By Anna Merlan
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By Albert Samaha
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New York has never lacked for labor racketeers, both convicted and alleged, but one name not previously found on either list is Central Labor Council president and Queens assemblyman Brian McLaughlin. Thursday's raids on McLaughlin's union and political offices, part of a joint city and federal probe into an alleged bid-rigging scam, caught most people by surprise. If he was sometimes faulted for trying to be all things to all people, McLaughlin got high marks as well for making the city's labor movement more aggressive and inclusive. The toughest rap on him was that he couldn't make up his mind whether he was a politician or a labor leader, a problem exemplified by his vain attempt to get some traction as a possible mayoral candidate two years ago. This January, McLaughlin put a stop to that talk by announcing that he would not run for reelection to his seat representing a swath of blue-collar Queens, instead becoming a full-time labor official.
Despite his demanding twin jobs and his Mr. Nice Guy public demeanor, sources said that the tall labor leader allegedly also found time to build himself a dream house, using other people's money, on Long Island's north shore in Suffolk County. The home, the sources said, was paid for mostly in cash, much of it drawn from payments allegedly made to him by contractors with whom he had influence, both through his union and his political position.
Several of the contractors were involved in the city's streetlight program, where McLaughlin had enormous clout as a result of his role as a top official of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. While most of his official union business centered on his Central Labor Council role, McLaughlin maintained control over a unit of the electrical workers' union whose members worked for the streetlighting contractors, sources said. By agreeing to reduce labor costs for favored contractors, McLaughlin was able to help steer awards to his pals, sources said.
During the course of the investigation, which began more than four years ago, probers also questioned McLaughlin's requests for expense reimbursement for his weekly trips to Albany to attend assembly sessions. Former Brooklyn assemblyman Clarence Norman is currently facing a similar problem; he is due to go on trial in state court later this month for allegedly double-dipping for his expenses. According to one source, however, McLaughlin took the scheme a step further, submitting requests for travel reimbursement even though he hadn't even attended legislative business on the trips.
While investigators were still pulling boxes from the labor council's West 16th Street offices, a spokeswoman for McLaughlin issued a statement on Thursday denying all allegations against him. McLaughlin's criminal attorney, Peter Driscoll, did not return calls.
But if McLaughlin makes a surprising law enforcement target, the same can't be said for the huge electrical company he is alleged to have been in cahoots with. Petrocelli Electric Company has held contracts to service the city's streetlights for decades, earning the firm some $398 million in awards since 1991. But court documents filed earlier this year in Brooklyn federal court in a mob murder and racketeering case suggest that the firm has friends in low places as well as high ones. The documents show acting Bonanno crime family boss Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano was caught on a secret December 2003 bug discussing Petrocelli with another Bonanno hoodlum.
"Petrocelli lighting, they're around you?" Basciano was heard asking. "No, he's with the West Side," came the response from alleged crime family captain James Tartaglione, referring to the rival Genovese mob that was traditionally based on Manhattan's West Side.
That wasn't the first time such an allegation was made. A mob cooperator named Pete Savino, since deceased, told the feds back in 1988 that chairman Santo "Sandy" Petrocelli was allied with one-time Genovese underboss Venero "Benny Eggs" Mangano, who went to prison in a scam involving replacement windows.
A year later, in 1989, Petrocelli's name surfaced again in a mob context, this time at the New Jersey federal trial of a pair of upper-echelon Genovese figures. Defense lawyers there read into the record details of statements made by another FBI informant, slain businessman Irwin Schiff, in which Schiff claimed that Petrocelli had paid a massive $2 million bribe for part of a cable TV franchise to late Queens borough president Donald Manes, who killed himself in 1986 in the midst of a massive corruption probe. Schiff even had a couple of details as well: He told his FBI handlers that the bribe payments were laundered through an insurance company run by a Manes crony who billed Petrocelli at exorbitant rates to cover the transaction.
Petrocelli was never charged with a crime in any of those instances, and last week the firm's criminal attorney said there was nothing to the allegations, old or new.
"No one has been charged with anything. He denies all bid-rigging," said Jack Litman. "As for two wiseguys talking and they say something about somebody? It doesn't mean a thing."