By Thomas Hauser
Ron Scott Stevens has been designated by Governor George Pataki as the new chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. For the past eight years, the commission has been widely viewed as a slush fund for the Republican Party and a dumping ground for political patronage employees. Stevens replaces Bernard Kerik, who resigned as chairman on April 11th. His appointment is a step in the right direction for an agency desperately in need of change.
The NYSAC has been a microcosm of incompetence and corruption throughout the Pataki administration. Under the chairmanship of Floyd Patterson (1995-1998) and Mel Southard (1998-2001), qualified employees were forced out of their jobs and often replaced by no-show personnel. The tragic death of Beethavean Scottland at what was treated as a social event for Republican-party loyalists was symbolic of their reign.
In September 2001, less than three months after Scottland's death, Ray Kelly was named chairman of the NYSAC. Kelly tried to turn things around and restore a sense of professionalism. But neither he nor his executive director, Charles DeRienzo, understood the sport or business of boxing. And Kelly was understandably preoccupied with his responsibilities as commissioner of the New York City Police Department. He resigned from the NYSAC in June 2002 and was succeeded as chairman by Bernard Kerik.
Kerik's chairmanship was a fraud. He served for a dollar a year and was overpaid. During his tenure at the NYSAC, there wasn't a single commission meeting. Several full time NYSAC employees said that they literally never saw him in the office. He attended only one fight (at which he arrived late), and his lack of interest in the sport became a national joke. In his absence, the commission was run on a day-to-day basis by Jerry Becker.
Becker is a former Bronx Criminal Court and Family Court judge who has been active for years in the Conservative Party. He is currently chairman of the New York State Housing Finance Agency and was designated a commissioner of the NYSAC by George Pataki on June 14, 2000.
Becker sought to implement a series of reforms at the commission, particularly in the medical arena. But fundamental problems remained. Part of the problem was lack of knowledge. "Jerry Becker thinks he knows boxing, but he doesn't," one commission employee posited.
As if to prove that notion, Becker masterminded a move within the commission to approve or disapprove fights based on the won-loss records of fighters. "I've had people come to me with guys who are 1 and 6," Becker told Joe Gergen of Newsday. "I will not accept a 1 and 6 guy no matter how great he looks in the gym." But the problem with that policy is obvious to anyone who knows boxing. When Eric Esch a/k/a "Butterbean" fought Mitchell Rose at Madison Square Garden, Butterbean was 14-0 and Rose's record was 1-6. Rose knocked Butterbean out in the second round.
Becker also spearheaded the hiring of Scott Crockett (whose wife performs public relations work at the Housing Finance Agency) as an assistant to the chairman at a reported salary of $77,000 a year. It might be that Crockett is an exemplary public servant. But to some, his most apparent qualification for the job was that he served as a campaign staffer for George Pataki during the governor's 2002 re-election campaign.
"I've come to the conclusion that the people in charge here actually want to kill the small shows because they don't want to be bothered with them," one NYSAC employee said last year. It's an aggravation for them, and they just don't want to do the work."
When that quote appeared, there were howls of protest from the commission heirarchy. But the facts speak for themselves. In 2002, there were no shows in the big arena at Madison Square Garden for the first time since the 1994 building renovation. There has been only one show in the entire State of New York so far this year.
All of the above led veteran boxing scribe Don Majeski to write, "The New York State Athletic Commission is the most highly-funded poorly-run boxing commission in the world. This is the worst boxing commission in New York since the advent of the Horton law in 1896. Not a single person there is qualified to sit on a boxing commission. No one has any experience in professional boxing. If boxing was dead in New York State, this commission buried it."
Still, it was business as usual at the commission until recent events spiralled beyond the control of political spin-doctoring.
On February 21, 2003, Senator John McCain (chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation) wrote to George Pataki urging that the governor examine allegations that the New York State Athletic Commission is "corrupt from top to bottom and is plagued by "many sinecures, allowing employees to incur exorbitant expenses at taxpayer expense and handing out inspector positions as political favors."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a greater crisis was brewing. On March 22, 2000, the Rackets Bureau of the New York County District Attorney's office referred allegations of improprieties involving the NYSAC to the Office of the Inspector General of the State of New York . The OSIG conducted an investigation that was concluded on January 21, 2003. Then it issued a report.
Anyone who wants to see how the Pataki administration has corrupted government in the State of New York should take a long hard look at the findings of the inspector general.
From 1995 through December 2001, James Polsinello was at various times executive director of the NYSAC, executive assistant to the chairman, and special assistant to the chairman. There were numerous public reports during his tenure that he had a "no-show" job. Yet these reports were ignored, and Polsinello was paid tens of thousands of dollars a year by the taxpayers of the State of New York.
The NYSAC is part of the New York Department of State. With regard to Polsinello, the OSIG report declares, "DOS personnel informed OSIG that Polsinello was present approximately two or three days a week for approximately one or two hours on each occasion. Polsinello acknowledged that, after Russo arrived , he had very little daily work to do. He confirmed that he was not present at the NYSAC office on a daily basis. In his view, he was performing his duties because he was available for assignments through contact at his home or on his cell phone. He insisted that he had inspected training facilities, but was unable to name any gym that he had inspected and admitted that he had never documented his inspection visits. In essence, Polsinello equated 'being available if sought out' to work. OSIG's investigation concluded that NYSAC's employment of Polsinello at a salary that has ranged from $55,000 to over $67,000 constituted a wasteful expenditure of state monies."
Anthony Russo was executive director of the NYSAC from May 1996 through September 15, 2000. With regard to Russo, the inspector general's report declared, "OSIG's investigation found substantial evidence that Russo regularly ignored his responsibilities and failed to provide full-time service to the NYSAC. It is difficult to see how Russo's compensation, which ranged from $50,000 to $65,000 annually, was justified by the work produced by him."
While on the job, Russo claimed to be operating out of the NYSAC's Poughkeepsie office. Here, information provided to the OSIG by Barbra Kozak (an assistant in that office from June 1995 until 1998) is instructive. The OSIG report states, "Kosak informed OSIG that Russo visited the Poughkeepsie office only to sign time-sheets and memoranda. In interviews with other NYSAC employees, OSIG found that Russo seldom visited the New York City office and may never have been to the NYSAC office in Albany. After Kozak resigned, large volumes of NYSAC mail went unopened for extended periods in Poughkeepsie despite notifications to Russo. Ultimately, the mailroom of the New York State office building in Poughkeepsie decided to return all mail received for NYSAC to the parties who had sent the mail."
It gets worse.
The OSIG report also documents the finding that, "Russo's monthly cell phone usage often exceeded $400 and, on one occasion, exceeded $1,500. OSIG's review of the cell phone bills showed that most of the telephone calls appeared personal, not NYSAC-related. At one point, DOS, after receiving Russo's $1,500 cell phone bill, directed Russo to identify his personal calls and submit a check covering those calls. Russo submitted a check for $500, which bounced when DOS tried to cash it. After OSIG began investigating Russo's telephone usage, OSIG learned that Russo resubmitted a $487.50 check to DOS which subsequently cleared."
Then there's Dr. Robin Scarlata, whose father had close ties to New York Senator Alphonse D'Amato. From 1995 through mid-2000, Scarlata was paid to perform the part time duties of medical director and, later, co-medical director of the NYSAC.
"During her tenure with NYSAC," the OSIG report states, "Scarlata worked fulltime as a radiologist on Long Island. Scarlata maintained neither a desk nor a telephone number at any NYSAC office. Other than attending several Long Island boxing contests and some major New York City boxing matches, OSIG was unable to verify that Scarlata performed any additional work for NYSAC during her five-year tenure. Nonetheless, from 1995 through mid 2000, Scarlata was paid on the basis that she was spending 37.5 hours every two weeks working for NYSAC. She filed monthly time-sheets in which she listed particular hours during each business day as periods during which she performed NYSAC work. According to her time-sheets, this period was often listed as 8:00 a.m.to 12:00 p.m. or 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Scarlata produced only time-sheets in response to a request for documents documenting her activities as co-medical director. On the advice of her attorney, Scarlata declined to be interviewed by OSIG. The evidence indicates that Scarlata performed no discernible functions as medical director during her five years at NYSAC, yet received a salary ranging over the period from approximately $43,000 to $50,000."
The inspector general's report is just the tip of the iceberg. The logical question that it neither asks nor answers is, "Why were James Polsinello, Anthony Russo, and Robin Scarlata given no-show jobs?" To repeat: WHY WERE JAMES POLSINELLO, ANTHONY RUSSO, AND ROBIN SCARLATA GIVEN NO SHOW JOBS? One might also ask questions like:
* Who gave them their jobs?
*Why were there no criminal prosecutions?
* Why weren't they required to return any of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that they received for their "no show" jobs?
* Why were two of the three simply shifted to other "jobs" on the public payroll when things got too hot for them at the NYSAC?
Also, keep in mind that the OSIG's investigation and report are the work of an agency whose top personnel owe their jobs to George Pataki. And further consider the fact that the report is riddled with false information given to the OSIG by NYSAC personnel. For example, in exonerating the NYSAC of wrongdoing in conjunction with charges that a phoney weigh-in was conducted by Russo prior to the Arturo Gatti versus Joey Gamache fight, the report states, "NYSAC told OSIG that there had been no lawsuit filed or action requested by anyone involved in that bout." That statement is blatantly false. In truth, on February 20, 2002, Joey and Sissy Gamache filed a notice of claim against the NYSAC and the State of New York. The claim itself was filed on November 21, 2002.
The OSIG report was confidential. But by mid-March, word of its contents began to leak out. Jack Newfield referenced its contents in a column published by the New York Sun. The New York Daily News received a copy and began planning a major expose on the commission. The Pataki administration had to defuse what had become a ticking time-bomb. In other words, the NYSAC needed a credible chairman.
For a long time, Jerry Becker had been viewed as the NYSAC's chairman in waiting. The theory was that Kerik would stay on as a figure-head until such time as Becker could be installed in the top job without arousing excessive media opposition. In his public statements, Becker consistently denied that he wanted the job. Others were skeptical of his protestations. Either way, the OSIG report made it clear that Becker's elevation to the chairmanship would have damning political consequences.
Becker became a commissioner on June 14, 2000. The OSIG report states, "During the period from 1995 to 2001 (when Ray Kelly was named chairman), NYSAC commissioners failed to exercise effective oversight of NYSAC professional staff resulting in poor performance on the part of the agency." In other words, fifteen months of that wrongdoing occurred on Becker's watch.
Enter Ron Scott Stevens. Stevens is fifty-six years old and has been in boxing for much of his life. At various times, he has been involved with the sweet science as a writer, ring announcer, sportcaster, matchmaker, and promoter. He's honest and cares about the sport.
Stevens was courted for a job at the NYSAC on the understanding that he would be its executive director. Then that position was eliminated and Scott Crockett was hired at an executive-level salary as assistant to the chairman. Stevens came onboard in December 2002 as director of boxing.
The obvious first question to be asked with regard to the new chairman is, "How much autonomy will he have?" There's a lot of work to be done at the commission. Stevens needs to determine which personnel on his staff are qualified and get rid of the rest. He has to upgrade inspector training and do more to develop top-notch referees and judges. The medical department has been beset by problems that require attention. And in addition to all the institutional problems, there will be day-to-day issues. Suppose, for example, Mike Tyson applies for a license to fight in New York?
It's not an easy job. The boxing community wishes Ron Scott Stevens the best.