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Phil McNiff served the FBI, then George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees

Phil McNiff worked for the FBI for 30 years and was special agent in charge of the Tampa office before leaving the bureau in 1980.
Phil McNiff worked for the FBI for 30 years and was special agent in charge of the Tampa office before leaving the bureau in 1980.
Published Feb. 18, 2015

TAMPA — The fugitive wheeled around and leveled his pistol.

Phil McNiff pulled his own gun and said, "FBI, don't move!"

The suspect ran. As Mr. McNiff rounded a corner in pursuit, a bullet from the fugitive's gun whizzed past his head and lodged in a drain pipe.

Another agent stopped the fugitive, a member of the Black Liberation Army, with a shotgun blast, killing him.

At the time, on New Year's Eve 1971, Mr. McNiff was completing a two-year hitch as assistant agent in charge of the FBI's Tampa field office, which covers Central Florida. He told the story without drama because that was not his style.

Mr. McNiff believed in what he called "complete loyalty," a trait he would later demonstrate as the right-hand man of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Mr. McNiff, who served J. Edgar Hoover and Steinbrenner with equal commitment, died Feb. 15 after an extended illness. He was 88.

Even after moving to civilian life, he never really left law enforcement. While working for Steinbrenner, Mr. McNiff supplied the tip that led to the 1983 arrests of three corrupt Hillsborough County commissioners.

"The FBI was the biggest part of his life, and after that it was the Yankees," said Philip McNiff, 62, his son. "The FBI was a family and the Yankees were a family."

As head of the Tampa office, or special agent in charge, he busted an arson ring made up of prominent Tampa businessmen and firefighters and a $7.5 million "daisy chain" price-fixing scheme that extended to the president of Florida Power Corp., and monitored the activities of reputed mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr.

Tall, trim and with steely blue eyes, Mr. McNiff was a prototypical G-man, solving crimes with the same drive that had won him a basketball scholarship to George Washington University.

He had only occupied the Tampa office's top position a few weeks when an opportunity came to infiltrate a dangerous home invasion ring.

Mr. McNiff directed an undercover agent to buy paintings the gang had acquired in a robbery. He then led the arrest at a Treasure Island motel. "It was very unusual to have a (field office head) right out on the street and be there and know what he was doing," said former FBI Agent Al Scudieri, 68. "I saw him in action, and from that day on I was a Phil McNiff fan."

Philip Aloysius McNiff was born in Brooklyn in 1926. A two-sport star in high school, he turned down a chance to try out with the Brooklyn Dodgers after graduation from college in order to enlist in the Navy in 1944, during World War II. He married Emily Iris Garth in 1951.

The FBI sent him to more than a half-dozen cities, and interrupted his first and second stops in Tampa with stints in Mobile, Ala., and New York.

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In 1980 he retired a year short of the bureau's mandatory retirement age to work for Steinbrenner. When Scudieri reminded him of the Boss' difficult reputation, Mr. McNiff said, "Al, I worked for J. Edgar Hoover for 30 years. This is going to be a piece of cake."

Two years into the job, he heard a complaint over racquetball. Pick Talley, a public utilities director and part of the racquetball game, passed a report to Mr. McNiff that three Hillsborough county commissioners were holding up zoning votes in order to extort bribes from developers.

Mr. McNiff alerted his former colleagues. On Feb. 1, 1983, the FBI arrested commissioners Fred Anderson, Jerry Bowmer and Joe Kotvas. All were convicted and served time in prison.

As Steinbrenner's fixer, Mr. McNiff later helped his boss escape the clutches of extortionist Howie Spira, who was threatening to reveal a $40,000 bribe Steinbrenner had paid for information on former Yankees star Dave Winfield.

"Howie called up George and said, 'I want another 150 grand for not going to the papers to say you were paying me,' " said Scudieri. "Phil said, 'You cannot pay him. He'll be back again, and it's just wrong to do this.' "

Spira was convicted of extortion. Steinbrenner was banned from baseball for two years, his reputation scuffed but far from ruined.

Mr. McNiff and Steinbrenner also worked in the early 1980s to help found the Gold Shield Foundation, which aids family members of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty. He played a crucial role in the growth of Gold Shield through the 1980s, said Joe Voskerichian, the foundation's executive director.

Though one to follow rules, Mr. McNiff showed a benevolent attitude toward Hoover and Steinbrenner, both strong-willed men whose flaws became apparent later in their careers.

"He recognized that everybody has faults," Mr. McNiff's son said. "The goal is, you are striving to reach perfection. You will never reach it, but it's all in the effort to achieve."

He played league basketball for many years, then pickup games at least into his late 60s, if not longer. Win or lose, he was often one to buy beer for everybody after the game.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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