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How Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s hiring of a bird egg smuggler threw Riverkeeper into turmoil

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. arrived at a midtown Manhattan law firm’s office on a summer night in 2000 ready for a fight. His adversary was not one of the polluters he had spent years driving from the Hudson River. It was his mentor, friend and boss, the renowned environmentalist Robert H. Boyle.

Boyle had helped Kennedy rehabilitate himself, personally and professionally, after an arrest for heroin possession in 1983 at the age of 29. But now the two men were locked in a power struggle for control of Riverkeeper, the group that Boyle founded and where Kennedy had built a career as a crusading environmental attorney.

Their battle at that night’s board meeting was over Kennedy’s push to hire a staff scientist who had just been released from federal prison. His crime: running an international wildlife smuggling ring that prosecutors said had damaged rare bird populations.

Boyle argued that employing such a figure at one of New York’s premier environmental organizations was like hiring a robber as a bank teller. Kennedy was equally insistent that the man be brought on.

By the time Riverkeeper’s board adjourned that night, Kennedy had won, leading Boyle and seven other directors to resign. It was a pivotal moment for the group — whose board would henceforth be dominated by the faction of celebrities and socialites who had backed Kennedy — and for Boyle, who never recovered emotionally from what he saw as his former protégé’s betrayal, according to people close to him.

Above all it was a crucial victory for Kennedy, who for the next two decades would indelibly merge his public profile with that of Riverkeeper, eventually claiming — falsely — that he had co-founded the organization. He would frequently invoke his bona fides as a warrior for New York’s waterways as he took up anti-vaccine activism, the cause he is most associated with today.

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Kennedy’s detractors often divide his career into two phases: a laudable period as a workhorse of the environmental movement and a swerve into the conspiracist worldview that defines his independent bid for the White House.

But a close examination of Kennedy’s early years as a lawyer in the Hudson Valley shows that the same qualities that today inspire his supporters and alarm his critics — obstinacy, an itch to challenge authority, a mastery of scientific minutiae that is paradoxically coupled with a loose allegiance to facts — were causing controversy long before he trained his sights on Bill Gates or Anthony S. Fauci.

No episode was more remarkable than the schism Kennedy precipitated at Riverkeeper, a sprawling melodrama starring a political dynasty’s prodigal son, a secretive circle of master falconers and a network of daring cockatoo egg smugglers whose reach extended from Western Australia to New Paltz, N.Y.

The feud’s details may have seemed outlandish, but the fallout was concrete. Boyle, who literally wrote the book on the Hudson River (title: “The Hudson River”), spent his last years in self-imposed exile — unable, according to his children, to bear looking at a body of water that reminded him of Kennedy. He died in 2017 in Cooperstown, N.Y., more than 100 miles from the valley where he did his life’s work.

“He felt like somebody who had been the victim of a carjacking,” said his son Alex Boyle, 61. “He felt it was a form of betrayal.”

Kennedy, who retired from Riverkeeper several years ago, said in an interview that he had not done anything improper by hiring a former wildlife smuggler at the group. On the contrary, he said, it would have been wrong to deny someone employment simply because of a criminal record.

But though he believes he was right to stand up to Boyle, he lamented the consequences for their relationship.

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“Bob still abides as one of the great heroes of the environmental movement and one of my personal heroes,” Kennedy said. “It was kind of heartbreaking.”

Alexander Zagoreos, a former Riverkeeper treasurer who resigned from the board with Boyle in 2000, said Kennedy had a disconcerting tendency even then to persuade people by eliding, distorting or simply ignoring facts that got in his way.

Today, he worries that Kennedy is using the same abilities to garner support for a presidential candidacy based on conspiracy theories about the U.S. government and debunked arguments against lifesaving vaccines. Recent polls show that Kennedy garners the support of about 1 in 5 voters.

“You have to be concerned about that, especially if somebody like that has a lot of power,” Zagoreos said.

The Kennedy he sees and hears today on the campaign trail, he said, is no different from the one whose actions split Riverkeeper on that night 24 years ago.

“Who the man is now,” Zagoreos said, “I think a lot of it started there.”

On Sept. 11, 1983, Kennedy was found sick and disoriented in the lavatory of an airplane on its way to Rapid City, S.D. It would later emerge that he was traveling to the Black Hills to seek treatment for drug addiction, but his decision came too late to avert scandal. He was greeted at the airport by paramedics and police, who discovered that he was carrying a small amount of heroin.

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Kennedy was charged with heroin possession, punishable by up to two years in prison. It was a low point for the young man, who had struggled with drug abuse since his teenage years — lived in the shadow of the assassinations of first his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, and then his father, former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy.

“I had accepted as a child a very religious moral code which forbade dishonesty, and illegal activities in general,” Kennedy later wrote in “The Riverkeepers,” a book on the movement to clean up the Hudson River that he co-authored with environmental activist John Cronin. “The addiction increasingly challenged my capacity to live up to my values and the dictates of my conscience.”

In 1984, a judge sentenced Kennedy to two years’ probation. Abandoning his former career path as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, he entered rehab and eventually began working on a former estate in the Hudson Valley to fulfill his community service requirement. There he encountered the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, later renamed Riverkeeper, which was setting up its office in a farmhouse on the grounds.

Founded in 1966 by Boyle, an ornery ex-Marine and Sports Illustrated writer, the association was running a kind of guerrilla campaign to clean up one of the most despoiled waterways in North America. A river that in the 19th century had been synonymous with bucolic landscape paintings was dotted with power plants and fouled by raw sewage.

By the time Kennedy arrived, the fishermen had notched impressive legal victories against corporations including Exxon and Con Edison and used settlement money to build a private patrol boat, Riverkeeper, in which Cronin cruised the Hudson seeking environmental scofflaws.

Kennedy began volunteering with the association, and in 1985 he worked extensively on cases against more than a dozen polluters of Quassaick Creek in Newburgh, N.Y. The offenders were forced to pay $200,000 toward a fund to improve the creek, marking what Kennedy later called “my first successes as an environmental attorney.”

In 1987, he co-founded an environmental litigation clinic at Pace Law School that worked primarily on cases for Riverkeeper. John Humbach, a former Pace law professor and associate dean, said Kennedy quickly became famous among students as a dazzling instructor.

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“They were just superb sessions. His students were extremely engaged. He was extremely engaged,” Humbach said.

Kennedy also had a more far-reaching fame, of course, and Humbach said the law school’s reputation — and the prominence of the Hudson River as an environmental cause — benefited from it.

“At one point I remember sitting in his office talking to him. He said, ‘I can get on the phone and call up’ — he mentioned some civil rights leader at the time — ‘and they’ll pick up the phone,’” Humbach recalled. “He said, ‘I have these abilities, and I want to put them to work to get some good result out of them.’”

Yet within Riverkeeper, not all were as smitten with their new celebrity litigator.

Robert Boyle’s son Alex Boyle, then 22, was among the volunteers who helped collect samples from a polluted tributary of Quassaick Creek. He said Kennedy was initially friendly but one day went on a furious tirade in which he falsely accused the younger man of inappropriately labeling sample jars.

After that, Alex Boyle said, he was wary of Kennedy — and warned others to be as well.

“I said to my father, ‘You have a pet rattlesnake,’” he recalled. “‘Eventually he’s going to bite you.’”

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By the late 1990s, Riverkeeper was prospering, thanks in no small part to Kennedy’s ability to court donors. Zagoreos, the former treasurer and board member, estimated that the group’s annual fundraising haul quintupled after Kennedy joined. He also recruited board members far outside Riverkeeper’s original orbit of commercial fishermen and grass-roots environmental activists, including actors Alec Baldwin and Lorraine Bracco.

In 1997, Cronin and Kennedy published “The Riverkeepers.” Although the book credited Robert Boyle’s foundational role, the older man felt he had been upstaged, and his relationship to his lieutenants “changed dramatically,” Kennedy said.

“He just became very hostile,” Kennedy said. “Let me put it this way: Bob Boyle was always a curmudgeon, and that was part of his charm. And he became increasingly charming with age.”

Cronin, who left Riverkeeper in 1999, declined to comment for this story.

A year after the book’s publication, Boyle and Kennedy clashed over Kennedy’s desire to start a bottled water company, using the Riverkeeper name, whose profits would go to environmental causes. Boyle persuaded the board to dismiss the proposal, but hard feelings lingered. Fletcher Hodges, who took over the group’s day-to-day operations after Cronin’s departure, said Kennedy regularly skipped staff meetings.

“Everything that Bobby Kennedy did at Riverkeeper was about Bobby Kennedy and not about Riverkeeper,” Hodges, now 90, said in an interview. “I thought he was a liability.”

The breaking point came in November 1999, when Kennedy hired an employee at Riverkeeper named William Wegner. Kennedy described him as a skilled scientist, but Riverkeeper had not been looking for a scientist. As Boyle later described it, he became suspicious — and then horrified — as he began digging into Wegner’s background.

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Wegner, then 49, had been released from federal prison just a few months earlier, after serving about 3½ years of a five-year sentence for tax fraud, perjury and conspiracy to violate wildlife protection laws. The charges all sprang from his roughly decade-long run as the alleged kingpin of a smuggling ring that trafficked in Australian cockatoos.

According to prosecutors, Wegner recruited a team of at least 10 “mules” who raided tree hollows in Australia to steal the birds’ eggs. The mules incubated the eggs using Styrofoam and hair dryers and then hid their contraband in special vests as they flew back to the United States. If the eggs hatched en route, Wegner’s couriers had instructions to flush the chicks down the airplane toilet.

The birds that survived were sold for $1,500 to $12,500 apiece to American collectors, who were willing to pay a premium on the black market for animals that were illegal to export from Australia. Investigators estimated the operation generated $1.5 million over about eight years. Wegner managed the sales through outlets including an associate’s business in New Paltz, Planned Parrothood, and a trailer in Malibu, where he tried without success to sell a screenplay about bird smuggling.

“It was a very calculated undertaking that he did, with quite a bit of hubris,” said former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Robert Jarmuz, who led the investigation and personally arrested Wegner. “He ruined the lives of many people along the way that were impressionable and younger.”

Wegner, now 73, did not respond to requests for comment.

Boyle was livid when he learned about Wegner’s past and ordered that he be fired. Kennedy objected, taking his case to the board. Among other things, he argued that Wegner was an experienced scientist who would come cheap because of his inability to find other work and that his crimes had involved birds so common in Australia they were considered agricultural pests.

Kennedy made the same points in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

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“Every species that he smuggled was a vermin species that the Australian government was paying people to destroy,” he said.

Records from the investigation tell a different story.

In a 1994 memorandum that Jarmuz shared with The Post, federal prosecutors anticipated that Wegner’s defense attorneys would similarly argue that because one of the species his mules smuggled — the rose-breasted cockatoo — was abundant, his actions were “at least morally defensible.”

However, prosecutors stated: “These arguments are either untrue or irrelevant. Of the seven species at issue, several are genuinely rare and probably endangered in Australia.” (Today at least three of the species targeted by Wegner’s ring are listed as endangered by the Australian government.) The rose-breasted variety “is indeed common in Australia,” prosecutors added, “but farmers may not kill the birds without express permission from the Parks department, which is difficult to obtain.”

Kennedy told The Post that Wegner, before his arrest, had worked on river issues for two environmental consulting firms in the Hudson Valley. Spokespeople for those firms said they did not have personnel records dating back that far and could not verify his employment.

However, the 1994 prosecutors’ memorandum states that during the 10-year period covered by the investigation, “Wegner held no job and no source of income except for the money he earned selling cockatoos.” Jarmuz, who subpoenaed Wegner’s Internal Revenue Service records, said he never saw evidence that Wegner worked in jobs similar to those Kennedy described.

“He was living kind of a bohemian lifestyle,” Jarmuz said.

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But Wegner pursued another vocation along with smuggling. And in it lay the key to why Kennedy was determined to find him a job, even if it meant tearing Riverkeeper apart.

‘My devotion to raptors’

When he was a child, Kennedy has written, his interest in wildlife begot a dizzying menagerie at his family’s Hickory Hill estate in Northern Virginia, including lizards, frogs, snakes, starlings, sparrows, pigeons, field mice, rats, raccoons, squirrels, possums and a giant tortoise that the young Kennedy had captured while on safari in Kenya with his aunt’s husband, founding Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver.

But there was one kind of animal that fired his imagination above all others. Inspired by the Camelot mythology attached to his father and uncle, Kennedy read “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White and was mesmerized by its descriptions of falconry, the practice of capturing wild raptors and using them to hunt smaller birds or mammals.

At age 14, after his father’s assassination, Kennedy began boarding at the elite Millbrook School in the Hudson Valley, where he fell in with “a tight-knit cadre of boys who shared my devotion to raptors,” he wrote in a 2007 column in Vanity Fair. Through the turmoil of the ensuing years he kept up his hawking, and when he returned to the valley in 1984 he reconnected with its community of dedicated falconers.

Among them was Wegner. Kennedy said he and Wegner hunted with hawks together for years but never grew particularly close.

“We weren’t friends,” he said in an interview. “I mean, we’re friends in terms of — you know, I’m kind of a friend with anyone who’s flying a hawk. You have an instant basis for friendship.”

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The men nevertheless had an important connection through a close mutual friend and fellow Hudson Valley falconer, Thomas Cullen III. Cullen, whom Kennedy described to The Post as “one of my best friends,” appears in a November 2023 campaign video about the presidential candidate’s love of falconry.

Cullen himself is no stranger to ornithology’s criminal underbelly. In 1984, he was arrested by Australian authorities, who alleged he had been climbing a tree with a hatchet in a wildlife sanctuary in Western Australia, trying to steal eggs from a cockatoo’s nesting hollow. He pleaded guilty to charges in Australia and paid a fine.

Cullen was never charged by U.S. officials in connection with Wegner’s smuggling conspiracy, which according to federal records involved several falconers from the Hudson Valley. But in 2006, Cullen was sentenced to four months in prison and a $1,000 fine for importing black sparrow hawks in violation of the Wild Bird Conservation Act and making false statements to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kennedy has never been implicated in illegal activity involving birds or other wildlife and said Cullen never discussed smuggling schemes with him. But they talked about many other things on their autumn expeditions to capture wild hawks, and Kennedy said he probably learned of Wegner’s 1999 release from prison during one of these forays.

“I was going hunting with Tom, at that point, every weekend,” Kennedy recalled. “We would sit up on hills all day long, for 10 hours. And, you know, we’d talk about falcons and falconers.”

From Cullen, he added, “I would have known what Bill [Wegner] was doing” as he sought to get back on his feet.

Approached at his home in Goshen, N.Y. (“The Eyrie,” reads a sign in the driveway), Cullen, 72, declined to comment. So did his wife, Peggy Cullen, a former member of Riverkeeper’s board.

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Their 36-year-old son, Thomas Cullen IV — also a master falconer — would not discuss the details of the elder Cullen’s criminal history. However, he said the 1980s and 1990s were a dark time among practitioners of their ancient hobby, and that many felt they were the victims of overly zealous enforcement actions by wildlife protection agents.

“Back in those days, the federal government was convinced that bird people were as bad as drug people, thinking we were running this huge cabal of illegal smuggling,” he said. “And that just wasn’t the case at all.”

The younger Cullen took a Post reporter on a tour of The Eyrie’s basement, where more than a dozen magnificent birds of prey perched, shuffling their gleaming talons as they glared at the intruder. Cullen pointed out his Harris’s hawks — rust-colored Southwestern birds that hunt in packs, like wolves — some of which he said were descended from one of Kennedy’s hawks.

A gyrfalcon in the bunch was the offspring of a raptor owned by Wegner, he added.

Cullen acknowledged the spiritual kinship among falconers, sometimes matched by literal kinship among their birds. But he said he did not think Kennedy did anything wrong by helping out another member of their avian fraternity.

“All it came down to is Bobby gave someone a second chance,” Cullen said. “The way he had a second chance.”

As Riverkeeper’s board prepared for the showdown at its meeting in Manhattan in June 2000, the man who had given Kennedy his second chance wasn’t buying this argument. Boyle was adamant that Wegner not be hired, and he threatened to resign if Kennedy got his way.

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Riverkeeper risked its credibility as a guardian of the environment, Boyle said, if it hired a man who had systematically exploited a continent’s wildlife for the better part of a decade. He was also exasperated over Kennedy’s stubborn desire to find Wegner a job.

“I found it absolutely bizarre, reckless and very damaging to the environmental movement,” Boyle told Talk magazine in 2000.

But Kennedy was bringing Riverkeeper’s board of directors around to his point of view. After a heated discussion, Kennedy’s side prevailed in a 13-to-8 vote. Boyle and those who agreed with him immediately quit.

Some of the castoffs went for drinks at the nearby New York Yacht Club, absorbing the realization that Boyle, after 34 years, was no longer a part of the organization he had created. But in the long run, the pain caused by the episode wasn’t easily salved. Boyle, Zagoreos said, “wasn’t the same after that.”

Neither, some say, was Riverkeeper. Ann Tonetti, a board member who resigned out of loyalty to Boyle, later rejoined, convinced the organization was still doing good work. But she eventually quit again.

“The enchantment of the people working for the river, and having Bobby [Kennedy] and Bob Boyle lead us, had kind of dwindled,” said Tonetti, now 83 and retired in West Palm Beach, Fla. “It had turned into kind of a society thing.”

Under Kennedy’s influence, the group continued to grow as a fundraising juggernaut; by the time he left in 2017 its annual revenue had surpassed $4 million, according to tax records. It has also expanded its reach, helping to seed nearly 300 affiliate organizations around the world under the Waterkeeper Alliance.

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Wegner remained on staff at Riverkeeper for the next 22 years. Karen Klopp, a former board member who supported Kennedy, said Wegner was a model employee who never created the kind of problems Boyle predicted.

“All I know is he was a terrific addition to the already wonderful staff,” she said of Wegner. “I loved and respected Bob Boyle. He was a terrific guy. But those allegations did not come to pass.”

Two years after the Riverkeeper split, Boyle left the Hudson Valley, moving upstate to Cooperstown. He was there in 2005 when Kennedy published an article falsely asserting that vaccines caused autism — after multiple corrections, it was eventually retracted by Rolling Stone and Salon — and in the ensuing years as Kennedy doubled down on the article’s debunked premise.

To Boyle, his son said, Kennedy’s willingness to distort facts was familiar. But there was one set of falsehoods he would not let go unchallenged.

In March 2017, Kennedy resigned from Riverkeeper, citing the toll on his family by his cross-country commute from California and the demands of his work with World Mercury Project, the anti-vaccine group that would soon become Children’s Health Defense. Under Kennedy’s leadership, the annual revenue of Children’s Health Defense would balloon from a half-million dollars to more than $23 million, placing it in the vanguard of anti-vaccination advocacy groups.

In a resignation letter that was published on Riverkeeper’s website, Kennedy made claims that appear to be at odds with the historical record. The man who had discovered an already successful environmental group while doing court-imposed community service now falsely claimed to have founded Riverkeeper, which he said had “a budget of zero” before he arrived.

“It is extraordinarily difficult to leave the organization which I co-founded thirty-three years ago, built from the ground up and to which I’ve devoted most of my career,” Kennedy wrote.

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In an interview with The Post, Kennedy said his resignation letter “was certainly accurate as to what I believed at that time.”

He added, “I have no memory of writing that letter, and I have no memory of anybody disputing anything that I said about my role at Riverkeeper.”

By the time Kennedy resigned, he and Boyle had not spoken to each other for almost 17 years. But Boyle, then 88, called his former employee’s claim to have founded Riverkeeper “nonsensical” in an interview with the writer Jerry Oppenheimer for an article in the Daily Mail.

“He co-founded nothing. He founded nothing,” Boyle said. “When I read his letter, I wanted to throw up. He lives in a fantasy world.”

He said it was “very difficult to rewrite history when the man who made it is still alive.”

About two months later, Boyle died of cancer.

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

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Source: Washington Post

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