By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
If even a small portion of the massive 186-page indictment filed against him in October is to be believed, Brian McLaughlin already knew he belonged in the ranks of the sinners he deplored when he toured the churches that fall. Even then, according to the allegations, he was concocting larcenies large and small.
A fund intended for picnics and holiday parties for the members of the streetlighting division of his own union, Local 3 of the electrical workers? He was already using it to pay the docking fees at a marina on the Jersey Shore where he kept his boat, and to make payments on his sports utility vehicle, according to the government. The campaign finance committee, the one he sought to boost with contributions from admirers who saw in him a potential mayor, a real labor mayor? He had already placed one of his union cronies on the committee's payroll as a consultant for $500 a week, payments he allegedly directed straight back to his own pocket. The Committee to Elect Brian M. McLaughlin paid a woman $450 monthly to clean his district assembly office in Flushing. But most of her time was spent washing floors and windows at the nearby house McLaughlin shared with his wife and children, the indictment asserts.
Bigger schemes were also allegedly under way.
In 1998, an electrical contractor who won a city bid to maintain streetlights on Staten Island asked to be cut a break on union work-crew requirements. McLaughlin, who served as the union's business agent for the streetlighting workers, agreedfor a price, the indictment states. The contractor doled out monthly checks of $2,400 described as expenses, along with numerous "bonus" checks of $5,000, to his top foreman, a member of McLaughlin's union, according to the government, money that is also alleged to have gone into the labor leader's wallet. Two years later, when the contractor won the right to maintain Manhattan's streetlights as well, McLaughlin said the labor-saving arrangement could continueat double the price, according to the government. At the end of that contract, McLaughlin allegedly demanded a closeout payment of $15,000. He was amenable to terms: The money could be in cash or in checks to either his campaign committee or a union-sponsored athletics group that ran a Little League for members' kids. The contractor chose the combination plan, the government claims, writing several checks in May 2002, including one for $3,000 to the Electchester Athletics Association, a group McLaughlin also allegedly plundered, and another for the same amount to the campaign committee.
Prosecutors carefully omitted from their indictment the names of McLaughlin's accomplices and the contractors alleged to have bribed him. But in campaign disclosure reports filed with the state elections board, McLaughlin listed just one $3,000 check that month. It was from Solomon Tannor, the late president of S.N. Tannor, an electrical contracting firm that won bids to maintain city streetlights in Staten Island and Manhattan in 1998 and 2000. Firm representatives did not return calls.
As McLaughlin preached that fall, he had an even more lucrative scam under way, according to the charges. New York was preparing a massive overhaul of its traffic signals, replacing incandescent bulbs with cheaper, energy-saving light-emitting diodes. Electrical contractors purchasing the new LEDs were told by McLaughlin and his cohorts, the government claims, that they'd be well served to buy them from a particular supplier, even though his fixtures were more expensive than those of competitors. Otherwise, McLaughlin allegedly told the contractors, his members might have trouble installing the new lights. In exchange for that heavy-handed product endorsement, the lighting salesman allegedly put more than $400,000 in sales commissions in a McLaughlin account, according to the indictment.
Again, authorities didn't disclose the name of McLaughlin's alleged partner, but records and sources confirm his identity, and it has a familiar ring for New Yorkers: Bernard "Buddy" Beame, owner of Argent Electric Corp. and son of Abe Beame, the late mayor who was famous for his municipal penny-pinching. Buddy Beame denied any wrongdoing. "I have no dealings with him," he said of McLaughlin when reached at his Westchester home.
Such scams are a long way from the skills that Brian McLaughlin's co-workers so admired when he was first coming up in the electricians' union. "We used to call him 'The Natural,'" said an electrician who served with McLaughlin in the union's construction apprentice program in the 1970s. "He just had all these gifts of leadershiptall, impressive, a great speaker."
It didn't hurt that McLaughlin was a third-generation union member (his father was the chief electrician for The New York Times), and when Local 3's longtime leader, Harry Van Arsdale Jr., needed help running the city labor councilwhere Van Arsdale had doubled as president since 1957he tapped McLaughlin for the slot. When Van Arsdale decided to revive the Labor Day parade in 1981, a tradition that the city's increasingly moribund union movement had abandoned almost 20 years earlier, McLaughlin was told to pull it together.
To do so, the young electrician recruited help from the union's "J division," some 300 members working for private contractors maintaining the city's streetlights. Contractors are required to keep a team of workers and trucks on call at all times for emergencies, and the union contract stipulates how many workers should be in a crew. And while many J-division men did union tasks on their own time, before or after their shifts, there has also long been a wink and a nod between contractors and the union allowing members to slip off the job for extracurricular activities.