William Fraser, who rose through the ranks of the Correction Department to become Commissioner and led its response in the days following 9/11, died Jan. 7 at age 71.
The cause of death, according to former Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association President Sidney Schwartzbaum, whose once-close relationship with Mr. Fraser grew tense during clashes between the union and then-Correction Commissioner Bernard Kerik beginning in the late 1990s, was a head injury he incurred after suffering a heart attack in his home.
Praised by Molina
The current Commissioner, Louis Molina, paid tribute to Mr. Fraser, saying he embodied his long-ago statement that he was living proof that the Department " 'offers opportunities to anyone willing and able to work at getting the job done well, and if possible, done better.' We will also remember that he led this agency's heroic 9/11 response, which was pivotal to the rescue-and-recovery effort."
Shortly after he was officially appointed Commissioner in 2001, first serving on an acting basis since the previous summer when Mr. Kerik left to become Police Commissioner, Mr. Fraser told a reporter, "For 23 years, it's been a great ride. Somehow I managed to sneak by without ever getting disciplined."
By late the following year, however, that ride came to an abrupt end. As Commissioner, Mr. Kerik had brought order to the jails system, sharply reducing violence that had long plagued Rikers Island. But with the encouragement of Mr. Giuliani, he made personnel decisions based on loyalty rather than the merits in many cases, and Mr. Fraser, whose positions in the agency over the years included the top uniformed one, Chief of Department, had gone along with him.
He continued in that fashion after the then-Mayor appointed him to the top job, in the process antagonizing the unions representing Wardens and Captains by showing favoritism on disciplinary matters to officials and officers aligned with Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook, who was a strong political supporter of Mr. Giuliani's.
Cracks in 'The Team'
After the Mayor left office at the end of 2001, some union officials who had stayed silent because they feared retaliation from him if they spoke out provided evidence of abuses of department rules that had continued under his successor, Michael Bloomberg. A videotape of Correction Department staffers leaving their posts early on primary day in 2002 to work in then-Gov. George Pataki's re-election campaign was leaked to Eyewitness News and created a political uproar.
The Correction Department official who had coordinated that activity, Anthony Serra, was revealed to have received $233,000 in compensation from the Pataki campaign that summer while also collecting his $143,000 salary as Chief of Management and Planning.
Eventually Mr. Serra would be criminally charged and convicted and receive a short prison term for misusing department staff on agency time not only on political campaigns but to spruce up his upstate home. And Mr. Fraser, who had allowed Mr. Serra to run the political operation on department time because of his subordinate's ties to Mr. Giuliani as well as the Governor, got caught up in the public outrage when The Daily News reported that four years earlier, he himself had subordinates install a new pool liner for him at his home in Belle Harbor, Queens.
Mr. Fraser insisted he had paid the employees from his own pocket for the work, but the appearance of impropriety placed him on precarious footing with Mr. Bloomberg, who had denied any knowledge of Chief Serra's political activities.
That October, Mr. Seabrook—who would later be convicted of public-corruption charges in an unrelated matter—had reacted to the disclosure that his members were enlisted to work in the Pataki primary effort by asserting it was inconceivable that such activities could have occurred "under the administration of the Commissioner and the Chief of Department without their knowledge."
The following month, the Wardens union approved a "no-confidence" resolution regarding Mr. Fraser's leadership, something that must have particularly stung him because he had briefly served as president of that union. When he informed Mr. Bloomberg shortly before Thanksgiving of his decision to step down, according to one top administration official, among the reasons he gave was that he "no longer has the likability to run the department."
Mr. Schwartzbaum, who was in the midst of his 15-year tenure running the ADW/DWA at the time, said then, "He had lost the confidence of the uniformed workforce. It's not a meritocracy anymore," referring to the way that political alliances had affected decisions from disciplinary actions to promotions under Mr. Giuliani and his jail commissioners starting with Mr. Kerik.
Earlier in their careers, Mr. Schwartzbaum said Jan. 10, "We made Captain together...We had a very good relationship. It soured when Kerik soured on me and I soured on Kerik."
Strong on Jail Safety
Despite their differences over the politicizing of the jail system, he praised Mr. Fraser as a hands-on administrator who made the jails less turbulent. "As far as staff safety and security, he was on the money with that," he said. "During his tenure, the numbers were very good in terms of stabbings."
He pointed out that Mr. Fraser's exit from the Correction Department was not the end of his career. Less than three years after he retired from the agency, in mid-2005 he became Warden of the Monmouth County Correctional Institution in New Jersey, a 1,300-bed facility which he led for six years.
Noting that Mr. Fraser had previously suffered a brain aneurysm and survived cancer, Mr. Schwartzbaum said he was gratified that they had been able to patch up their differences after he left the Correction Department, adding, "My heart goes out to his family."