted felons to retain their union posts until they have exhausted their appeals. The committee also recommended that this law be changed.
Yet no matter how important subcommittee members feel these and other suggestions are the solid support of the Reagan administration is needed for their implementation, say subcommittee spokesmen.
So it may have been encouraging to Senator Nunn and others that US Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan stated last week that his agency would assume an active role in fereting out labor union corruption.
In the past, the Department of Labor has taken an extremely limited view of its responsibility toward coping with racketeering and other criminal offenses. Instead, it has preferred to let the Justice Department take most of the initiative. On the advice of the subcommittee, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah has expressed interest in submitting legislation that would expand the list of crimes under the Taft-Hartley Act to cover union payoffs or kickbacks.
But sources with the Permanent Subcommittee on investigations say that it will take pressure from Secretary Donovan for progress to be made fighting corruption on the waterfront. And there will be pressure on Donovan as well.
"He's caught between a rock and a hard place," said one subcommittee source. "There's no way he can't go further because, if the committee reconvenes hearings a year from now they are going to want to know what he has done."
It took almost a year before Anthony M. Scotto, convicted in November 1979 of labor racketeering, had to relinquish his two ILA posts. One of these posts was president of ILA local 1814, the largest local in the port of New York. Scotto, once widely thought to be the heir apparent to Mr. Gleason, claimed in New York State Supreme Court that he had a right to exhaust his court appeals before the New York Waterfront Commission could order him out of the union. He lost and last November had to give up his union jobs.
Scotto's appeal of his US District Court conviction, however, is still pending before a full US Appeals Court after a three-judge Appeals Court panel upheld the lower court's ruling.
Although Scotto is described by federal officials as the "biggest fish" connected to organized crime to be removed from the ILA to date, the hearings last week produced testimony that the mob controlled ILA president Gleason. Gleason denies the charge.
While a number of longtime organized-crime experts, who want to remain anonymous, don't believe that Gleason corrupt, they quickly add "there are still some pretty tough elements in the union."