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Tampa Indicts Six in Classic Waterfront Corruption Case

waterfront corruption with six indicted in Tampa for stealing with fake workers
Six individuals were indicted for creating false workers at the Port of Tampa (file photo)

Published Nov 23, 2021 5:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

Prosecutors in Tampa, Florida announced the first indictments in a long-running waterfront corruption scheme that could have been a scene in the classic 1954 movie “On the Waterfront” where Marlon Brando works in a corrupt longshoremen’s union. Six people were indicted by a Tampa grand jury for allegedly falsifying payroll records and stealing $113,000 over four years.

The indictments were announced on November 22 as part of a four-year investigation into what the Tampa Bay Times reports was a “ghost workers” scheme run by a former stevedore operations manager assisted by a longshoreman working the Tampa waterfront. The manager and six others created fictitious individuals and submitted time cards showing hundreds of hours of work, that in some cases even qualified the fictitious people for holiday pay and pensions. The indictment charges that they stole at least $113,000 from Ceres Marine Terminals and that the scheme was ultimately uncovered by union officials.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that a former union clerk was one of the whistleblowers after becoming suspicious about the unfamiliar names that kept appearing on the records. The International Longshoreman’s Association launched the first investigation in 2017 followed by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Michael Ruff, an operations manager at the time who was fired by Ceres in 2017 when the scheme first surfaced was indicted yesterday along with six co-defendants on wire and mail fraud charges. The indictment states that between 2013 and 2017 Ruff working longshoremen Jerry Reyes submitted fraudulent and falsified payroll documents to his employer for individuals he reported worked at the port. The indictment alleges that Ruff and the others split the paychecks issued to the “ghost workers.”

The union appointed a trustee to oversee the local in 2017, and the newspaper reports that no union leaders or officials were named in the indictment. Co-conspirator Reyes, however, was indicted in 2018 on separate charges of mail and wire fraud accusing him of padding his timesheets and stealing more than $10,000.

The indictments in Florida come as New Jersey appears to have been successful in its three-year battle to end its involvement with the famed Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor. The basis for the movie, the agency was established nearly 70 years ago, “because of the pervasive corruption on the waterfront in the Port of New York-New Jersey,” the commission says on its website. 

“This corruption was documented in the early 1950s during public hearings held by the New York State Crime Commission with the assistance of the New Jersey Law Enforcement Council. As a result, in August 1953, the States of New York and New Jersey, with the approval of the Congress and the President of the United States, enacted a compact creating the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor,” according to its prepared history. 

In 2018, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy took steps to exit the commission, calling it unnecessary and outdated. New Jersey was sued over its actions to withdraw from the bi-state commission with New York saying the commission still plays a vital role in the ports and the commission saying New Jersey lacked the authority to unilaterally withdraw. A federal judge agreed that the state did not have the authority to withdraw, but an appellate court questioned the ability to sue the governor over the law he enacted. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case potentially clearing the way for New Jersey to proceed. New York told The Wall Street Journal that it was considering its options after the Supreme Court decision.