By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Nov. 24, 2010
Ask Michael Thames if he’s a member of the Local 333 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, and the 42-year-old quickly pulls his Port of Baltimore photo-identification card out of his pants pocket. He’s been working for nine years on crews that load and unload ships calling on Baltimore, he says, and his brother and two uncles do too, as did his father until retiring recently. All, he says, are members of Local 333.
Thames is holding his Baltimore Orioles cap and sunglasses in his hand, sporting a black faux-leather jacket with lots of zippered pockets. A grill of gold caps his front teeth, flashing as he speaks. He has close-cropped hair and a slight mustache.
Yes, Thames says, he’s aware there’s a Local 333 election coming up on Dec. 3, and that Riker “Rocky” McKenzie is running for Local 333’s president.
McKenzie has already been president of the union once, having won the position in January 2009. But he was replaced in August by an acting president after the ILA’s national leaders in New York determined that a heroin-dealing conviction from the 1970s rendered him ineligible for the position, since felons are barred from serving as union officers. The day after the decision, McKenzie appealed. While he did not contest the conviction during a June hearing on the matter, in his appeal he contended he received probation before judgment in the heroin case rather than a guilty finding. Pending the outcome of his appeal, he’s allowed to be nominated as the local’s president. He has only one opponent: longtime Local 333 member John Blom.
And yes, Thames says, he knows McKenzie’s bid for president included a Nov. 15 fundraiser at the Eldorado, a strip club in East Baltimore co-owned by Kenneth Antonio “Kenny Bird” Jackson, an iconic Baltimore underworld figure—and a fellow member of Local 333.
Jackson hasn’t been part of an active prosecution since a generation ago (“The High Life,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 3, 1996), but his criminal history includes several notable convictions—manslaughter, narcotics, and gun possession—and he beat two murder raps, one in 1974 and the other in 1991. In between, he was twice pulled over in his car on the New Jersey Turnpike with large sums of cash during the late 1980s. The first time it was $91,000; the next it was nearly $700,000.
Over time, Jackson’s life quieted on the law-enforcement front. In a 2009 interview about a film he produced, The Baltimore Chronicles: Legends of the Unwired (“Last Word,” Feature, Apr. 29, 2009), Jackson told City Paper he’d undergone “a transition from one lifestyle to another,” shelving his gangster ways and retreating peacefully to the simple life of running a family-owned strip club.
But Jackson is still a lightning rod for criminal and political intrigue. In the mid-2000s, a federal prosecution of a politically connected violent drug gang, the Rice Organization (“Wired,” Mobtown Beat, March 2, 2005), targeted a man who helped run the criminal enterprise while also operating a restaurant in a Jackson-owned building on Howard Street’s Antique Row. And Jackson’s mother—who co-owns the Eldorado with him—still co-owns a downtown Baltimore condominium (The News Hole, Feb. 22) with Jackson’s former criminal-defense attorney, Robert Simels of New York (“Team Player,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 24, 2008), who’s now serving a 14-year prison sentence for witness intimidation.
It’s hard to imagine a man of Jackson’s stature doing wage-paying labor as a stevedore. And, in fact, he may not have, according to multiple Local 333 members who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, for fear of retribution. Instead, they say it’s common knowledge on the docks that another man, Anthony James Carroll, worked in Jackson’s place—a not uncommon practice known as “covering” (“Clocked,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 6). To shore up this contention, they share details about a woman who almost married Carroll, thinking he was Jackson, until the ruse came tumbling down after Carroll’s arrest when driving a stolen car in 2007.
“I don’t know,” Thames says when asked about Carroll standing in as Jackson at the port. “I just know [Carroll] worked down there [as a stevedore] before.”
Jackson did not respond to a detailed e-mail and could not be reached by phone. Attempts to reach Carroll, who court records indicate is now in South Carolina, were unsuccessful. The phone number he gave officials when he signed probation papers in October for a recent theft conviction is no longer active.
Thames is also aware that Local 333 member Milton Tillman Jr.—a politically influential bail-bondsman and real estate investor with two prior federal convictions for attempted bribery and tax evasion—was indicted by a federal grand jury early this year. Some of the charges against Tillman involve covering, alleging he was paid port wages for shifts he did not work. Tillman’s reputation as a drug-world figure was exploited in a federal courtroom in 2002, when since-deceased Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna, while prosecuting a case involving the 2000 shooting of Tillman’s son, called him “one of the most notorious drug dealers in Baltimore City history” (“Grave Accusations,” Mobtown Beat, April 23, 2008).
Tillman and Jackson are arguably two of the most enduring names in the modern annals of Baltimore crime. And both are members of Local 333.
In addition to McKenzie, Jackson, and Tillman, Thames says he knows about the federal fraud convictions in September of three port timekeepers for covering. The case against the timekeepers, who are members of Local 953 and track dockworkers’ hours on behalf of employers, grew out of the federal investigation into Tillman’s conduct on the waterfront (“Collateral Catch,” Mobtown Beat, March 31).
Asked about the investigations and the upcoming elections, Thames says, “I don’t really have no recommendations. As far as Rocky and all them, all I know is what you know.”
The conversation with Thames occurred on Nov. 12 in a hallway outside a courtroom at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Thames, whose street name is “Gotti,” had just pleaded not guilty to an indictment accusing him of being a cocaine dealer. According to the charging papers, on Sept. 1 law enforcers descended on Thames’ Essex residence armed with a search warrant. The search turned up about five ounces of cocaine, about $5,000, two digital scales, and two blocks of mannite, often used as a cutting agent for illegal drugs.
Thames’ circumstances—along with convicted criminals Tillman and Jackson being Local 333 members and union president McKenzie’s hazy criminal charge—beg questions. Does Local 333 draw people with criminal pasts or presents? And if so, why? Thames answers as best he can, saying, “I don’t know.” Attempts at follow-up interviews were unsuccessful.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice in New York filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against the national ILA. The government calls its target “the Waterfront Enterprise,” and says it is comprised of ILA leaders and members and associates of the Genovese and Gambino organized-crime families. Among the dozens of named defendants in the case are two Baltimoreans: Richard Hughes, the ILA’s president, who is the longtime business agent for Local 953 in Baltimore; and Horace Alston, a Local 333 member who serves as an ILA vice president in New York.
The purpose of the litigation, the federal attorneys wrote in a 2008 motion, is “to eradicate the pervasive and long-enduring Waterfront racketeering that has deprived” the ILA’s “honest membership,” the “innocent beneficiaries” of its pension and welfare funds, and businesses that use ILA labor “of rights and property for decades.”
Last week, the ILA’s problems in New York and New Jersey were put under a spotlight by the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, the watchdog agency that polices port labor practices there. According to news reports, testimony revealed that an ILA shop steward makes $400,000 a year logging 168 hours of work each week, an ILA timekeeper earned about $462,000 in 2009 by getting paid for 25-hour workdays, and a cargo checker with mob ties had a no-show job. The hearings seek to reveal how irrational labor practices drive up port costs and create conditions ripe for organized crime to have a say over how billions of dollars worth of cargo is moved through New York Harbor each year.
The words “Baltimore,” “Maryland,” or “Local 333” do not appear in the federal case, which focuses on conduct alleged—or in many cases proven—to have occurred in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Nonetheless, the ongoing, slow-moving litigation casts a pall over the ILA as a whole, lending credence to the possibility that something about its institutional culture attracts, or perhaps even welcomes, criminal elements.
People like to say that Baltimore doesn’t have organized crime; instead, it has disorganized crime. There aren’t any Gambinos or Genoveses to infiltrate the ILA here in Mobtown, calling the shots about how cargo gets moved. Instead, there are run-of-the-mill, disorganized criminals. An analysis of the Local 333 membership roster bears this out.
Local 333 isn’t packed with people who have bribery, extortion, racketeering, kickback, and public corruption backgrounds. Instead, the records of many Local 333 members reflect the core criminality of Baltimore: drugs, violence, and property crime. At least a fifth of its membership consists of serious felons.
City Paper used online court records to determine that out of the 918 distinct port identification numbers issued to ILA members through Local 333, according to its roster in mid-October, 272 of them are held by presumably honest workers who have never been charged with a crime in Maryland in their adult lives. Thus, at least 29 percent of the membership is untainted by any criminal accusations at all, based on available information.
The number of completely upstanding members is likely greater, because, in the case of another 267 members, City Paperwas unable to ascertain whether or not they’ve ever had criminal charges filed against them in Maryland: Either their names were too common to match up with available information in the court records, or someone with charges or convictions on the record shared their name, but available information was insufficient to reach any definite conclusions. Of these 267, it is unknown if they’ve ever been charged with a crime, charged but not convicted, or found guilty. This group comprises another 29 percent of Local 333’s membership.
That leaves at least 379 members, or 41 percent of the membership, who are confirmed to have been accused of criminal wrongdoing in Free State courts at some point in their adult lives—though this number, too, is likely to be higher, given the 30 percent of members with undetermined backgrounds.
Of these 379 members, 219—almost a quarter of the union membership—have been convicted. By removing from the list of convicts those who were ruled guilty only of relatively minor charges—things like traffic offenses, cable-television fraud, open container, disorderly conduct, housing violations, leaving the scene of an accident, etc.—the list is whittled down to 194 members with serious criminal backgrounds, more than one-fifth of Local 333’s roster.
So far this year, 21 members of Local 333 have been convicted of serious crimes. All but one of them have prior convictions. Their 2010 convictions include: armed robbery, possession with intent to distribute drugs, drug dealing, attempted drug dealing, drug possession (five counts), firearms (three counts), sex offense, escape, theft (two counts), and assault (three counts).
One member, who was convicted this year of escape and drug possession, already had 10 convictions dating back to the mid-’90s for such crimes as drug dealing, battery, firearms, robbery, and car theft. Another, who was convicted this year of theft, also has an open drug-possession charge and has been convicted previously of drug-dealing crimes in 2004, 1997, and 1996. On average, before getting convicted this year, this group’s number of prior guilty findings is three, and three of this year’s convicts were first found guilty of a serious crime in 1993.
In 2009, 19 members were convicted of serious crimes. Six of them were subsequently convicted of other crimes in 2010, or currently face open charges. Their 2009 convictions include: assault (three counts, including one for assaulting a correctional officer), theft (four counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (two counts), drug dealing, drug possession (five counts), driving while intoxicated (two counts), and escape (two counts). All but two of them have prior convictions on their records and, on average, this group, like 2010’s, had three prior convictions. The member convicted of assaulting a prison guard has drug-dealing and firearms convictions going back to 1995, while another, convicted of three counts of theft in 2009, has drug dealing and assault convictions going back to 1996, and faces new drug-possession charges this year.
Thus, the group of Local 333 members convicted recently of serious crimes consists almost entirely of repeat offenders, and several have records that make them appear to be career criminals. Being a Local 333 member, with access to good wages working as a stevedore, does not seem to have solved the recidivism problem for them.
It is possible that many of those with serious convictions in their past have put their criminal behavior behind them, with the aid of their well-paying jobs at the port. Of the 98 members of Local 333 who had serious criminal convictions in 1995 or before, 40 have never been convicted of a crime again (though one of them was recently arrested for drug possession, which triggered an outstanding drug-dealing warrant from 22 years ago). That’s a powerful statement about the rehabilitative effects of a good job. Among the remaining old-school felons, the picture is rather dismal.
These 58 aging criminals, on average, have been convicted three additional times since 1995. Eleven of them have five or more new convictions since then, including for: theft (13 counts), drug possession (21 counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (six counts), drug dealing (three counts), assault (10 counts), robbery (two counts), firearms (two counts), deadly weapon with intent to injure, conspiracy (two counts), violating protective orders (four counts), and 16 probation violations. The other 47 members, who have one to four convictions since 1995, display a similar laundry list of bad or dangerous conduct: assault (11 counts), firearms (three counts), drug dealing (seven counts), possession with intent to distribute drugs (14 counts), drug possession (20 counts), and theft (nine counts)
In addition to the 58 members who appear to be career criminals and the 38 members convicted of crimes since 2009, nearly all with prior convictions, there are 23 members of the local who currently face open charges and are awaiting trial. They are accused of such crimes as arson threat, false imprisonment, attempted kidnapping, assault (seven counts), sex offense, felon in possession of a firearm, possession with intent to distribute drugs (two counts), drug possession (nine counts), selling counterfeit goods, burglary (three counts), driving while intoxicated (two counts), and violating a protective order.
While Local 333 has more than its fair share of felons, new, old, or soon-to-be-again, it also boasts a high number of productive members of society who either have never demonstrated a criminal disposition, or shed their criminal lifestyles long ago. Whether or not these good people make up the union’s majority is hard to say, but they might. And the upcoming elections offer them the chance to control the local’s destiny.
When visited at his fundraiser at Kenneth Jackson’s Eldorado strip club on Nov. 15, Riker “Rocky” McKenzie declined to discuss his candidacy for president—or anything at all, for that matter. He refused to answer questions and said he was not interested in receiving a follow-up call to try to change his mind about being interviewed.
McKenzie’s opponent, John Blom, wasn’t eager to talk either when reached by phone a few days later. He was unhappy because a rumor had been making the rounds that he’d sicced City Paper on McKenzie, which was not the case. But Blom agreed to answer questions, though he was far from pleased with the prospect that his union would be portrayed as a den of thieves, drug dealers, and other ne’er-do-wells.
The union’s problems, Blom says, are not due to criminal elements in its midst, but instead to “disarray” and “infighting” that are detracting from its ability to defend workers from employers’ never-ending quests for labor-contract concessions.
“I was originally planning on retiring this year,” says Blom, who has been a member of Local 333 since 1977, “but I don’t want to leave with it in such a mess as it is in right now.” He says “there’s an incredible amount of infighting involving Mr. McKenzie,” and it’s gotten so bad that “people won’t work together. It’s pretty brutal, to the point of being, as far as I’m concerned, pretty dysfunctional.” He explains that “the infighting is making us ineffective when the companies are trying to wrest concessions from the workers,” but is circumspect when it comes to the details of what’s prompting dissension in the ranks.
“It’s all kinds of stuff,” he says, “kind of in-the-family stuff, so I don’t want to go into it. But it needs to stop in order for us to be an effective organization. I’m going to take a crack at making things better. I believe I can be a unifying force. I think I’m pretty well perceived as being a fair person.”
As for the contention, based on the roster analysis, that the local appears to have been infiltrated by active criminals, Blom believes the data City Paper turned up “pretty much matches up with the population of Baltimore City. Statistically, I don’t think that’s unusual,” he says of the high proportion of ex-cons, recent convicts, and recently accused people among Local 333’s membership. “We incarcerate people at a far greater rate than any other country in the world,” he points out.
Blom, who is one of the local’s many members without a trace of criminal blemish in his background, concedes that the local may have attracted some who want to be members just so “they can tell a judge, ‘Yeah, I work there, and I’ve worked there for five years,’ even though maybe they haven’t worked a shift in five years.”
Kenneth Jackson and Milton Tillman Jr., who both have legitimate business incomes, presumably don’t have to worry about explaining where their money comes from. Asked what advantage a union stevedoring job—especially one that they may not work—provides Jackson and Tillman, Blom says, “I don’t have a clue. That’s beyond my payscale.”
Blom adds, “I don’t even know who the Jackson guy is. ” Of Tillman, he says, “I recognized by sight the guy who said he was Tillman” while working at the docks, “and all of the sudden, he disappeared.”
Meanwhile, Blom is banking on winning the Dec. 3 election for Local 333 president so he can work to make the union’s problems disappear too.