A Bloomberg Ally, Union Boss Michael Forde, Gets Hammered

Handcuffs for a carpenters' union chief

Mike Bloomberg will never suffer one of those embarrassing political stories in which a big campaign donor is revealed as a big crook. Such episodes are the bane of most candidates who must scramble for funds. One of the many advantages of being New York's wealthiest man and being able to write your own ticket is that these problems do not apply.

But if the mayor doesn't need fat checks to help him win a third term, he does need big endorsements. And sometimes, these can be just as embarrassing.

Bloomberg had one of those moments of political candidate's remorse last week when one of his biggest union supporters was arrested on federal racketeering charges, charged with sharing $1 million in payoffs to look the other way as contractors cheated his own members. Just six weeks earlier, carpenters' union chief Michael Forde had wrapped Bloomberg in a warm bear hug as he gave him his union's endorsement.

The event was a grand dinner at the Sheraton Hotel in honor of the 20,000-member union's very worthy apprentice program. Forde, a big man with a flushed face and a thinning mop of reddish hair, roared his appreciation for the mayor that night. The mayor hugged Forde back and thanked the "hardworking men and women of the carpenters' union for their support."

The mayor could not be expected to know that less than two months later, his host would be in handcuffs. But he might have noted the fact that Forde had spent the better part of the past decade under indictment for similar bribery charges. Forde was convicted at one trial, and then un-convicted after the judge decided that jurors may have read a story about the case in The Village Voice. At his long-delayed retrial last year, Forde finally caught the brass ring and was acquitted.

Even if the mayor wanted to give an innocent man the benefit of every doubt, he might also have asked his highly paid campaign brain trust if they knew any reason not to celebrate this endorsement at a big public bash. If they'd asked around, they might have picked up what many union carpenters already knew: that right at that moment, a very busy federal grand jury was asking witnesses tough questions about Mike Forde.

These fine trades workers also knew that the grand jury's interest began last year, the moment a man named James Murray stepped off a plane from his native Ireland. There to greet him was a team of federal agents. Murray had been gone for two years, having fled New York just ahead of an arrest warrant on charges of laundering more than $10 million and cheating scores of union carpenters out of wages and benefits.

Before that 2006 indictment, Murray had run one of the city's busiest construction firms, On Par Contracting Corporation. He was taught by the best: His first boss in the business was another politically active builder and Irish immigrant named Finbar O'Neill, who has twice pleaded guilty to his own schemes.

Murray and O'Neill's first company was a wallboard-hanging outfit called K&F Construction. The company was infamous for paying its workers by piece-rate, in violation of the union contract. Carpenters appropriately renamed K&F as "Kick'em & Fuck'em."

After O'Neill's criminal problems drew heat, Murray went out on his own, operating out of the same Bronx building where O'Neill had been based. The new company, On Par, quickly landed many of the biggest jobs, including the massive conversion of the old office building at 63 Wall Street. It also became notorious for preferring to pay its employees in untraceable cash.

That was the conclusion of Walter Mack, the former court-appointed monitor whose job, thanks to a 20-year-old consent decree, was to check up on the union's operations. "On Par habitually paid carpenters in cash," wrote Mack in a 2005 memo, thus "cheating the [district council's] benefit funds of well over $10 million that I have been able to identify."

Mack also noted that Murray was assisted by a team of hand-picked union shop stewards who cleverly manipulated the union's appointment process. The designated stewards conveniently neglected to list dozens of union employees on required reports for the union. When Mack sought to question a steward named Michael Brennan about the practice, Brennan immediately took the Fifth Amendment.

Mack's successor was another ex–federal prosecutor named William Callahan, who also investigated On Par. In 2006, Callahan went to talk to Murray's attorney. "We said, 'Your client owes the union millions,' " Callahan said last week. "Two days later, he fled the country."

Just how Murray was persuaded to return has not been spelled out. But court records show that, in his absence, federal prosecutors seized and sold millions of dollars' worth of property he'd acquired, including sites in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Mount Vernon. There was also a lovely 200-acre estate with a pond, a creek, and a 19th-century Cape-style home in upstate Millbrook. As one attorney familiar with such negotiations said, "The money gets them every time."

After Murray's return, prosecutors were remarkably forgiving. In November, he was released on bail subject to an $8 million bond. The bond, records show, came from a remarkable source: the money that the government had earned by the sale of Murray's assets.

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