By ROBERT WORTH
Published: Sunday, July 1, 2001
New York Times article on a true watershed warrior
RONALD GATTO is an unlikely environmental hero. A former power-lifter, he once bench-pressed 595 pounds and his left biceps bears a tattoo of a police bulldog with handcuffs and a nightstick. He loves cars, and has two vintage Chevrolets in his garage, a green 1960 Impala and a bright red 1971 Chevelle Supersport.
But to many environmentalists, Mr. Gatto is a prophet crying out in the wilderness of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, where he works as a police captain, charged with protecting the reservoirs that serve New York City and Westchester.
He began complaining more than a decade ago that his superiors were endangering the city's water by going easy on polluters and developers who break the law.
Two years ago he filed a whistle-blower suit, arguing that the city had retaliated against him in a variety of ways -- demoting him, refusing to grant him raises, denying his unit the necessary equipment and staff to conduct investigations, and initiating criminal investigations of his conduct in an effort to discredit him. His lawyers refiled the suit in federal court in June, hoping for a speedier resolution.
A burly man with a ducktail and bulging eyes, he has gained a reputation as a fearless cop who will arrest virtually anyone -- though his usual targets are polluters who have dumped sewage or toxic chemicals. Along with a small band of other eco-cops, Mr. Gatto's job is to patrol the city's 2,000-square-mile watershed.
Stories about his arrests have become the stuff of legend.
''He can smell pollution from a speeding car, and he's tracked down leaking septic tanks with his nose,'' said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental lawyer, who has known him for years. Mr. Gatto once arrested a family friend who was illegally dumping sewage from a restaurant he owned in Mount Kisco, forcing the man to pay a $20,000 fine. ''I went back there and had a cup of coffee two months later,'' Mr. Gatto recalled. ''When I got the bill it said $20,000.''
Mr. Gatto's reputation as a Westchester Serpico may vault him into electoral politics in the county, where environmental credentials go a long way. In May, he received a ''Hero of the Planet'' award from the Yorktown Democratic Committee. Standing in front of a huge fish tank in a Chinese restaurant, he told war stories to a large and appreciative audience that included Mr. Kennedy, County Executive Andrew J. Spano, and a number of Democratic Party backers and county legislators.
''We are encouraging Ron to seek public office,'' said Joseph V. Apicella, the chairman of the Yorktown Democratic committee. ''Maybe a Congressional seat someday. Everyone wants to be an environmentalist, but few have prosecuted environmental crimes the way Ron Gatto has.''
But several former and current D.E.P. employees challenged the view of Mr. Gatto as a hero.
While acknowledging his dedication, they called him a publicity-hungry zealot who lacks the patience for teamwork, and who tends to see those who disagree with him as the enemy. (The department declined to say anything on the record, citing the lawsuit, and Mr. Gatto referred all questions about the suit to his lawyer, Jonathan Abady.)
''He clearly understood the value and importance of protecting the watershed, but there is a bit of the cowboy and self-promoter about him,'' said Marilyn Gelber, who was D.E.P. commissioner from 1994 to 1996 and now works for a private foundation.
Patricia O'Hara, a former scientist with the department, said, ''I believe he genuinely cared about enforcement, but he was a grandstander.'' When one of his bosses refused to promote Mr. Gatto in the early 1990's, he sued, charging the man with racism (Mr. Gatto's wife is African-American) and harassment. ''Ron didn't understand that he couldn't promote him because he was a loose cannon,'' Ms. O'Hara said. That suit was settled out of court.
A few environmentalists said that Mr. Gatto's tough-guy legend is spreading the false idea that protecting the environment mostly involves arresting evil-doers.
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''The real threats to the water supply are sewage, fertilizer and chemical runoff,'' said Peter Lehner, chief of the environmental protection bureau for the state attorney general's office, ''and these usually need to be addressed through civil litigation or public education, not criminal indictments.''
At the core of Mr. Gatto's reputation -- and his dispute with the city -- is his symbiotic relationship with Mr. Kennedy. Ever since the early 90's, Mr. Gatto has given Mr. Kennedy information about the department's activities in the watershed, which Mr. Kennedy has publicized in a series of reports blasting the city for failing to adequately protect its water.
In return, Mr. Kennedy has praised his friend, writing a glowing tribute to him as a ''Hero of the Planet'' in Time magazine last year. In 1999, he wrote, ''If he disappeared, it is doubtful that any meaningful watershed enforcement would continue.''
Mr. Kennedy has also used his political connections to press Mr. Gatto's case in the department. Several D.E.P. employees said Mr. Gatto would probably have been fired long ago if not for the environmentalist's public support.
Despite their obvious differences -- Mr. Gatto is a blue-collar son of Sicilian immigrants, while Mr. Kennedy was born a celebrity -- the two clearly have a gene in common. Both are driven risk-takers who relish a fight. And their friendship is real; when Mr. Gatto's oldest daughter was having trouble with alcohol, he said Mr. Kennedy took her to two of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings he has attended since his own arrest for cocaine use in the 1980's.
Both men seemed defensive about the political side of their relationship, but said they had nothing to hide. Mr. Gatto offers an example: in 1993 he began urging his bosses to put up signs telling motorists when they were entering the watershed, to help minimize pollution and increase public awareness. They replied that it couldn't be done. So did Franklin E. White, the state transportation commissioner. Mr. Gatto told Mr. Kennedy, who promptly introduced him to Maria Cuomo, whose father was then governor. They had lunch together, and Mr. Gatto told her about his plan.
''Right in front of me, she faxed it to her father,'' he recalled. ''The next day, Commissioner White calls me at 7 p.m.: 'It's a great idea, we're making the signs right now.' That was politics, but in a good way.''
Ronald Gatto was raised to be a fighter. A pair of boxing gloves hangs from the wall in his den, a memento of his father, who boxed in the Golden Gloves as a young man after coming through Ellis Island from Sicily. His father also served in a tank-destroyer battalion in World War II, where he was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery after crawling across enemy lines to retrieve a document.
''He had shrapnel in his legs and back all his life,'' Mr. Gatto said, gazing admiringly at the medal.
On a tour of his house in Mohegan Lake, he led a visitor downstairs to the basement, where he keeps his new Neapolitan mastiff, Big Boy. ''These are the dogs they used to fight lions in ancient Rome,'' he shouts in a husky baritone. Big Boy is in a steel cage, barking so loud the whole house seems to shake. He is still a puppy but already 160 pounds, a monster with a wrinkled, malevolent face.
Mr. Gatto crouches slightly and stares the beast down, shouting back even louder than his bark: ''Hey! Sit! Sit!'' Overwhelmed, the animal gives in and sits down.
But he says it is his love of nature, not of battle, that led him into his current line of work. He grew up hunting and fishing along the Croton and Amawalk Rivers.
After a stint as an estate manager for Richard Gere in Pound Ridge, he discovered that the Department of Environmental Protection had its own police force. The starting salary was a mere $11,346 when he signed up in 1982 (he now makes $50,000), but he liked the idea of protecting the streams and lakes of his boyhood from polluters.
He soon found that the city's bureaucracy was hostile to making a tough enforcement effort. There were only about 25 officers assigned to patrol a 2,000-square-mile area, and there had not been an environmental arrest in decades. ''We did a lot of traffic violations,'' he recalled. ''We did everything but protect the environment.''
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When Mr. Gatto discovered in 1990 that workers at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and the Putnam County Hospital Center were dumping wheelbarrows of fecal matter into a trout stream that was part of the city water supply, he wrote up tickets. His supervisor responded by calling him into his office, tearing up the tickets in front of him and taking away the file, he said.
That act seems to have triggered Mr. Gatto's fighting instinct. He went public with his story, and ended up testifying at a City Council hearing in 1991 that helped lead to a restructuring of the watershed police force. It also infuriated his bosses.
''Ever since I testified, that's when they started to beat me up,'' he said.
Several former and current D.E.P. employees said Mr. Gatto was on target about the city's reluctance to enforce the law.
One reason for that reluctance, they said, is structural. The department's police force reports to its engineers, who also run some upstate sewage treatment plants that affect the city's water. Those plants have often overflowed and violated their permits, but the engineers do not want their own police force to embarrass them by writing tickets. To prevent that, Mr. Kennedy and others have claimed, they kept the force small and underpaid, and consistently deprived it of adequate equipment.
That has begun to change, perhaps partly because of the attention Mr. Gatto and Mr. Kennedy have brought to the issue.
Over the last five years the budgeted staff of the watershed police force has grown to 142, from 39, though not all those positions are filled, said Charles G. Sturcken, chief of staff at the D.E.P. And salaries, once so low that officers would routinely bolt to local police forces as soon as they had finished their training, are now competitive.
Another accusation commonly leveled at the department is more controversial, and may be impossible to prove. It is the claim that the city is soft on enforcement as a favor to powerful upstate developers and their friends in the State Legislature, which has a hand in the city's budget.
Mr. Gatto's suit includes one specific claim of influence-peddling, though it does not involve public officials. In April 1999, he discovered illegal pipes taking water from a city reservoir to a swimming pool belonging to David Sarnoff, the founder of R.C.A. He also found that half an acre of trees on city-owned land had been cut down to improve the view on the Sarnoff estate, and a fence had been built on city property.
After making a videotape of the violations, Mr. Gatto informed his boss, who, the lawsuit charges, asked him, ''Do you know who Mr. Sarnoff is?'' Later that day, according to the suit, he received a call from the D.E.P. commissioner, Joel Miele, who demanded that he relinquish the videotape. He was also told not to write up a summons.
But Mr. Miele, in a deposition taken for the lawsuit, offered a conflicting account that made the whole affair seem more or less harmless. He said that he intervened at the request of the officers involved, and that Mr. Sarnoff had a permit for the water diversion. As for the other violations, Mr. Sarnoff was sorry and eager to make amends. ''If I had Mr. Sarnoff or any of his cohorts dragged off in handcuffs for a criminalistic situation, I would have looked pretty stupid in front of a magistrate,'' Mr. Miele said.
The city has never forgiven Mr. Gatto for his public criticisms, Mr. Abady said, and has tried to harass him out of the department for years. He has some persuasive evidence for his case. Last year a D.E.P. official named Lee Siegel promoted Mr. Gatto, and was fired soon afterward. Mr. Siegel then told the press that Mr. Miele had told him, upon hiring him in 1999, to get rid of Mr. Gatto at all costs. Instead, Mr. Siegel had quickly concluded that Mr. Gatto was his best officer. (Mr. Siegel, who will appear as a witness for Mr. Gatto, is also suing the city and declined to comment on his case.)
Another former officer, Joseph Carpenter, said that throughout his time at the agency ''they were trying any way they could to get Gatto.'' Mr. Carpenter was fired just before completing his training, and he said he was told by other officers that it was because he had sided with Mr. Gatto.
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Mr. Gatto also claims the city has unfairly stalled his career. He once headed the Environmental Enforcement Division, which he created in 1993 to oversee patrols throughout the watershed, but the city confined him in 1999 to the much smaller area east of the Hudson River. One former department official said he wrote several glowing recommendations for Mr. Gatto, all of which mysteriously disappeared.
''It's a damn shame, the good things I've done the department doesn't acknowledge,'' Mr. Gatto said. ''I worked my tail off for them.'' He said he had made more environmental arrests than any other officer in the department, a claim the D.E.P. would neither confirm nor deny. He also made changes in the way the department patrols the watershed, instituted and taught an environmental education program in area schools, and persuaded local garbage collection companies to put up trash baskets to reduce litter around the city's reservoirs.
Mr. Miele, however, said in the deposition that Mr. Gatto's failure to rise is his own fault. He described him as ''somebody that is not a team player, who does a reasonably acceptable job in the main part, that occasionally kicks over the traces and appears to be creating more problems than he's resolving. Someone who is, I guess, filled with the sense that what he's doing is a mission for the ages.''
Whatever the reason, Mr. Gatto's relations with his employers have been excruciatingly tense for years. According to a complaint filed by his former lawyer, Jill Greenwald, his former supervisor once said that if not for the fact that Mr. Gatto is married and has children, he would shoot him.
To many environmentalists, Mr. Gatto's refusal to back down only enhances his status as a David slinging pebbles at the city's bureaucratic Goliath.
''He's like a bull,'' said Johanna Cooper, a homeowner in Pleasantville who sought Mr. Gatto's help after she discovered that a developer had destroyed a stream on her property in 1993. ''You get the feeling that in spite of any political influences he will stick to his mission.''
For good or ill, he has become an inspiration to other whistle-blowers as well.
''The coup Ron has pulled off is that as a role model, he has shown that by going to groups like us, at least you get the word out,'' said Don Meyer, general counsel of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group that helped Mr. Gatto with his lawsuit. A number of other D.E.P. employees have since come to the same group about similar problems with the city, Mr. Meyer said.
For Mr. Gatto, getting the word out may be the most important thing in the end.
Whatever the courts decide about the merits of his case against the city, he is likely to be seen more favorably by the next mayoral administration. With that in mind, he chose not to run for Yorktown supervisor this spring and to hold out instead for a promotion within the department.
''The chances are we're going to get a Democratic mayor, and then Ron will have a chance for some vindication,'' Mr. Kennedy said.
Photos: Ronald Gatto playing with his son, Ronald Jr., 6, at home in Mohegan Lake. At left, Mr. Gatto, his son and his wife, Fay, at a dinner in his honor in Jefferson Valley. Also at their table are Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental lawyer, left, and County Executive Andrew J. Spano. (Photographs by Chris Maynard for The New York Times)(pg. 6); Ronald Gatto, a police captain for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, at the Amawalk Reservoir in Somers. He contends the city is punishing him because he accused it of going easy on polluters. (Chris Maynard for The New York Times)(pg. 1)