new york city

‘This Is a Disaster’

What I learned listening to secret recordings of the agency trying to investigate the city’s lifeguard corps.

A life guard at Coney Island in May 2021. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images
A life guard at Coney Island in May 2021. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

When New Yorkers head to beaches and pools for one last swim this summer, they will do so under the unwatchful eye of the city’s lifeguard corps. With more than 1,300 guards working during a typical season, it is the country’s largest seasonal force — and something of a national joke in the profession with a fatality rate that, at points, has been three times the U.S. average. This summer, the troubles have continued. On August 6, a rescue team pulled Matthew Wiszowaty, 18, from the water at an unguarded section of Rockaway Beach. He died the next day. On August 15, at Red Hook Pool, Brianna Otero, 12, nearly drowned after reportedly floating for five minutes. (She was pulled from the water by her uncle, who told the Daily News, “I’m looking around, and I see lifeguards moving but they’re not moving toward her. So I had to run.”)

It turns out the watchdogs’ watchdogs have also been, in a sense, asleep in the chair. For nearly two years, the city’s Department of Investigation has been sitting on a draft report that would expose allegations of gross misconduct among lifeguards, according to covert audio recordings of the agency’s internal meetings that were sent to me.

Just over a year ago, I wrote for New York Magazine about the lifeguard unit and the one man, Peter Stein, who has run it since 1981. Over four decades, Stein and his lieutenants have faced allegations of falsifying drowning reports, rigging swim tests for loyal lifeguards who can’t pass the cutoff time, and retaining lifeguards accused of sexual misconduct. They have also enriched themselves. In 2019, Stein made nearly $230,000, and some of his aging deputies earn six-figure salaries. During his tenure, the city has paid millions of dollars in wrongful-death lawsuits.

After the article was published, one agency that wasn’t surprised about the revelations was the Department of Investigation, an independent city law-enforcement arm with broad powers to probe fraud, waste, and misconduct. Months earlier, one of its investigative squads had drafted a report after looking into claims of lifeguard misconduct including retaliation against whistleblowers. The document wasn’t released, and on November 24, 2020, DOI commissioner Margaret Garnett convened a conference call with her staff to discuss how to jump-start what seemed to be an all-but-dormant inquiry. Listening to a tape of the call helps demystify how Stein, 76, has stayed in power for so long, with the investigators speaking in tones that are alternately powerless and glib.

“It made me think that it would’ve been cool to be a lifeguard,” one male investigator says about the New York article, to laughter.

“Unless you’re on the other end of it, in the water drowning and you really needed a lifeguard,” another male voice replies.

“Or you’re, like, a 19-year-old girl in your first summer job and these clowns keep, like, touching your breasts while you’re at work,” adds Garnett.

A DOI investigator obtained a recording of the conference call and sent it to me. Separately, seeking whistleblower protection, he sent complaints about agency mismanagement to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and three members of the City Council: Peter Koo, who chairs the Parks Committee; Vanessa Gibson; and Eric Ulrich.

When I asked the DOI for comment — careful not to identify the source — a spokeswoman disputed that the agency has been slow to investigate the city’s lifeguard regime. “It is not accurate to conclude in this matter that DOI has done nothing or that nothing is being done,” said Diane Struzzi, the director of communications, in a written statement. She added, “We do not release reports prematurely, before our standards have been met. The existence of a draft report is not indicative that an investigation has been completed. DOI takes the allegations that have been raised about the City’s lifeguard program seriously.”

On August 4, the agency fired the whistleblower.

The Parks Department’s alleged mismanagement of sexual-misconduct claims figures prominently in DOI’s investigation, which, per the call, focused on two men: Richie Sher, 81, until recently the city’s longtime lifeguard coordinator, and Liam Kavanagh, who has served as first deputy Parks commissioner since 2002 and is regarded by some as the most powerful official at the department.

After combing through official complaints, lawsuits, and interviews, DOI investigators concluded that Sher and Kavanagh’s allegedly lax discipline of abusive lifeguards has cost taxpayers millions in legal settlements (the city’s law department is “pulling their hair out,” according to one voice on the November 24 call) and is putting beachgoers in danger — both in and out of the water.

Kavanagh, investigators say on the call, has repeatedly protected lifeguards and other Parks employees accused of sexual harassment. One says, “It’s kind of crazy how often I’m seeing things like a lifeguard reporting drinking — or drug use of another lifeguard while on duty — and then the lifeguard who reported it [gets] moved.” Garnett then adds, “Also, a lot, a lot — I know from the Squad 4 investigation — a lot of sexual shenanigans in the lifeguard division. Just in terms of, like, you know, harassment of younger female seasonal lifeguards and complaints just being swept under the rug, or, like, then the girl who complains gets transferred, you know, to a less desirable location, and the person who’s doing the harassing, like, absolutely nothing happens.”

In an email, Crystal Howard, a Parks spokeswoman, declined to comment “on innuendo and hearsay that appear to malign Commissioner Kavanagh’s 40-year service to the City.”

Also on the call, an investigator says that after a male lifeguard was arrested for “violating” a young girl, “Sher allegedly said something like, ‘Oh well, it’s probably a misunderstanding,’ or, ‘He’s a good kid.’” Sher did not respond to a voice-mail left at his office, nor to emails or a text message. On August 10, I asked the Parks Department about several allegations against Sher, some related to Operation Splash, a DOI probe that ran through the 1990s and ended in 2000. Fifteen days later, he resigned, ending a lifeguarding career that began in 1958. The coordinator post remains vacant.

Eavesdropping on the DOI suggests a law-enforcement agency that is quick to find frustration in the face of investigative challenges. At one point, Garnett says her impression is that Kavanagh runs the Parks Department like “a family landscaping business that hires 12 neighborhood kids in the summer.” At another point, an investigator says that when she went to pull the files on earlier lifeguard-related inquiries, 95 percent of the documents had been destroyed. There’s a half-joking debate about sending an investigator undercover to the annual swim test, but the idea is dismissed as impractical. The people on the call also consider interviewing the dozen-odd current and former lifeguards I quoted in my article but seem to give up on that idea, too.

The audio also captures investigators’ hopes of getting higher authorities to intervene. They say that Nathan Reilly, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, briefly considered building a federal labor-racketeering case against the powerful municipal union District Council 37, which includes two local chapters representing lifeguards and their supervisors. (An EDNY spokesman declined to comment. Freddi Goldstein, the union’s director of communications, wrote in an email, “We are not aware of what might have once been ‘briefly considered.’ What’s important is that there clearly was no merit and no charges were ever pursued or brought.”) They also consider appealing to Mitchell Silver, who served as Parks commissioner from 2014 until this year, but fret that he might be intimidated by Kavanagh.

“To allow this to persist … is a great risk,” says one DOI investigator on a later conference call in March 2021. “What does Kavanagh have that he’s able to stay there and wield so much power?”

Even Garnett sounds helpless. “In the meantime, what do we do about Kavanagh?” she asks, as they debate how to proceed. “Because this is a disaster.”

On a follow-up conference call on March 2, audio of which I also obtained, two DOI inspectors general and multiple investigators agree that Sher should be removed and that Kavanagh ought to be stripped of disciplinary duties. Still, they make no plan to move the investigation forward. A female investigator bemoans the agency’s slow progress. “DOI has a long history of … looking into various criminal aspects of the Parks Department and coming up with a result, coming up with policy suggestions,” she says. “And then it hits a dead end and it goes nowhere and then we pick it up again in ten years.”

‘This Is a Disaster’