The Sinner Within

How Brian McLaughlin betrayed the labor movement and conned us all

McLaughlin huddled with his political advisers, his former chief of staff, Evan Stavisky, and union lobbyist Bob Ungar, and asked top gurus like Hank Sheinkopf for advice. He hired a full-time fundraising consultant, a young woman named Jackie Rovine, parked her in an office upstairs from the labor council on West 15th Street, and began trying to raise as much campaign cash as he could.

It wasn't that difficult. He had close contacts in the construction industry, and valuable friends. His most important fundraiser was his pal Santo Petrocelli Sr., the former chief executive of Petrocelli Electric, a Long Island City–based firm that has won some $400 million in city electrical contracts over the last 15 years. "Petrocelli may not have had the title, but he was Brian's campaign-fundraising chairman," said one of McLaughlin's former advisers.

McLaughlin dined regularly with Petrocelli, who was known in the industry for brandishing a big cigar and bragging about wiseguy connections, ties that have often been alleged by mob informants. McLaughlin clearly respected the older man. His assembly financial disclosure reports show that in 2000 he invested in a successful telecommunications company called FiberNet Telecom that was started and partly owned by Petrocelli. The investment breached the spirit if not the letter of rules forbidding employer-union dealings, but then so did much of McLaughlin's relationship with the contractors.

Campaign records show that the electrical firms, many with Local 3 bargaining agreements, loaded up the labor leader's campaign coffers. Petrocelli and his family anted up about $10,000 personally, and held fundraisers that brought in thousands more; Welsbach Electric, another big Queens-based contractor, gave $18,000. In a single week in May 2003, Richard Addeo, the late owner of Adco Electric on Staten Island, raised $61,000 from business aides and family members to fuel McLaughlin's mayoral bid.

By July, McLaughlin had already hit the $1 million mark and he hired a new publicist to get that story out to the press. The Daily News described McLaughlin as "charging hard from the outside." The Times did a Public Lives profile on the big labor leader who would be mayor. "I don't particularly like politics, and I have no ego for it, quite frankly," he told the reporter, a remark that made many roll their eyes when they read it.

But then suddenly, after the big push, he gave up. McLaughlin never explained his reasons, even to council aides. Early polls showed him running far behind other likely contenders, and there was also resistance within the labor movement. State AFL-CIO president Denis Hughes, a respected leader in McLaughlin's own Local 3, publicly opposed the campaign, and several union officials said they were pledged to other candidates. But the move still stunned his supporters.

"It was like he just couldn't pull the trigger," said Rory Lancman, a Queens district leader in McLaughlin's own political club. "We never had a discussion about him quitting the race; he just announced it. That was the frustrating thing about dealing with Brian. He was this big, powerful guy, but no one ever knew what he was doing."

Others wondered if the whole thing had been a sham. "A lot of people thought it was a cynical exercise," said one labor official who worked with McLaughlin. "As soon as he shut it down, a whole lot of eyebrows went up."

But there was another reason as well. In early 2004, more than two years before the raids on his offices, and just before he dropped his mayoral bid, WNBC-TV reporter Jonathan Dienst called McLaughlin's offices, saying that he'd learned from sources that the labor official was the target of a criminal investigation. The message was relayed to McLaughlin. He "turned white," according to a source. "He just got panicky."

A couple of weeks later, an item ran in the Daily News that McLaughlin had taken himself out of the mayoral race. "My focus has to be on working people," he told the paper.

Dienst's story, however, never ran. He decided to hold off, he said, after law enforcement sources pleaded that it could jeopardize their case. When the piece didn't run, McLaughlin was relieved. But he was hardly scared straight. Instead, he responded more like a well-schooled crook, urging greater precautions. According to the indictment, during a meeting with one of his union minions about ripping off more funds from the Electchester Little League, he ordered him never to talk over the telephone. "Nothing on the fucking phone ever again," the labor chief is alleged to have instructed.


He also began siphoning money out of his campaign committee. In the months after he ended his candidacy, he authorized some $146,000 to a consulting firm set up by his cousin Tommy Schuette. Another $56,000 went to a foreman in the J divi sion; $20,000 was given to McLaughlin's new daughter-in-law. He even billed his campaign committee $2,400 for the cost of flowers and dinner for his son's wedding rehearsal, according to the government.

Still, his ambitions died hard. Even after the mayoral bid fizzled, he talked about becoming the next Democratic county leader in Queens. The buzz grew so loud that the late Democratic boss Tom Manton confronted him, according to a longtime Manton aide. "What's this about you wanting my job?" Manton asked him. "Not while you're in it," McLaughlin assured him, although top Democrats in the borough said that was exactly what McLaughlin had in mind. He saw other possibilities as well. As late as last year, according to his advisers, McLaughlin was talking about running for Public Advocate, or perhaps city comptroller. "He was talking about 2009," said one consultant. "He was going to raise another million dollars."

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