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

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.

Official union positions were also allegedly bought and sold. Ruggiero, the former Local 15 business agent, told prosecutors that he was told by Murphy that Maguire had paid $80,000 to the president of his international union for the privilege of becoming an international vice president. In addition, Maguire regularly gave money to the international president in order to "influence his decisions regarding Local 15 matters."

If he did so, it would have been a profitable investment. Union financial-disclosure forms show that Maguire received $81,000 last year in salary and perks stemming from his international post. Along with $264,000 in compensation from the local union, it increased Maguire's annual pay to more than $345,000.

A spokesperson for national Operating Engineers president Frank Hanley, who has held office since 1989, said the union was unaware of the allegations. The contracting firms alleged to have paid bribes denied the charges, or simply declined to talk about them. "We have nothing to do with any of this," said a representative of Civetta Cousins. "Why are they dragging us into it?"

The third player in the city's construction ballet—the mob—has been only slightly, if grudgingly, more talkative. So far 21 defendants have pled guilty in the Brooklyn Operating Engineers case. Among them have been the underboss of the Colombo crime family, Jackie DeRoss, who held membership in the Operating Engineers union, and a half-dozen mob associates and soldiers, including DeRoss's sons John and Jamie, who also had their own union books and were occasionally placed at job sites where they did little work, prosecutors said. (The borough president of Staten Island, James Molinaro, was moved to write the judge in the sons' defense last year that "the reputation of these boys in the community was always a good one.")

In a twin case in Manhattan that focused on the Genovese crime family's sphere of influence in the Operating Engineers union, prosecutors have won 18 guilty pleas, including those of mob captain Ernie Muscarella and Louis Moscatiello, a soldier who oversaw his crime family's construction interests.

During the three-year investigation by federal, state, and city investigators, a now infamous bug was placed in a modular construction trailer outside where the sprawling new Museum of Modern Art was going up. Investigators also watched as Moscatiello twice traveled to Queens to meet with DeRoss's delegate, a Colombo soldier named Vincent Ricciardo—known as "Vinnie Unions" for his labor expertise—at Salerno's Italian Restaurant in Richmond Hill. "They were talking business," said one law enforcement official.

Maguire's supporters say he kept far away from the mob, and had no direct dealings with it. And while his lawyer, Michael Considine, declined to comment for the story, citing his client's pending sentencing, letters he filed in court before the guilty plea accuse the government of using the mob accusations as a way to gain a tactical advantage in the case.

But the informants claim that Maguire simply used a buffer in his dealings with the mob, delegating a member named Anthony Polito as a go-between with the wiseguys. Polito, now imprisoned, held an important and lucrative union post as a maintenance foreman, which meant that his work duties were light, but he was designated by Maguire to oversee each job site where members were assigned. Investigators managed to place a bug in the SUV Polito used to prowl the city, and picked him up in conversation with Ralph Garguilo, another longtime mob associate who had also served as a kind of buffer between the union officials and the mob. Garguilo, who later decided to cooperate with the government, was tape-recorded in a discussion in which Polito talked about how Maguire had made him a millionaire. In return, Polito "protected" Maguire from the mob.

But not always. Outside a union Christmas party in December 2001, someone slammed Maguire, who stands just five feet six, upside the head with a pipe, breaking his nose. The incident has still not been fully explained, but the FBI picked up a Christmas Eve conversation in which another mobbed-up union member, Carl Carrara, talked about the episode with glee: "I heard that little guy got a piping. . . . Huh, yeah, fuck him is right. . . . Yeah, that piece of shit."

At his sentencing in February, Maguire faces up to five years in prison.

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