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Dirty Waters: Confessions Of Chicago's Last Harbor Boss

"In 1987, the City of Chicago hired a former radical college chaplain to clean up rampant corruption on the waterfront. R. J. Nelson thought he was used to the darker side of the law - he had been followed by federal agents and wiretapped due to his antiwar stances in the sixties - but nothing could prepare him for the wretched bog that constituted the world of a Harbor Boss," the University of Chicago Press says.

Go on.

"Director of Harbors and Marine Services was a position so mired in corruption that its previous four directors ended up in federal prison."

You had me at "mired in corruption."

"Nelson inherited angry constituents, prying journalists, shell-shocked employees, and a tobacco-stained office still bearing a busted door that had been smashed in by the FBI. Undeterred, Nelson made it his personal mission to become a 'pneumacrat,' a public servant who, for the common good, always follows the spirit - if not always the letter - of the law.

"Dirty Waters is a wry, no-holds-barred memoir of Nelson's time controlling some of the city's most beautiful spots while facing some of its ugliest traditions. A guide like no other, Nelson takes us through Chicago's beloved 'blue spaces' and deep into the city's political morass.

dirtywaters.jpg

"He reveals the different moralities underlining three mayoral administrations, from Harold Washington to Richard M. Daley, and navigates us through the gritty mechanisms of the Chicago machine.

"He also deciphers the sometimes insular world of boaters and their fraught relationship with their land-based neighbors.

"Ultimately, Dirty Waters is a tale of morality, of what it takes to be a force for good in the world and what struggles come from trying to stay ethically afloat in a sea of corruption."

*

I haven't read this book yet - I don't even have it - but it's on my list. In the meantime, lets dip into the archives for more background on Mr. Nelson, whose name is not familiar to me.

His hiring:

Publication: Tribune
Date: March 17, 1987
Headline: Embattled Park Exec Quits Post
(By future editor of the paper Ann Marie Lipinski)

A Chicago Park District executive, who is under federal investigation, resigned Monday following a separate internal inquiry by park officials who accused him of accepting a bribe.

An attorney for Gerald Pfeiffer, the embattled director of the park district's marine division, tendered Pfeiffer's resignation in a Monday morning phone call to Jesse Madison, park district executive vice president.

Pfeiffer was one of former Supt. Edmund Kelly's most powerful loyalists at the park district, and his resignation closes another chapter in a 9-month long dismantling of Kelly's regime by allies of Mayor Harold Washington.

Madison said Pfeiffer's departure from his $53,000-a-year post takes effect immediately, although he has accrued enough vacation and personal time to remain on the payroll through April 27. Robert Nelson, an official in the Chicago office of a Wisconsin sailing enterprise, has been named as Pfeiffer's replacement.

Jeffrey Steinback, attorney for Pfeiffer, 53, said that the 13-year park district veteran quit because he was "desirous of pursuing other goals in life," including writing. "By and large he enjoyed his tenure over at the park district and I think he will have left it with mostly fond memories." Pfeiffer has denied any wrongdoing.

Knowledgeable sources said, however, that Pfeiffer was going to be suspended this week. He had been the subject of an internal investigation centering on what Madison said last August were "questions of potential payoffs."

The park district's inquiry coincided with a federal grand jury investigation of Pfeiffer's awarding of boat mooring assignments. The federal probe, in which the grand jury has subpoened the records of the 47th Ward regular Democratic organization, headed by Kelly, is ongoing, sources said Monday.

According to sources, the move to oust Pfeiffer intensified about two weeks ago when top park district officials, including Madison, general counsel George Galland and security consultant William Geller, called Pfeiffer into Madison's office to ask him about allegations of wrongdoing gathered during the district's own investigation.

Pfeiffer, who was accompanied by his lawyer, cited the 5th Amendment in declining to answer most questions, sources said.

Following the meeting, Pfeiffer was given a written list of three charges being leveled against him by park district officials. Although neither Steinback nor park officials would comment on the scope of the allegations, an informed source said they included charges that Pfeiffer in 1979 had accepted a television set valued at $300 to $400 in exchange for awarding a boater a desirable mooring.

The source said park officials also alleged that Pfeiffer in 1983 participated in "phony" inspections of two Chicago yachts that resulted in the owners being cited for false pollution-control violations. One of the owners paid a $700 fine to the park district on the basis of what a source described as "cooked-up evidence."

Park district officials scheduled a second meeting with Pfeiffer last Thursday to allow him to respond to the charges. But Pfeiffer declined to appear at the meeting, which sources said was planned as an administrative hearing to be documented by a court reporter before submitting the allegations to the civil service board. Pfeiffer had been granted civil service protection under Kelly.

Though Steinback submitted a written denial of the charges, park district executives decided to suspend Pfeiffer pending a civil service hearing, according to officials.

Nelson, 47, the Chicago operations manager of the Wisconsin-based Sailboats Inc., said Madison phoned him last Friday to offer him Pfeiffer's job.

Nelson, who reported for work Monday morning about the same time Steinback offered Pfeiffer's resignation, said he first interviewed for the post last November in a meeting with Madison and park board president Walter Netsch.

The interview was the result of a letter Nelson wrote to Netsch last year after Washington's allies took control of the park district board. In the letter Nelson, a longtime Chicago boater, complained about the conditions of park district harbors and asked for a chance to improve them.

"They handed me the budget, a set of keys, and I moved in," he said Monday. "The general feeling is that the harbors are a mess in every respect."

Attempts to reach Pfeiffer Monday were unsuccessful, but park sources and an associate of Pfeiffer's said the former marine director had operated with very little authority since Kelly was ousted.

The Tribune reported last August that park officials cooperated with federal agents in an unannounced search of Pfeiffer's park district office in which mooring records were seized by authorities from the FBI and U.S. attorney's office.

*

Publication: Sun-Times
Date: April 12, 1987
Headline: New Park Dist. Chief A Skilled Boater

With a solid boating background, Robert Nelson had more to recommend him for the $55,000-a-year job as the Chicago Park District's new harbors chief than the word of a Chicago alderman.

Then again, the powers that be at 425 E. McFetridge might not have given full scrutiny to Nelson's letter of application had not his friend and alderman, Lawrence S. Bloom (5th), put in a call just to make sure.

"I had sent in a letter and called there (the Park District) myself, but I wasn't getting anywhere," the affable Nelson said candidly in an interview last week at his new office.

"The only thing Larry did was set up a meeting for me with (Park District Executive Vice President) Jesse D. Madison."

And that, apparently, was that.

Madison and his aides had been searching quietly for a replacement for former Marine Division director Gerald Pfeiffer, who has been the subject of a federal corruption investigation for nearly a year.

It wasn't easy dispatching with Pfeiffer, who over the years allegedly had used highly coveted boat slips as political fund-raising devices for his longtime pal, former Park Supt. Edmund L. Kelly.

But finally, Park District snoops dug up enough unfavorable information on Pfeiffer to persuade him to resign, which he did on March 13. Madison, who values political loyalty, immediately hired Nelson.

Will Nelson pick up the fund-raising game where Pfeiffer left off?

"I don't expect to be involved in any of that kind of thing," said Nelson, a 47-year-old South Shore resident who wears a silvery beard and gold rimless glasses. "There has been no hint of such a thing . . . Talk to me in a year."

Another distinction between Nelson and his predecessor is that Nelson is a boater. In 1980, he sailed across the Atlantic.

Nelson formerly ran the Chicago office of Sailboats Inc., 345 N. Canal, a boat sales firm that operates two small marinas in Wisconsin. From 1979-84 he was president of Grebe Yacht Sales, 3250 N. Washtenaw.

Before his work in the boating industry, Nelson worked as business manager for the University of Chicago's theater program, where he helped resuscitate the Court Theater in the late '60s and early '70s.

Nelson is also a graduate of Colgate's divinity school, and worked on the chaplain's staff at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., for two years during the '60s, although he never was ordained.

He may find his ministerial training will come in handy in resisting the temptations offered by well-heeled boat owners, some of whom are willing to pay big bucks for choice boat slips.

For now, he has moved his own 34-foot sailboat from its dock at Monroe Harbor to his summer home.

As for pressures political and otherwise, Nelson appears to have a realistic view: "I hope I don't get chewed up.

-

His firing:

Publication: Tribune
Date: September 2, 1993
Headline: Top Execs For Parks To Be Fired

A shakeup of the top executives of the Chicago Park District will be announced Thursday by the parks' new general superintendent, Forrest Claypool.

More than 10 key appointments will be announced, said parks communications director Nora Moreno, who added, "Obviously when a new superintendent comes in, he will bring in his own team members."

The appointments will be accompanied by firings of current executives, Moreno said.

Among those to be fired - according to information from sources close to the Park District and verified by Moreno - are Robert Nelson, director of marine and special services; Al Neiman, executive assistant to the general superintendent; Jerome McKinney, director of safety; and Paul Voltz, assistant director of administrative services.

Of those four, only McKinney could be reached for comment Wednesday night.

McKinney said he was told at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday he was being replaced. "I was told he (Claypool) wanted his own team.. . . He has that prerogative," said McKinney.

Of the four, Nelson has perhaps attracted the most publicity.

A 1992 Tribune story said Nelson "has made the harbors more hospitable to boaters who rent space, attracted more visiting boaters and generated more money in the process."

In the part of his job dealing with special services, Nelson garnered some negative publicity concerning his handling of tickets for Paul McCartney's 1990 concert at Soldier Field.

About 2,500 people who ordered tickets over the phone later learned the event had been oversold, leaving them without tickets to the event.

At the same time, tickets were made available for 2,300 Park District employees, commissioners and their friends, and Chicago-area politicians. Nelson generally admitted this, but insisted that everybody who got a ticket paid for it.

Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks, a private watchdog group, said her information was that 13 major appointments will be announced Thursday.

She said she did not know "who is going to be hired and fired," but Tranter said she was optimistic that the changes will represent true reform in the parks.

-

Comments welcome.



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Posted on October 7, 2016


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