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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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An inside job
Bob Delaney becomes Bobby Covert and immerses himself into mob life.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published November 1, 2006
Bob Delaney, at IMG Academies in Bradenton, where he teaches aspiring referees, took on the persona of a trucking business owner who loved Scotch.
[Times photos: Dirk Shadd]
Delaney, a 20-year NBA referee, doesn't tremble when facing down 7-footers. He's hardened from his years undercover infiltrating the mob. Part One: Courting danger
Second of two parts / Courting danger Into the shadows, onto the court
His immersion into a dark, new reality was instantaneous.
Bob Delaney took on the name Robert Allen Covert, an identity pulled from New Jersey vital statistics records of someone who died at birth.
That would allow him to answer to his real first name and minimize chances of getting tripped up. The last name - despite its ironic connotation - was coincidental.
"Covert didn't really mean then what it came to mean after Watergate with all the references to covert operations," he says.
He grew his close-cropped black hair long and bushy and sprouted a beard in a modified Serpico style to look the part of a rough-and-tumble Jersey hustler. And he was set up as president of Mid-Atlantic Air-Sea Trucking, a small waterfront business with two trucks and a van.
Six months passed. The operation was too small to attract the interest of the mob. So Project Alpha was extended a year. There had been a break: The consigliere of the Bruno family in Philadelphia, Patrick John Kelly, was in custody and looking at prison time.
"He's a wise guy but not Italian, so he can't get 'made,' " Delaney says. "The state police figured he couldn't do a day in the can. So they went to him, and he flipped.
"He became an informant."
Kelly became a key player, someone who could give Bobby Covert credibility with the mob. The two became an unlikely team and went to work in a three-story building in a New Jersey industrial park across from the Statue of Liberty.
The concocted story was Covert's parents had been killed in a car accident and he had opened a large trucking business with the inheritance money: Alamo Transportation, with "When trucking - Remember the Alamo" on the side of its trucks.
The building was wired with cameras and recording devices. A bar was built in a conference room so mobsters could hang out and drink.
In short order, with Kelly spreading the word, members of the Genovese and Bruno families began coming around, wanting a piece of the action.
Delaney played the part of a big-talking wheeler-dealer who drove a Lincoln Continental, drank Scotch and never worried about running up a big tab.
At first, he couldn't shake the feeling that "undercover cop" was plastered to his forehead. But he managed to mask the constant butterflies with a cool exterior, drawing on his natural gift of gab and confidence, and played his role convincingly.
"I found I was very good at that kind of work. Fortunately, I didn't sweat or get sweaty palms," he says.
He paid each family 121/2 percent of the profits, and the mob made sure Alamo trucks did three runs to everyone else's one. Alamo also was getting bills from mobsters for landscaping their homes, sending girlfriends on lavish vacations and buying expensive cars for wives - moves that would have drained other businesses linked to organized crime.
Delaney soon shaved his beard into a slick Fu Manchu to fit in better with his criminal associates. And he steadily worked his way into their good graces. In mob parlance, he had become "connected," an "earner."
That meant no suspicious gangsters could come up to him and check for a wire - with a casual "Hey, Bobby, ya putting on some weight" pat to the stomach - without insulting Delaney's mob colleagues.
"Anyone who did that was taking a big chance," he says. "It was like calling a guy a rat, and that could take away my right to earn. You could get whacked for doing it."
Holding the fear inside
Delaney noticed how mobsters lived in a constant state of paranoia. But he had a charm and witty manner they liked.
Early on, he scored big points with an embellished tale of a teenage trip to Italy - leaving out he had gone with a priest and classmates from his all-boys Catholic school.
"To tell a mob guy I was in their homeland, that I knew restaurants in Rome and Florence, they were like, 'You're a good guy.'
"Plus, I grew up in an Italian neighborhood, so I knew about fish dinner on Christmas Eve and little nuances that ingratiated me tremendously. They used to say, 'Irish kid - you can bulls---- the ears off a monkey.' "
Delaney became involved in a string of illegal activities involving transporting stolen property, though he didn't wear a gun while in the presence of his mob associates and witnessed no killings. When six months passed, a mob pal cheerily told him he knew he wasn't a cop because investigations never lasted more than a half-year.
He was spending much of his time with wise guys now. They constantly reveled in the Godfather, with Part I out in '72 and Part II released in '74.
"All the wise guys were like, 'Did you see that movie?' Everything was about the movie. It was life imitating art - they were like, 'You gotta kiss, everybody's kissing on the cheek.' " Delaney recalls how one mobster played the Godfather theme song 10 times straight on a restaurant jukebox as a subtle signal to the owner he had special guests - and not to expect to collect on the dinner bill.
Then there were the frequent late-night meals at Italian restaurants. He would hear graphic stories of violence, such as the one about a man who didn't pay back a loan, was put in a freezer for several hours, then his legs were smashed with a baseball bat. That kind of talk and the lingering concern he could be found out at any moment often did a number on Delaney's stomach.
"I'd get in the car and drive about 3 miles down the road, and I gotta pull over and throw my guts up," he says. "Or I'd find the first gas station I could and run inside cause I have diarrhea. But I couldn't tell anybody that because I didn't want to admit to the fear."
Going too far
At the same time, a subtle change was taking place.
He found himself developing a bond with some of the mob guys he was investigating, from countless hours spent socializing, exchanging gifts, getting to know their families. He frequently became protective of them when talking secretly with his supervisors.
Emotionally, Delaney was starting to cross a line.
"It was almost a Stockholm Syndrome type scenario," he says. "I would say, 'He's not a bad guy, Jack. He's only doing stolen property.' To me, a bad guy was putting bullets in people's heads. I didn't lose that. But you became immersed in their subculture and said, 'These aren't bad guys.' "
The tipping point came during the third year of the investigation, when the line between Delaney and Covert became too blurred. Johnny Keys, an underboss for Angelo Bruno, proposed a meeting in South Florida to open the ports for Covert's trucking business. Without clearing the trip with superiors, Delaney and Kelly bought first-class tickets on an Eastern Airlines flight to Fort Lauderdale, attached their wires in the plane's lavatory like it was no big deal and went to a meeting with major mob players at a Hollywood restaurant.
"As Bobby Covert, president of Alamo Trucking, I'm in the mode of 'We just do it. We're going to make money for my trucks,' " he says. "But when I get there, and I'm put in one car and Pat is put in another, it hits me, 'This ain't good.' My bosses are supposed to know where I am. I had just gotten too comfortable with the wise guys."
Inside the restaurant, a half-dozen tables were filled with some of the biggest crime bosses in the country joined by their lieutenants. Each negotiated offer was relayed from table to table like a giant game of telephone so the bosses could claim they had talked to nobody directly to avoid conspiracy charges.
Delaney, as always, kept his composure and handled the part of smooth-operating Bobby Covert deftly, cutting a deal for the trucking company to branch south. But his trooper superiors were not at all pleased they had been left out of the loop. And when the FBI learned of the unauthorized trip, it made an immediate decision: shut down Project Alpha.
Despite Delaney's renegade move, law enforcement brass was more than pleased with his work. He had provided plenty of evidence for indictments, secretly passing along some 400 recorded conversations.
A week later, at 3 a.m., 300 troopers from around the state were called to the armory in West Orange and given their marching orders for a massive roundup of crime figures. Delaney, clean-shaven but still sporting his long hair, stood on a platform, in a suit, flanked by his superiors. Many of his colleagues, who'd long ago written him off as a bad cop, couldn't believe their eyes. One was his old partner, Bob Scott.
"I was drinking a cup of coffee like everybody else at 3 a.m., and I looked up at the podium to see who was running the show," he says. "And here's frigging Bobby Delaney. I think, what is he doing here? He's in jail for murder. But our eyes met, and he got half a grin on his face and came down off the podium. I didn't know whether to hug him or smack him.
"He told me what he'd been doing all this time. Not saying anything to me was just a sign of his dedication to the job."
Delaney had always imagined the busts would be a crowning moment. He wasn't prepared for the wave of guilt he felt as mobsters were brought in during the hours that followed. One of them, Ronnie Sardella, looked up at Delaney, hands at parade rest behind his back but appearing to be cuffed.
"He says 'Bobby, what did they pinch you for?' and before I could answer, the sergeant standing next to me says, 'He's with us,' " Delaney recounts. "I'll never forget his look. It wasn't anger. The look was disappointment. And he said, 'Bobby, you're a friend of mine. How could you do that to me?' I felt like the biggest bum in the world. I could tell you what everybody had on their feet the rest of the day because I couldn't lift my head up."
From darkness into the spotlight
He went back to police work, but it was a struggle.
He was terribly out of shape. Sleep didn't come easily. And he couldn't overcome the feeling he had betrayed friends. He dreaded the feelings would only worsen when he testified against them.
So Joe Pistone, who had investigated the mob using the alias Donnie Brasco, was brought in to counsel Delaney.
"Bobby's a good guy and was a good undercover cop," says Pistone, who helped create an undercover well-being program for the FBI and still works as a counselor.
"I talked to him a lot when he came out and before trial. Look, you do get attached to guys. You don't spend hours and hours with somebody and not have a bond. The main thing I told him was that everybody has a choice in life, and they chose to become gangsters. You did nothing detrimental to their well-being except do your job. And you did it well."
So well the state police picked up information on a wiretap that a hit had been ordered on Delaney.
"That doesn't make for a good day," he says.
He was assigned round-the-clock police security for three weeks while Kelly and his family immediately vanished in a witness protection program. Delaney's boss at the state police, meanwhile, hailed him as a hero and held a news conference aimed at the mob. The message: Mess with our guy, we'll mess with you.
Despite the threat on his life, Delaney vowed not to live in fear. Still under heavy police protection, he spent three years testifying against the mob members he had busted. And he was determined to get back into shape, having put on 40 pounds while undercover. So he began working as a high school ref on the side.
"I had been around all that was bad, and I wanted to be around positive energy, where families are gathering and cheerleaders are cheering," he says. "Basketball became like therapy for me."
A friend he met while officiating hooked him up as a semipro ref on the Jersey Shore during the summer. Delaney's authoritative, steady approach caught the eye of another official, opening the door to an NBA development program for promising referees. That resulted in a job officiating in the Continental Basketball Association in 1983. Four years later, he made the cut as a rookie NBA ref and left the state police.
When the NBA opened its 2006-07 season Tuesday, Delaney went to work having already officiated more than 1,100 games, eight NBA Finals, 100-plus playoff games and the 1998 All-Star Game.
"Bobby is one of the upper-echelon guys in the league, no doubt about it," says ESPN's basketball guru, Dick Vitale. "He has a passion for what he does. He's dedicated to his profession and handles it in a first-class fashion. He's highly respected because he's very fair, objective and he really understands the rules. People have a confidence when he's blowing that whistle."
Off the court, Delaney has been heavily involved in charity work in Manatee County and around the country. He is a recipient of the prestigious Gold Whistle Award from the National Association of Sports Officials for outstanding community contributions, high integrity and ethics and a distinguished career.
Spurred by his sensitivity to victims' plights from his 14 years as a trooper, he organized a relief fund from the NBA Referees Association after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. It helped the families of victims offset travel expenses to Denver so they could attend the trial of the perpetrators.
And within 10 days of the World Trade Center attacks, he pulled strings with his law enforcement contacts and took a delegation of NBA officials to lower Manhattan to raise the morale of firefighters and police.
"We took busloads of all 60 referees into ground zero, and we went around to fire stations and police stations and just shook hands and talked," he says. "It was an unbelievable day. These guys had been going through hell, and they had nobody to talk to. So we talked to them and listened.
"And I'll never forget this: At 2 a.m., we're getting ready to leave, and hugging, and a typical New York fireman and New York fan yells to me, 'Hey ref, even after all this, remember, don't screw with our Knicks this year.' Still, the shot at the referee. But it shows how sports connects us even in tragedy."
Playing amid the risks
There is rarely time to slow down in his busy public life.
In the NBA offseason, Delaney is an in-demand motivational speaker on leadership and problem-solving issues with more than a dozen corporate clients. And he travels and speaks regularly to undercover law enforcement officers to help them deal with problems inherent in the work.
"It's very dangerous physically," he says, "and very dangerous emotionally."
Delaney believes the physical dangers have diminished because many mobsters involved in his investigation have died. As for his one-time mob-turned informant partner Patrick Kelly, he once attended an NBA game officiated by Delaney and caught his old trucking partner's attention, leading to a late-night, postgame reunion at an out-of-the-way eatery.
Several years later, Delaney learned Kelly had died; not a victim of the mob, but from a heart attack while living his new life.
Fans in the stands occasionally kid him, such as the one who held up a cell phone and yelled, 'Hey, John Gotti wants to talk to you.' But both Pistone and Scott, his former trooper partner who went into homicide work for 20 years, say the danger never entirely goes away.
"A grandson of somebody Bobby burned might want to make a name for himself," Scott says. "He still needs to be very careful."
Yet Delaney has never shied away from telling his story on national TV or in print.
"If something was going to happen, it probably already would have," he says matter-of-factly.
Delaney, who is married and has an adult daughter, does exercise caution and common sense.
"I often tell people I've lived in a 9/11 world since 1978," he says. "We're aware of when people come to our home with a package. My family knows you don't let people into the house to go check the water pipes. It doesn't take place. I won't go into all the things we do for security, but we have a strong 9/11 mind-set."
His den at home is filled with hundreds of mementos - a photograph of Michael Jordan getting in his face, shots of him in action among other NBA greats, shelves filled with career awards and a framed USA Today story calling him "wise and fair" and one of the five best refs in the game.
There is also a framed letter from a U.S. Senate subcommittee chairman thanking him for testifying before Congress in 1981 on waterfront corruption.
And in a prominent spot on the wall, a black-and-white picture shows a rookie New Jersey state trooper, receiving his badge from his father, a young man soon to embark on a life-changing journey.
It began by courting danger and has led to keeping order on the court, maintaining the highest of profiles in spite of the risks.
"I firmly believe that if I went into a shell or decided to stop living my life to its fullest extent," he says, "they win."
For Bob Delaney, and even Bobby Covert, the point that has always counted most is staying in the game.