The Mob's Engineers

The underworld's reach into the men who build New York's skyscrapers

For more than 25 years there hasn't been a big construction job in this city where Tommy Maguire, leader of the Operating Engineers union, wasn't present for the photo op. Diminutive, white-haired and beaming, eyebrows like puffs of cotton, Maguire was sure to be there in a suit and tie and a hard hat, grasping a ceremonial shovel. He was there beside President Reagan in 1981 to announce the $1 billion Westway plan. After Westway died in court, Maguire was there again with Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki to break ground for the new West Street. He was there too at ground zero, glowingly describing the dedication of his members as they disinterred the wreckage.

And then last month, shortly before his 69th birthday, Maguire was compelled to attend a different kind of event, this one in Brooklyn federal court, where he stood glumly alongside three other union officers as he admitted to taking bribes from contractors in a scheme that had helped to vastly inflate the cost of construction in this town. Going back to 1989, he acknowledged in court, he had accepted payoffs, sometimes in the form of Christmas gifts, from at least two contractors.

The conviction of Thomas P. Maguire was greeted as just another ho-hum labor corruption tale in a city long grown inured to them. But Maguire is several notches above the usual union cheat. Until his resignation last year, he was the leader of the 6,000 engineers who run the city's cranes, backhoes, bulldozers, and hoists—the workers who make up a true aristocracy of labor on construction sites. He headed his union's powerful statewide organization, and ran its wealthy political action fund, which gave hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to favored pols.

Coming: Watchdogs for the cranes
photo: Cary Conover
Coming: Watchdogs for the cranes

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  • Since he took over the union in 1975, Maguire's voice has been heard on every building construction advisory panel created, including one for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation that is rebuilding downtown New York. But as much time as Maguire spent talking to senators, mayors, and governors, the people who really had his ear were from a much more sinister organization, prosecutors alleged. And the case they developed depicts a dramatically more cynical view of how business gets done in New York.

    Had they gone to trial rather than pled guilty, Maguire and his cohorts would have been shown to have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from many of New York's largest contractors, prosecutors charged. In one startling example, former business agent John Ruggiero was prepared to testify that Maguire, who followed in his father's footsteps as business manager of Local 15 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, took $50,000 per year from Yonkers Contracting, one of the metro area's largest heavy-construction builders. Ruggiero knew that, he told prosecutors, because Maguire told him to "back off" when it came to dealing with the big firm, saying he'd handle any problems personally. Maguire then proceeded to share some of the payoff money with other local officials, Ruggiero asserted.

    Most of the bribe-passing was done through two former business agents, informants claimed. They were Maguire's son-in-law, Thomas McNamara, and Daniel Murphy, both of whom pled guilty alongside Maguire. Among the companies that allegedly paid for the right not to be burdened by costly union work rules were DeFoe Contracting, Acme Skillman Construction Co., AFC Enterprises, Kiska Construction, and Civetta Cousins, according to seven cooperating witnesses assembled by investigators, most of them former union officials.

    The cooperators described a union where officials ran roughshod over every rule. Maguire routinely singled out organized-crime associates and friends for the top jobs at construction sites, prosecutors said. Those pals never worked a full shift, but instead kicked back a portion of their no-show earnings to Local 15 officials.

    There were other perks as well. Union member Vito Volpicelli told prosecutors that Maguire ordered him to buy a TV, a VCR, a fur coat, and appliances for his administrative assistant—and then had Volpicelli recoup a portion of the costs from contractors.

    Theft and vandalism were also fair tactics. Volpicelli claimed that Murphy had him steal things from construction sites, including a chainsaw, a generator, and a chop saw. Once, incredibly, he even stole a backhoe. When Laquila Construction ran afoul of the union officials, Murphy allegedly had Volpicelli disable water pumps at subway jobs in Long Island City and Brooklyn, causing flooding at both sites.

    A doctor who provided services to members was alleged to have kicked back money he received to Maguire, according to Ruggiero. In addition, when union delegates traveled on business, Ruggiero told investigators, Maguire demanded a portion of their expense money.

    All this activity left the leadership too busy to protect the rank and file. Volpicelli told prosecutors that when he told Murphy that contractors at a Delta Airlines job site were violating the contract, Murphy ignored him.

    Even union books—the emblem of membership entitling holders to wages of up to $45 per hour—had a price tag on them, the informants said. At Murphy's instructions, one book was sold for $12,000, according to a union member who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Maguire was alleged to have received a cut from the sale of another book, sold to an electronics store manager.

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