By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Heifetz's company, he explained on the tapes, was non-union, and his workers were dependent on him for a regular living. Unlike union workers, who generally go from job to job, Heifetz used the same team year-round. But he was haunted by fears that those same workers might someday realize they could improve their lot.
"I make my living with these guys," Heifetz was heard telling another contractor in the fall of 1998. "Without these guys, I'm out of business. [It's] not a question of me being a masonry contractor. I'm not. I'm a fucking Simon Legree with a fucking load of slaves. You don't understand that? I lose my fucking slavesthey start realizing they're peopleI'm out of business. And the intent was not for me to go out of business."
In the same conversation, he added: "My guys got no books," referring to membership cards carried by union construction workers. "They're shit heels for $150 a fucking day. If you want to use them, you got them."
When trade union organizers, suspicious that improper wages were being paid, started nosing around one of the builder's jobs, a foreman named George suggested that Heifetz add a handful of union workers to the crew as a way of easing the pressure. Heifetz was adamantly opposed. Such mingling could be dangerous, reasoned the contractor. "I don't want them mixing in there with union guys," he said. "I don't want them there. I'm going to lose them."
Despite scores of enforcement agents at virtually every city and state agency, violations of prevailing-wage laws are epidemic, according to both unions and regulators. The Bureau of Labor Law in the city comptroller's office reports that new cases roll in at the rate of more than 100 a year, most of them spurred by unions angry at flagrant violators. Since January 2002, the office has assessed wage underpayments of more than $3 million. The violations, say officials of the carpenters' and laborers' unions, which have both urged crackdowns, are just the tip of the iceberg.
"There is a ridiculously high level of noncompliance with the laws," said Steven Levine, a veteran prevailing-wage expert and vice president of the New York and Long Island Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. "So many peopletaxpayers, workers, honest contractorsget hurt so badly by it."
Union organizers involved in campaigns to win over workers at firms like Heifetz's say the vast majority of non-union construction workers receiving subpar wages are recent immigrants, fearful that demands for better pay could lead to deportation. Even so, Heifetz voiced concern about rebellion in the ranks.
"They may be immigrants and what, [but] they're not stupid," he told his foreman. "Come on. They're not dummies. They talk. I threatened them, you know. I tell them, 'You want to work all year round? Or do you want to sit on the fucking bench all year round?' "
As for the unions, Heifetz and others expressed scorn for those officials refusing to play ball. "I go around them," Heifetz said of the labor organizers. "They hate my guts." If they wouldn't agree to scams, the unions were to be manipulated. Nick Poniatowski, a contractor who provided a mainly Polish workforce to Heifetz and who pled guilty to filing false records in the case, explained that he kept extra union books in a desk drawer to send out with his workers in case they were needed.
Pezzullo, the Luchese wiseguy who lurked around Trump's Riverside South project and other job sites, let major contractors with whom he did business understand that he operated two separate brick and masonry companies, one non-union and another union, to be used if necessary. The non-union bricklayers got $125 a day. The rate for union workers, including benefits, was $47.36 per hour. Pezzullo eventually pled guilty in the case.
One of Heifetz's frequent advisers on labor unions was a Luchese soldier named Arthur Zambardi, who also later pled guilty. "Let Arthur handle it," Heifetz advised a foreman worried about one union dispute. "I don't care if he breaks their heads." Zambardi in turn expressed loathing for unions that enforced the rules. "I do not even bother with those rat motherfuckers," he was heard telling a contractor about the city's largest union of laborers, Local 79, which had recently emerged from a federal trusteeship imposed to rid it of mob influence. "You might as well call the FBI and deal with them," he said.
The unions and everyday workers weren't the only ones being scammed. Heifetz and other contractors in the Luchese case allegedly used another time-honored underworld tactic, recruiting groups of job-hungry minority construction workers to muscle away competitors, pushy unions, and even government agencies.
In several wiretapped conversations, Heifetz was heard reaching out to the leader of a group in Brownsville, Brooklyn, called Akbar's Community Service. The organization is one of the so-called "coalitions" reputed to use a mix of old-fashioned civil rights rhetoric and strong-arm intimidation to force payoffs and no-show jobs at construction sites. The leader, Akbar, a/k/a Derrick Ford, has convictions for gun possession and has often been cited by prosecutors for helping mobsters put the squeeze on contractors.