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Raymond Donovan, Reagan labor secretary shadowed by corruption scandals, dies at 90

Raymond J. Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s labor secretary whose pointed lament following his acquittal on corruption charges — “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” — resonated with generations of public and private figures seeking redress in the court of public opinion, died June 2 at his home in New Vernon, N.J. He was 90.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son Ken Donovan.

Mr. Donovan, a New Jersey construction company executive, was an early supporter of Reagan’s presidential ambitions, including his short-lived 1976 bid for the Republican Party nomination. “I truly believed in the man and his philosophy,” he later said. He raised $600,000 for Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential bid, almost one-third coming from a fund-raiser featuring singer Frank Sinatra at Mr. Donovan’s country club.

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For his loyalty, Reagan named Mr. Donovan his campaign chairman in New Jersey and, after his victory, labor secretary.

Carrying out Reagan’s conservative agenda, Mr. Donovan eased regulations for business, including Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules disliked by industry. He withdrew a rule requiring the labeling of hazardous chemicals in the workplace and postponed federal employment and training programs, equal opportunity employment measures, and a minimum wage rise for service workers. His tenure also oversaw drastic cuts in the department’s budget and staff.

“The best social programs are jobs, and I will trade pushing paper in this department for jobs any day of the week,” he told the New York Times in 1981.

Labor advocates were insulted that Reagan brought in a relative unknown to a Cabinet-level position. Democrats and workers’ rights groups criticized Mr. Donovan for slashing workplace protections. Even some of his own staff grew concerned that he relied too heavily on a small group of aides with little government experience.

The law enforcement community became his most dogged nemesis during his four-year tenure. Officials repeatedly tried to tie him and his construction company, Schiavone Construction, based in Secaucus, N.J., to organized crime. Mr. Donovan vehemently denied the allegations.

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A string of high-profile investigations shadowed his every step in office, but it was an indictment on charges of fraud and grand larceny in New York that finally led Mr. Donovan to resign his post in 1985. The first Cabinet member indicted while in office, Mr. Donovan won acquittal in 1987 but saw his reputation in tatters.

“Just an unproven charge can handicap someone for life,” political scientist Larry Sabato, who has written about media feeding frenzies, said in a 2018 interview. “Donovan raised a question that reminded everyone true justice extends beyond a court verdict, and the accused’s reputation can be permanently damaged by the very process designed to indict, render a verdict and determine guilt or innocence.”

It began with a simple background check following Mr. Donovan’s nomination in 1980. An informant claimed Mr. Donovan, as a Schiavone executive, had bribed him to secure a labor accord for his company. The confirmation was delayed while the FBI investigated. After the inquiry found no evidence of wrongdoing, Mr. Donovan was confirmed in February 1981.

Later that year, another man claimed Mr. Donovan had witnessed a Schiavone employee bribe a union official, and claimed Mr. Donovan had links to underworld figures. Mr. Donovan denied the new accusations and requested a special prosecutor be appointed to put the matter to rest.

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At the behest of a panel of federal judges, noted New York lawyer Leon Silverman began a federal investigation. In 1982, Silverman said he found “insufficient credible evidence” to prosecute Mr. Donovan on federal charges, but he noted at a court hearing that September, in response to a defense lawyer’s claim, that it was “wrong to imply” that he had cleared Mr. Donovan of any allegations.

“I never made a determination whether Mr. Donovan was guilty or not guilty of any federal crime,” he said.

In September 1984, Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola indicted Mr. Donovan and seven co-defendants on state charges of fraud and grand larceny in a completely separate matter: He claimed they stole $7.4 million from a New York City subway project Schiavone won in 1978. Mr. Donovan, who called the accusation a “witch hunt,” resigned from the Reagan administration in March 1985, went back to his company and prepared for what would be an eight-month trial.

At the heart of the indictment, which was heard in a Bronx court in 1986, was whether Mr. Donovan set out to cheat the New York City Transit Authority by misrepresenting a subcontractor in the subway project.

The contract stipulated that 10 percent of the value be awarded to minority-run businesses. Mr. Donovan’s company awarded most of that work to a company owned by New York state Sen. Joseph Galiber, who was Black, and William “Billy the Butcher” Masselli, a Bronx meat wholesaler and reputedly a top-ranking boss in the Genovese crime family.

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The prosecution argued that Galiber and Masselli’s company was a front to steal money earmarked for minority contractors, but the defense argued the money was never stolen — it was credited to Schiavone for construction equipment leased to the subcontractor. The defense maintained the case was politically motivated by Merola, a fixture in Bronx Democratic politics.

“Just an unproven charge can handicap someone for life,” political scientist Larry Sabato, who has written about media feeding frenzies, said in a 2018 interview. “Donovan raised a question that reminded everyone true justice extends beyond a court verdict, and the accused’s reputation can be permanently damaged by the very process designed to indict, render a verdict and determine guilt or innocence.”

The subway charges stemmed from two homicide investigations in the Bronx dating back to 1978. While investigators were looking into those cases, they came across wiretaps they said implicated Mr. Donovan in the subway theft.

The tapes became the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case. Obtained through the help of an FBI informant who worked for Masselli, they included conversations between Masselli and Galiber discussing how to profit from the subway contract. Mr. Donovan was not heard on the recordings.

After 10 hours of deliberation, the jury issued a not guilty verdict on May 25, 1987, acquitting all the defendants. “When you listen to the tapes, they kind of make you wonder,” juror Patrick Sullivan told The Post. “But when you sift through the hard facts, there’s nothing there.”

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Holding a news conference as he left the court, Mr. Donovan declaimed, “The question is, should this indictment have ever been brought? Which office do I go to to get my reputation back? Who will reimburse my company for the economic jail it has been in for two and a half years?”

Reagan stuck by him through his legal ordeals and, in a statement following the acquittal, said he had “always known Ray Donovan as a man of integrity” and “never lost confidence in him.”

Raymond James Donovan was born in Bayonne, N.J., on Aug. 31, 1930, and was the seventh of 12 children. He graduated in 1952 from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans but didn’t pursue the priesthood because he had to take care of his siblings after his parents died. He returned to New Jersey and worked as a unionized laborer unloading Ballantine beer trucks.

A few years later, as an assistant bond manager with American Insurance, he met construction company owner Ronald Schiavone and decided to use his savings ($5,600) to buy into the business. In 1959, he joined as vice president in charge of labor relations, finance, bonding, insurance and real estate, and helped build the company into a major highway, bridge and tunnel builder in the New York metropolitan area.

Mr. Donovan married Catherine Sblendorio in 1957. He leaves his wife, of New Vernon, and three children, Ken Donovan, Mary Ellen Stewart and Keith Donovan; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

After Mr. Donovan left Washington, he rejoined Schiavone and served as president until 2007, when Spanish construction giant ACS bought the company for $150 million. Three years later, Schiavone agreed to pay $20 million to resolve a federal criminal investigation into construction fraud, including charges that it skirted requirements on minority-owned subcontractors.

Mr. Donovan’s family described him as a “sublime raconteur” and a generous philanthropist to the Catholic Church and educational causes. He became involved in a New Jersey program that helps free wrongly convicted prisoners and never lost his indignation at being left with a tarnished legacy.

“You know, you never do get it all back,” Mr. Donovan told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “I’m neither a saint nor a devil, but I’m not who they said I was.”