The "New" New York State Athletic Commission

By Thomas Hauser
On October 22nd, the New York State Senate confirmed the appointment of past (and now future) New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly as chairman of the State Athletic Commission. Kelly maintained a low profile prior to his confirmation. He's becoming a lot more visible now.

Kelly took over a commission plagued by incompetence, "no-show" jobs, and other scandals linked to contributions to the New York State Republican Party. He says his top priority is the "physical and financial well-being of the fighters." Toward that end, he intends to (1) establish an "800"telephone "hot-line" for the reporting of any and all rules violations; (2) require the strict inspections of gyms where boxers train.; (3) review all contracts that impact upon fighters to make certain that they're in compliance with state law; and (4) create a permanent investigative force for the commission.

"To accomplish these goals," Kelly acknowledges, "we need to establish basic business procedures at the commission; update the computer system; improve record-keeping, things like that. We also need a coordinated comprehensive training program at every level of the commission to increase professionalism. The rules and regulations are well-written. They need some changes, but it's more important to get the right people to enforce them."

That leads to the question of how political contributions and other political considerations corrupted the commission in recent years. Kelly is forthright on that matter. "I found a commission," he says, "that many years ago had a reputation for being the premier boxing commission in the country, and that has been lost. The reputation of the commission has diminished. There's a cloud over the commission, and we have to move that cloud aside."

As a first step, Kelly has asked the state police to conduct a de novo investigation of events surrounding the death of Beethavean Scottland this past June and the controversy surrounding last July's Hector Camacho versus Jesse James Leija fight. "Those fights are a window onto the larger picture," explains Kelly. "I want to wait for the results of these investigations to come back, because they'll tell me about the systemic problems that exist."

As for personnel changes that might take place, Kelly promises, "I'm going to take a look at all the personnel. As far as I know, I have total leeway with regard to personnel, and we'll be making some personnel changes. Most of the people here now are political appointees and don't have civil service [job protection] status. My mandate is, 'Straighten this out,' and I intend to follow that directive. I don't want to say right now what personnel changes will take place. Give us three months for that. But I want to get the best people here. And I'll chose people on the basis of merit, not political connections. That allegation is out there, and it's fair to say that's how some commission appointments came about. But from now on, it won't be a question of who knows who; I promise you that."

The point man for Kelly's effort to revive the NYSAC is Charles DeRienzo. Kelly intends to reach into the law enforcement community for many of his hires; particularly in filling inspector slots. DeRienzo is a retired New York City police inspector who spent thirty-three years as a cop. He and Kelly worked together for the first time in 1981, when Kelly was brought into the 88th Precinct in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, as a young captain and DeRienzo was one of his lieutenants. "There were some problems in the precinct," DeRienzo remembers. "There were incidents of partying and disruptive behaviour that had gotten out of hand. The cops, rather than leadership, were running the command."

Thereafter, DeRienzo worked for Kelly on a number of occasions. In 1998, he left the NYPD to become director of the Insurance Fraud Bureau for the New York State Department of Insurance. He was comfortable there, but found the lure of working for Ray Kelly at the NYSAC hard to resist. He's now the commission's new executive director and, as might be expected, echoes many of his mentor's thoughts.

More specifically, DeRienzo says, "I found a place that needs to implement better management principles; that needs a comprehensive training program for its personnel; that has to make better use of technology. But if you don't have the right people, the best processes in the world won't work."

Thus, DeRienzo concludes, "I want to evaluate people to see if they're capable of doing the work that has been assigned to them. If someone is here and they're doing a good job, I don't care how they got here. You don't want to chop peoples' heads off for no good reason. You have to be careful with peoples' lives. But I want people who believe in the same things I believe in and share my philosophy. I work 10 hours a day. I expect people to give me a full day's work and, if they don't, they're not going to be here. If someone isn't doing the right thing, they're going to be out the door. I don't care who they know." And then DeRienzo adds, "It's not all going to happen overnight, but I'm starting to see things I want to change; both structural and in terms of personnel. I'm starting to get a sense of the changes that have to be made. My mandate from Ray Kelly is to be concerned with the health and welfare of the boxers. We're going to provide boxers with an environment that protects them and treats them with the fairness and respect they deserve as professionals."

Well and good. Meanwhile, here are five suggestions for Ray Kelly and Charles DeRienzo to consider:

(1) The Rules of the New York State Athletic Commission are hopelessly archaic regarding the roles of promoters, matchmakers, and managers. They should be revised to reflect the present-day realities of boxing.

(2) Section 8915 of the Unconsolidated Laws of the State of New York states, "No licensed promoting corporation or matchmaker shall knowingly engage in a course of conduct in which fights are arranged where one boxer has skills or experience significantly in excess of the other boxer so that a mismatch results with the potential of physical harm to the boxer."

This provision has been long overlooked. It should be enforced.

(3) Very often, fighters are unable to pursue legitimate grievances against managers or promoters because they don't have the financial resources to pursue litigation in the courts. All promotional and boxer-manager contracts in the State of New York should contain a provision mandating that disputes to be resolved by binding arbitration before the commission.

(4) At present, the New York State Athletic Commission wastes taxpayer dollars by "regulating" professional wrestling. Indeed, Rule 216.11 of the Rules of the New York State Athletic Commission solemnly states, "Wrestlers are forbidden from indulging in the following unfair or foul tactics: striking, scratching, gouging, butting, or unnecessarily punitive strangleholds. Any unsportsmanlike or physically dangerous conduct or tactics by any wrestler during an exhibition entitles the referee to stop the exhibition and award the decision to the other wrestler."

An athletic commission that pretends to regulate professional wrestling doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

(5) Ray Kelly and Charles DeRienzo are men of ability. But they're not "boxing people," and they have to surround themselves with people who are. That means getting rid of some of the personnel presently at the NYSAC, and replacing them with men and women who meet a higher standard. From day one of Kelly's reign, speculation has centered on James Polsinello (executive assistant to the chairman), George Mitchell (director of boxing), Ralph Petrillo (medical supervisor), and Ruby Marin (counsel to the commission) as candidates for removal. Polsinello has now been dismissed from his job effective December 5th. His departure follows that of former chairman Mel Southard, Tony Russo, and Lawrence Mandelker. Others may join in the exodus.

Meanwhile, Jerry Becker and Marc Cornstein are the two NYSAC commissioners who serve with Kelly. Their terms run until 2003. Both of them owe their appointment to politics.

Becker is personally charming when he wants to be. He's 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.

Becker became anecdotally famous after the first Holyfield-Lewis fight at Madison Square Garden. Bob Duffy, who was then the commission's director of boxing, reports, "I chose two inspectors for each corner. Bill O'Malley and George Ward were supposed to work one corner, and Mike Fayo and Harold Townes were supposed to be in the other. Then Polsinello came to me and said, 'I'm assigning the corners.' There was a lot of yelling, and he overruled me. So Chris DeFruscio and Mike Pascale worked Lewis's corner, and Marc Cornstein and Jerry Becker were assigned to Holyfield. This was Pascale's first fight in the corner. You don't start your career as an inspector in the corner at a fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. I complained to Becker, and Gerry told me, 'Hey, Duffy; you don't understand. We won the election.'"

Cornstein is the son of a wealthy Republican Party contributor who has given close to $100,000 in campaign contributions to George Pataki. He was brought into the commission as a deputy commissioner in 1995 when he was three years out of college. Former chief inspector Joe Dwyer speaks fondly of Cornstein and says, "He didn't know anything about boxing when he came in, but he was more willing to learn than most of the others." Cornstein is currently president of Pinnacle Management, an agency that represents professional athletes, including several NBA players.

Becker and Cornstein are symbols of the old regime. They should resign to give Kelly a clean slate to work with and be replaced by two new commissioners who have the confidence of the boxing community in general and the fighters in particular.

Also, one final note --

When Ray Kelly was first named Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, he was the head of security at Bear Stearns. His intention was to keep his day job and serve without salary as chairman of the NYSAC. Now Kelly is leaving Bear Stearns to become Commissioner of the New York City Police Department. His plan is to oversee the NYSAC in what is essentially his spare time.

That might not be a good idea. The job of police commissioner is one of the most demanding, unrelenting, time-consuming jobs in the world. And that will be particularly true in the years ahead when New York City is expected to face a fiscal crisis at the same time many veteran cops are retiring and police resources are diverted to the battle against terrorism.

Kelly believes he can do both jobs. Insofar as the NYSAC is concerned, he says, "I'll put in as much time as necessary to do the job right."

Time will tell.
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