The Big Fix

Corruption In DC 37, Part Two: How the Union's Bosses Rule By Fraud and Intimidation

New York City's latest landmark to political corruption is a squat, one-story post office located at 2727 Mermaid Avenue. Here, surrounded by the towers of Coney Island's ghetto projects, stands the headquarters of DC 37 vote fraud.

From 1992 to 1998, elections in the blue-collar division of the 125,000-member municipal workers' union were regularly fixed in this building, by the simplest of methods. Unsuspecting members would put their ballots in sealed envelopes and send them to a post office box in Coney Island. There, Joe DeCanio, ex-president of Highway Workers Local 376, who controlled access to the box, would steam open the envelopes and throw away the members' ballots. Then he'd replace them with ballots expressing his choices or the preferences of DC 37 leaders.

Using this system, says DC 37 whistle blower Mark Rosenthal, DeCanio fixed his own first election in '92; the '98 election of his chosen successor, Bryan O'Neill; and, in 1995, the election of Robert Taylor's entire executive board slate in Motor Vehicle Operators Local 983. (DeCanio was unavailable for comment.) Despite well-documented evidence of mailroom fraud, election protests were perfunctorily dismissed by DC 37 and its parent union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

illustration: David Hollenback

What happened in the post office at 2727 Mermaid Avenue is known today not because of any investigation by the union, but because the primary victim of Local 983's fraud, Rosenthal, refused to stay a victim. In 1998, he first won 983's presidency and then provided evidence that helped indict both Taylor, chief beneficiary of the '95 fix, and the fixer, DeCanio.

Last July, Rosenthal made an even more startling discovery in a closet at DC 37's Barclay Street headquarters: the fake ballots from Taylor's 1995 executive board election, all sealed and labeled. The postmarks showed that the fixers had always used the same post office. "They also used the same black-ink pen on all the ballots," says Rosenthal.

The burly, Bronx-accented former park worker dutifully turned over the new evidence to the Manhattan D.A. But DeCanio had already participated in multiple vote frauds, according to Rosenthal, including the mother of them all: the 1995 ratification vote, when DC 37 members "voted" to accept a meager contract from the city. Transferring his tried-and-true steaming and discarding method to the Barclay Street headquarters, DeCanio and top DC 37 officials had thrown out the no votes of members who had overwhelmingly rejected the city's offer of a two-year wage freeze, and replaced them with their own yeses. Thousands of ballots were altered by DeCanio and his crew. A billion dollars in lost wages is a modest estimate of what the massive vote heist cost the members.

DeCanio's sweeping admissions set off investigations that have produced 27 indictments so far, making DC 37 America's most indicted union. The probes toppled Executive Director Stanley Hill and led to the appointment of a trustee, top AFSCME aide Lee Saunders, to oversee the union. Yet, despite all these repercussions, vote fraud hasn't stopped at DC 37, union reformers charge.

The Manhattan D.A.'s office is reportedly considering an investigation of irregularities in the delegate elections that were held this summer to choose international AFSCME vice presidents. And a Voice investigation has uncovered allegations of voter fraud, intimidation, and suppression of members' rights, within the last five months in two DC 37 unions: Housing Authority Clerical Employees Local 957 and School Aides Local 372.

Trustee Saunders owes his elevated position and unaccustomed prominence to the forced resignation of Hill last December. The former executive director had to leave office when two top aides acknowledged that the citywide contract vote had been fixed. Since then, Saunders has been highly effective at projecting the image of a tough sheriff trying to take back Tombstone for the good citizens. He's earned credit for organizing the May 15 demo at City Hall, one of the largest union rallies in recent history. He's targeted honcho abuse of American Express cards, and moved to set up an ethical-practices committee. Placards throughout the Barclay Street building now read, "DC 37's Back! Thank you Lee Saunders!"

But when it comes to vote fraud, the tall, bespectacled 47-year-old's position seems to be "mend it, but don't end it." Saunders has hired Kroll Associates to investigate the citywide contract-ratification scandal. But he has yet to keep his promise to release the report at the end of August. "I don't think August 31 was a date fixed in stone, " insists Chris Policano, a spokesperson for Saunders. "The report's not ready yet. Our primary concern is a thorough inquiry."

Saunders refuses to investigate egregious cases of vote fraud in the locals. Consider the theft of ballots in Local 375, the Civil Service Technical Guild. After being declared the winner in a preliminary count, in a November 1997 contest for president, Roy Commer's victory was overturned when the ballots were literally stolen out of DC 37's locked security office. Hill ruled that the election had to be rerun. Commer won again. But after Hill was forced to resign, Commer demanded that the newly installed trustee investigate who stole the ballots. "Roy, why don't you just forget it?" Commer says Saunders told him. "You won. It's over." Says Policano: "The proper remedy here was a rerun."

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