phil caruso

A KNACK FOR RAISING HACKLES: Phil Caruso, speaking on behalf of uniformed-union leaders in the 1980s, was a more-sophisticated police-union leader than some of his predecessors, but generated plenty of controversy, whether it involved a wage contract that put his colleagues at a disadvantage, retaining a lawyer who used members' money to fuel his gambling habit, or organizing a 1992 protest at City Hall that turned into a mini-riot.

Philip P. Caruso, who during 15 years as president of what was then the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association stabilized what had been a turbulent union and negotiated a breakthrough contract for his members that also created a furor among other uniformed-union leaders, has died after a six-year battle with cancer. 

Although he passed away Aug. 8, there was no public announcement until Newsday reported it Sept. 27.

A statement issued by Patrick J. Lynch, who with more than 22 years in office has eclipsed Mr. Caruso's record for longevity as president of what is now known as the Police Benevolent Association, said, "On behalf of the PBA and its members, we extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of former PBA President Phil Caruso following his passing."

High Points and Low

The measured quality of the statement, listing none of his achievements while in office, reflected the ambivalence created by Mr. Caruso's less-admirable moments during the last half of his tenure.

Retired Lieutenants Benevolent Association President Tony Garvey, whose first five years in that job overlapped with Mr. Caruso's final five--and arguably were made possible by the headaches the 1988 PBA contract created for his predecessor in that job--in a Sept. 29 phone interview said, "He was a well-respected labor leader, politically and among his union peers, although there was a difference of opinion when it came to settling contracts."

The man he succeeded as head of the LBA, the late James Gebhardt, was not a fan of Mr. Caruso's even before that wage deal, having dubbed him "The Pope" as a sarcastic comment on the PBA leader's acting as if he were above his colleagues.

From a political standpoint he was. From the time he became president of the union in 1980, Mr. Caruso cultivated a close relationship with Mayor Ed Koch, which climaxed with that 1988 contract that forced every other uniformed union except the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association to make givebacks to receive the same wage and benefit improvements negotiated for Police Officers. A half-dozen uniformed-union leaders, two representing superior officers in the NYPD, the heads of both firefighter unions, and the presidents of the old Housing PBA and Transit PBA, were voted out of office soon after they made concessions to match the PBA's gains.

The Hartman Embarrassment

"There were some bumps in the road administratively," Mr. Garvey noted. "He had an attorney there that caused him some grief, but he stayed by him."

He was referring to Richard Hartman, a flamboyant lawyer who represented numerous police unions, including at one point those for officers in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as COBA.

Mr. Hartman was known as a genius with numbers, except when they involved gambling, and shortly after the 1988 PBA contract was completed, Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau announced that he was surrendering his law license to settle charges that he had used hundreds of thousands of dollars to which he was not entitled to gamble, including money from a fund to which he had access that was intended to pay for city cops' house-closings.

Mr. Caruso subsequently told PBA delegates that Mr. Hartman, who early in that decade had presented him with a gift-wrapped red Jeep parked outside the union leader's Sayville, L.I. home as a token of appreciation for the union's business, would no longer be able to handle legal matters but would continue in his role as chief bargaining adviser. The announcement was reportedly greeted with cheers.

The Transit PBA Scandal

Shortly before Mr. Caruso stepped down as president in 1995 at age 60, said to be  because he would have reached the NYPD's mandatory retirement age before that term concluded, it was learned that FBI agents had raided the offices of the Transit PBA and seized union records. Their probe produced indictments of three officials of that union, as well as Mr. Hartman and the two attorneys who had taken over his legal business at the PBA, James Lysaght and Peter Kramer, in a racketeering kickback scheme.

By the time Mr. Hartman, Mr. Lysaght and Mr. Kramer, along with ex-Transit PBA President Ron Reale (his union became defunct after the Transit Police were merged into the NYPD in 1995) were convicted in 1998, Mr. Caruso was unavailable for comment and a spokesman for his successor emphasized that there was no evidence that the three outside advisers had attempted to corrupt city PBA officials.

But Mr. Caruso having been responsible for throwing Mr. Hartman a career lifeline a decade earlier that wound up fueling his continued gambling addiction was an uncomfortable coda to a union career that previously won him accolades.

He grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, starring in baseball and track at Lincoln High School and intent upon becoming a police officer. After service as a Military Policeman, primarily at the U.S. Army facility in Fort Bliss, Texas, he joined the NYPD in 1958, initially assigned to the old 16th Precinct in Manhattan's Theatre District.

He was elected a PBA delegate in 1965, and nine years later became a union trustee. In 1977, he made his first run for president, and was defeated in a five-man contest.

Benefited From Loss

In a 1981 interview, a year after he gained his first of five terms, he said that being forced to return to foot patrol in the 18th Precinct had been a blessing, because it made clear to him how bad drug-trafficking and violence had become on city streets and gave him "a better sense of identifying with and relating to the problems a police officer faces."

While a member of the PBA board, he had gotten his bachelor's degree from Pace University, and in 1978, while working as a beat cop, he completed his master's degree in industrial relations at the same lower-Manhattan school.

Mr. Caruso said he had done so with an eye toward capturing the union presidency, explaining, "I thought it would create a professionalism that's needed today in dealing with the professionals the city has sitting at the other end of the table."

At the time, a union long known for being fractious and prone to voting out presidents after a single term was particularly frayed. The Knapp Commission's findings of systemic police corruption in the early 1970s had quickly been followed by the fiscal crisis that briefly led to thousands of cops being laid off in the middle of the decade. 

The raw nerves sometimes surfaced during contract bargaining. The late James F. Hanley, who spent more than four decades as a city labor-relations official, initially bargaining with the uniformed unions and later spending 17 years as chief negotiator for three Mayors starting with David Dinkins, once recalled a bargaining session in which a gloomy outlook presented by First Deputy Mayor John Zuccotti prompted a PBA official to declare he was making a counter-offer.

He then exposed himself.

A More-Dignified Approach

Mr. Caruso, Mr. Hanley said, did away with such juvenile theatrics and brought dignity back to the bargaining process, initially as head of a coalition of uniformed-union leaders that was one byproduct of the fiscal crisis having limited what the city could offer, and later negotiating solely for his own rank and file.

That didn't mean the PBA leader was a strong believer in negotiating etiquette. In the spring of 1985, he orchestrated a behind-the-scenes campaign to undermine support for a tentative contract negotiated by James J. Boyle, the recently elected president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. After the deal was rejected by UFA delegates, the PBA attempted to break away from the uniformed coalition and negotiate its own deal.

When it became clear that the city Board of Collective Bargaining would reject the move, Mr. Hartman persuaded board members to allow reporters into what normally would have been a closed-door hearing and, along with another of his clients, COBA President Phil Seelig, led a parade of union leaders in assailing the board's integrity, saying it had been intimidated into doing the city's bidding by Mr. Koch's having blocked the reappointment of two board members a year earlier.

The claim had particular irony because the PBA enjoyed Most Favored Nation Status with Mr. Koch. The BCB denied the union push, forcing Mr. Caruso to work out a contract as part of the uniformed coalition.

Night-Shift Showdown

He butted heads with the administration again the following year after Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward, in response to several corruption problems in police precincts involving officers working steady night tours, announced his intention to eliminate such tours and rotate officers' schedules so they would work varying shifts.

The PBA leader charged that Mr. Ward was punishing all officers working night tours--some of whom had requested that shift to free their time for family obligations during the day--in response to a small number of rogue officers. The Commissioner asserted the protest took on the form of an unofficial work slowdown, but during a press conference, Mr. Koch staked out a middle ground between the first black head of the NYPD and Mr. Caruso, telling reporters that his order to Mr. Ward had been, "Settle it, Ben, and don't blink."

But the eventual resolution was a clear-cut victory for Mr. Caruso and his members, prompting one irreverent mayoral aide to joke that if the administration was a law firm, its name would be Cave, Blink and Flinch.

The 1988 contract was Mr. Caruso's highlight as PBA leader. While the three 6-percent raises he negotiated were only slightly better than what civilian-union heads had negotiated the previous year, it also included huge improvements in longevity payments that were particularly lucrative for those with more than a decade on the job.

Screwed the Unborn

To even out the city's costs and bring them in line with the civilian contracts, Mr. Koch's chief negotiator, Robert W. Linn, made two key demands. 

One was that the PBA trade in its Variable Supplements Fund, a payment tied to positive performance by the Police Pension Fund's stock investments, for a defined benefit that would start at $2,500 a year and by 2007 rise to $12,500 for all retirees who had spent at least 20 years with the NYPD.

On the surface, this looked like another gain for PBA members: at the time, retirees were receiving $1,800 a year from the VSF. But in the long run, it would benefit the city far more, since during stock-market booms it would no longer have to share the profits with the VSF, instead funding in advance payments that when they reached their peak amount would be frozen. During one boom period in the mid- to late-1990s, it was estimated that the city had $4 billion more available in its operating budget than it would have under the old VSF set-up.

The other union concession was to freeze starting salaries for future officers and slow their progression to maximum salary, something other union leaders referred to as "screwing the unborn."

Mr. Caruso's willingness to agree to that giveback reflected his belief that he was obligated to serve the interests of those who were already paying union dues, not those who might be someday. For other uniformed-union leaders, this was more difficult to rationalize.

Reasons for Resistance 

One reason was that someone like Mr. Gebhardt faced the prospect of enriching his incumbent members at the expense of people who might be Sergeants at the time but when promoted would know that their salaries in the new rank had been depressed for political advantage. He resisted taking that route, predicting that "the unborn will grow big enough to eat me," and was proved a prophet when he lost his next election to Mr. Garvey.

Fire-union leaders resisted taking that step in part because they represented employees in what was known to be more of a father-and-son job than police officer, and so what might benefit a current member was likely to be opposed by that person because it would hurt one or more of his children someday.

The third objection derived from the reason the city insisted on greater givebacks from those unions: the turnover among their members, except for Correction Officers, was slower than for Police Officers, and therefore it would take longer for the city to realize the same savings. In essence, those unions complained, they were being penalized for representing more-stable workforces. 

So leaders of the other unions tried to find ways to avoid hurting future members too badly, but any area in which they didn't match the gains of the PBA deal without any givebacks wound up costing them in future elections.

Mr. Caruso, interestingly enough, did not pay the price electorally as new cops who were hurt by that 1988 deal came on the force. But he would suffer a comeuppance once Mr. Koch failed in his bid for a fourth term as Mayor in 1989 and was succeeded by Mr. Dinkins, who had defeated him in the Democratic primary.

Money Matters

The two men got off to a bad start when a budget crunch led the new Mayor to offer the PBA lesser contract terms than he had previously reached with civilian unions, a reversal of the longtime practice of giving uniformed employees slightly more-generous terms that began with Mayor John Lindsay but was virtually codified by Mr. Koch. 

The PBA went to arbitration, and as part of its brief, one of its lawyers argued that the city would have more money available for contracts if it spent less on welfare. This was viewed as a gratuitous shot at the city's first black Mayor. It may have impressed some union delegates, but the amateurishness of the gripe produced an eye-roll from one person involved in the eventual award, which went in the city's favor.

Hostilities between the Mayor and Mr. Caruso grew in 1992 after the shooting by a cop of a low-level drug-dealer in Washington Heights that summer touched off disturbances in the largely Latino neighborhood. Mr. Dinkins tried to calm the waters by paying for the dead man's funeral, but his gesture enraged cops who believed it implied the officer had been guilty, in what was determined to be a justified shooting during a life-and-death struggle for the cop's gun.

Feeling increasing heat from his rank and file to do something dramatic, Mr. Caruso that September organized a mass rally outside City Hall on the day the City Council had scheduled a hearing on a bill favored by the Mayor to create an all-civilian Civilian Complaint Review Board. 

Mini-Riot Backfires

Little effort was apparently made by union officials to communicate to members that the protest should be loud but orderly. More than a few off-duty officers among the thousands who gathered in City Hall Park that morning could be seen drinking from beer cans, and some held signs featuring racial slurs against Mr. Dinkins.

At one point, dozens of them charged up the steps of City Hall and tried to storm their way inside, even as fellow cops who were part of the building's security detail frantically held the doors closed. Other cops blocked traffic coming off the Brooklyn Bridge and harassed motorists who objected.

The union eventually brought its members a block west of City Hall, where Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari and Rudy Giuliani, who had unsuccessfully opposed Mr. Dinkins three years earlier and was preparing to do it again in 1993, cursed the Mayor from a flatbed truck.

The mix of menacing and buffoonery on display was an unmitigated political disaster for the PBA. City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone Sr., who had been expected to deep-six the CCRB bill until his car was among those in the City Hall parking lot that got stomped by out-of-control cops, instead put it on the fast track to passage. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly publicly apologized to Mr. Dinkins, who had labeled the riotous officers "burned-out bullies with badges."

One union official, asked why Mr. Caruso had called the rally if he wasn't going to be able to control his troops, replied, "He had no choice," meaning a failure to protest would have turned his members against him.

Cheap Shot Against Dinkins

The PBA leader continued his efforts to make Mr. Dinkins a one-term Mayor, but he never formally endorsed Mr. Giuliani in 1993. The most-logical explanation was that the Republican nominee feared that officially getting the union's backing would have led the Dinkins campaign to run TV spots showing the mini-riot by its members juxtaposed with Mr. Giuliani's angry denunciation of the incumbent a couple of hours later. The candidate denied that, saying his obvious counter would have been to use footage of the 1991 Crown Heights riots against Mr. Dinkins.

But Mr. Caruso did what he could to undercut support for the incumbent during the campaign, at one point running full-page newspaper ads making fun of the Mayor having repeatedly referred to being an ex-Marine by noting that he had never served in combat.

It was known, however, that Mr. Dinkins was not sent overseas during World War II because of prevailing prejudices in the military against using black troops in combat, and he had persisted to join the U.S. Marine Corps after several times being turned down for specious reasons, including the false claim that he suffered from high blood pressure.

In that context, the ad represented a petulant cheap shot with a racial tinge to it, rather than what Mr. Caruso may have intended: to express anger at a Mayor he believed had treated his members unfairly, both at the bargaining table and in reaction to controversial cases in which he had not defended them.   

Victory Brought No Rewards

Mr. Giuliani reversed the outcome of their battle four years earlier, narrowly defeating Mr. Dinkins in November 1993. But Mr. Caruso's expectation that this would mean better treatment at the bargaining table did not bear fruit.

The new Mayor, citing city financial problems, stuck by a bargaining pattern his predecessor had established with civilian-employee unions before leaving office, and in July 1994 announced deals with the city and Transit PBAs that were dressed up with $4,000 signing bonuses for their members but had the same cost to the city as those earlier deals.

With Mr. Reale of the Transit PBA looking on, the new Mayor said that he would have liked to have done more to recognize the work done by cops but financially could not afford to. Mr. Caruso was conspicuous by his absence from the Gracie Mansion press conference.

The following year, as Mr. Giuliani demanded that the city's largest union, District Council 37, accept a two-year wage freeze under a five-year contract or face thousands of layoffs, and FBI agents raided Transit PBA headquarters as the first step in making a case that would lead to the conviction of the men who for years had overseen city PBA contract talks and legal services, Mr. Caruso quietly retired.         


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