Steering tankers, container ships, and other massive vessels in and out of Boston Harbor is like walking a tightrope: Stray outside the narrow channels dredged into the seabed and you could run aground.
To prevent wrecks, Massachusetts since the 1780s has required that local mariners who know the harbor’s shoals and currents guide any large, non-US ships through it. These pilots — today, the seven highly experienced former ship captains of the Boston Harbor Pilot Association — board incoming vessels miles offshore, clambering from small motorboats onto ladders let down from foreign-flagged behemoths.
Long a tight-knit group, this centuries-old nautical brotherhood is now in turmoil: Gregg Farmer, the group’s president from 2002 to 2011, is under investigation by Suffolk County prosecutors for allegedly diverting tens of thousands of dollars in fees collected from ships to his own pockets, according to a spokesman for District Attorney Daniel Conley. Farmer has accused the pilots of flouting safety rules and even drinking on the job.
The pilot association says Farmer for years used its credit cards to pay for a laundry list of personal expenses, ranging from cellphones for his family and gas for his personal car and boat to five-star vacations to Florida and outings to strip clubs, where he spent as much as $9,000 in one evening.
All told, the pilots alleged, Farmer improperly spent at least $112,000 of the group’s money over several years, filing fake expense reports to cover his tracks.
Through his lawyer, Farmer acknowledged making the expenditures, but claimed nearly all were related to pilot association business.
The other pilots, Farmer’s attorney wrote, were attempting to “discredit and silence the most experienced pilot in Boston Harbor” so they could each take a greater share of the fees paid to the association.
Farmer also made a series of mud-slinging counter-allegations against his former colleagues, whom he portrays in legal filings as hard-living, sophomoric men prone to cliquish internal squabbles.
One pilot routinely drank hard alcohol while awaiting assignments in the group’s East Boston pilot house, Farmer said, while another often failed to appear for shifts when he was supposed to be available to move a docked liquid natural gas tanker in case of an emergency.
That pilot, Farmer added, also belittled a female State Police trooper over marine radio, damaged the group’s political standing by angrily threatening a state legislator, and once used his phone to bid in an online auction for NASCAR memorabilia while steering a ship through “one of the most challenging channels” in the area, the Weymouth Fore River.
As the criminal investigation into Farmer’s alleged theft and a related civil lawsuit slowly play out, none of the agencies with authority over Boston Harbor have stepped forward to untangle the knot of mutual recriminations. The Massachusetts Port Authority, the state Environmental Police, and the Coast Guard each referred a reporter to an obscure state body that oversees the pilot association: the Commissioners of Pilots for District One, comprised of two retired mariners nominated by the Boston Marine Society and confirmed by the governor.
Documents provided by an attorney for the commissioners show that the tiny agency looked into Farmer’s accusations. But its investigation appears to have been cursory, consisting mostly of interviews with the accused pilots while dismissing some allegations out of hand. The commissioners, saying they had received no complaints from others on the harbor and that no pilots had failed random drug or alcohol tests, concluded Farmer’s allegations were either “hearsay” or matters to be resolved internally by the harbor pilot association.
The pilot association said its members had piloted nearly 20,000 ships without incident since 2006, and it and the commission insisted the public was safe.
The association last year removed Farmer from the rotation of pilots who accept jobs on ships. The pilots also asked the commissioners to permanently strip Farmer of his “captain” title as punishment for the credit card charges, but the agency declined, saying the law only allows it to punish a pilot for misconduct related to his duties as a mariner. The pilots have sued the commissioners, asking a state judge to order the commissioners to rule on their request.
Farmer’s attorney, Thomas Fallon, said the pilot association’s rotating presidency was an unpaid position, and suggested that past presidents had enjoyed similar latitude in their expenses without scrutiny. Other senior members of the group approved Farmer’s expense reports, he noted.
Fallon also said that each of Farmer’s credit card charges benefited the pilot association: Trips to local fishing tournaments improved the group’s relations with other mariners; an apparent vacation to Florida was really a study of the pilot association in Jacksonville; home office furnishings, clothing, and gas for his personal car were used to conduct association business. Even the outings to strip clubs were necessary to boost morale and plot the association’s lobbying strategy, Fallon said in court documents.
“In regards to Gentleman’s clubs, these outings were not for the personal benefit of Captain Farmer and instead these outings were for the benefit of the organization as a whole . . . during very strenuous times in the port,” Fallon wrote.
The pilot association’s executive director at the time, Andrew Hammond, disagrees. Only he and Farmer were present one night in August 2008 when $9,025 was charged to an association credit card by the Centerfolds club in Boston, Hammond testified. The funds, he said, were spent on “private dancers and alcohol,” and no business was discussed.
Hammond said that Farmer told him to pay the credit card bills for the strip club purchases “in a manner designed to avoid detection of the nature of the expenses.”
Fallon conceded some of the expenses might raise eyebrows, but argued they were an accepted way of doing business.
“When you’re trying to promote business . . . there are certain things that are always done, especially when you’re dealing with a male guest: You’re going to go golfing, you’re going to go to ball games, you’re going to go drinking, and you’re going to go to strip joints,” Fallon said. “That’s just a fact of life.”