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The former leader of the city's 20,000 union carpenters stood up in court last week and confessed to a lie that goes back 16 years. Michael Forde, 55, wore a black suit for his appearance in federal court on Pearl Street. This was appropriate attire for someone giving his own eulogy as a union man.
Since at least 1994, he admitted, he had been conning his members, taking a steady stream of payoffs from contractors in exchange for letting them cheat carpenters out of their hard-won benefits.
He read his plea from a piece of paper he held in his hand. "I, along with other union officials," he said, "accepted bribes in the form of cash payments from certain contractors." He added that when he took the bribes, he knew he was violating a consent decree issued by a judge in the same courthouse. The decree was supposed to represent the sworn agreement by Forde and other union leaders to shun the mobsters and crooks who have long preyed on the New York City District Council of Carpenters, making it one of the Mafia's happiest hunting grounds in the city's cash-rich construction industry.
Instead of avoiding these parasites, Forde made them his steady companions. He never missed a golf outing or a dinner sponsored by the mob-controlled contractors' associations. He took his friends on hunting trips at his family's place in East Durham, the heart of the Irish Catskills. Mike's dad has a fine place there on a little rural road. Martin Forde was also once a carpenters' union leader. That ended in 1987, when he, too, was convicted of taking payoffs from builders to let them cheat his members. The son picked up where the father left off.
One of Mike Forde's guests on the hunting parties was Finbar O'Neill, an immigrant contractor from County Tyrone in Ireland looking to make it big in America. O'Neill took such a shine to the area that he bought his own place just across the road from the Fordes. Another invited deerslayer was Joseph Olivieri, the head of the Association of Wall-Ceiling & Carpentry Industries, and a veteran stalwart of the Genovese crime family. Thanks to support from these pals, and a few others in the Lucchese and Genovese families, O'Neill quickly became one of the city's biggest drywall contractors. Later, he introduced his crew to another contracting pal from Ireland, a lad named James Murray, also looking to make it big. Murray's fortunes bloomed as well, and he was soon the owner of millions of dollars' worth of property, including a sprawling 200-acre country estate.
In the interim, Mike Forde moved up the union ladder. One of the basic reforms contained in the consent decree was direct democratic election by members of District Council officials. In 1999, Forde, then the head of Local 608, the largest carpenters' union chapter, stood for election as leader of the Council. The vote was held at Borough of Manhattan Community College on Chambers Street on the West Side.
On election day, Forde set up in a trailer on the corner of Chambers and Greenwich streets to monitor the turnout. There, he was in the midst of telling me how well things were going when the door of the trailer burst open. A short man with an unmistakable shock of silver hair thrust his head in. This was John "Little John" O'Connor, the former chief of Local 608, who was convicted of labor racketeering in the same case as Forde's dad. O'Connor's bigger claim to fame is that in 1986 he was shot in the butt—a "rocket in his pocket," as John Gotti put it when he ordered the hit amid a dispute over bribes. O'Connor glared at the crowd in the trailer. He hooked a finger at Forde, summoning him outside. Mid-sentence, Forde stopped speaking and bolted out the door.
Upon election, Forde pledged to make his administration the most corruption-free in the union's history. You wanted to believe him. After all, the three previous Council leaders had each been charged with racketeering: One beat the rap; another was convicted; the third disappeared, his wallet washing up under the Throgs Neck Bridge. But over the next few years, every time I heard Forde's lawyers assuring Judge Charles Haight, who was overseeing the federal consent decree, that the Council was doing everything that could be done to keep members and workplaces on the straight and narrow, I thought of how Mike Forde had jumped when Little John O'Connor crooked his finger.
Even after Forde was indicted and convicted on state charges of taking a $50,000 bribe to look the other way while a mob contractor renovated a Midtown hotel with non-union workers, he insisted on his innocence. His able attorneys won a retrial, and the second time around, the jury acquitted him.
He won even more social acceptance by parlaying his union's political action fund into close ties with the state's top politicians. In the decade he ruled the District Council, the union poured more than $3 million into campaign war chests. He made a small army of carpenters available for working the polls and door-knocking for candidates. Politicians named Clinton, Pataki, and Spitzer were among those eagerly seeking and accepting his endorsement. Last summer, even as a grand jury was hearing witnesses against him, Forde embraced Michael Bloomberg at a union dinner, declaring his "great pleasure" at announcing the Council's endorsement of the mayor for re-election. His federal indictment came just five weeks later.