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Blowing the Whistle on the Mob

Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob
(Union Square Press, 2008)


Bob Delaney and Dave Scheiber ’76, Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob (Union Square Press, 2008)

In the New Jersey suburbs where I grew up, guessing which of your neighbors might be a mafioso was something of a parlor game. But it wasn’t a game to Bob Delaney, whose just-published book Covert, written with Dave Scheiber ’76, recounts his tension-filled years as an undercover cop infiltrating the seedy New Jersey waterfront, where he exposed the Mob’s reach of corruption and coercion.

The book gives more than a vivid picture of the Mob netherworld. It is a searing account of the emotional turmoil inherent in the job of an undercover agent—the psychological burden of maintaining two identities. Delaney convincingly disguised himself as a coarse, corrupt owner of a fake trucking company, then found himself confused and guilt-ridden as he rejoined the world of law enforcement. The resolution of his conflict—aided by friend and adviser Joe Pistone (the Donnie Brasco of Hollywood fame), whose famous undercover work paralleled Delaney's—gave him the confidence to move quickly into a new high-pressure career as an NBA basketball referee for the past 20-plus years.

Delaney tells how he followed his father into the New Jersey State Police in 1973 and, less than two years later, was given a false identity—“Robert Alan Covert,” the name of a baby who had died at birth, not an attempt to be clever. (At the time, Watergate had yet to make “covert” a household word.) Still in his early 20s, Delaney had to wear a wire and keep his cool in many harrowing situations amid two ruthless Mafia factions, the Genovese and Bruno crime families.

He managed to slip into his gangster persona by growing a Fu Manchu beard, putting on weight, and playing the coarse, foul-mouthed wiseguy role—all under the tutelage of a savvy Mob informant named Patrick John Kelly. Delaney also slipped into the paranoid thinking of the real mobster with an unwelcome consequence: He would ultimately have just as hard a time shedding the hostile attitude as he did acquiring it.

This second traumatic part of the story should be compelling even to readers who didn’t grow up in this part of New Jersey. How does a man shake off three years of aggressive swagger and the intense guilt he felt from arresting many mobsters he had come to like during the prolonged investigation? How does he learn to successfully reintegrate into law enforcement and society? In Delaney’s case, the task was complicated by a death threat he received after surfacing. Only counseling from a trusted colleague and informal therapy from a psychologist he knew helped him regain his equilibrium—equipped with the knowledge that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress and elements of Stockholm Syndrome, in which a kidnap victim begins to identify with the kidnappers.

Dave Scheiber does a terrific job in crafting this story while letting Delaney’s voice come through. I know this from having heard Delaney speak at a book launch in Washington, where his gift of gab was on full display in his easy remarks without notes as well as in lively replies to questions. But such anecdotes do not make a book, and Scheiber skillfully gives Delaney’s stories coherence and context, including some of his own research on a New Jersey crime scene.

Delaney recalled one particularly poignant anecdote from the book. After law enforcement agents in New Jersey rounded up scores of mobsters about whom Delaney and his undercover colleagues had gathered mountains of evidence, one of the mobsters Delaney had befriended as Bobby Covert—even attending holiday celebrations at the man’s house—noticed Delaney standing nearby and assumed he had been arrested, too. When the mobster was told Delaney was really a trooper, he said, “Bobby, you’re a friend of mine. How could you do this to me?” Delaney hung his head, devastated.

It is only half a surprise that, needing an escape from this hothouse environment, Delaney chose another pressure cooker: the work of the NBA referee. Having excelled at basketball as a youth, Delaney returned to the game by officiating at the high school level. It gave him a sense of peace—and it turned out he had a knack for blowing the whistle, progressing rapidly to the pros.

It’s easy to believe that someone who can stay cool among life-threatening thugs could also weather the intimidation of 7-foot-plus sports stars plying their aggressive game, with only the refs restraining them. The surprise, though, is that Delaney could enter the public eye so openly after sending a host of mobsters up the river. But he decided, in some steely corner of his soul, that he would live life on his own terms, without fear of what might happen.

It is fitting that Dave Scheiber helped Delaney tell his story. Like Delaney, Scheiber found he could not be consumed by one career. While Delaney was risking his life in his work, Scheiber was learning to be an award-winning sports and feature writer for the St. Petersburg Times. But he has also spent the last 30 years playing guitar in country and rock bands, writing music, raising six kids with his wife, Janie—and now publishing his first book.

—Ken Moskowitz ’76

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